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20 Hacks and Tips for Video Chatting on Zoom, Hangouts, and More

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The Zoom Boom

The age of work-from-home mobile collaboration has landed, whether we wanted it or not. And regardless of whether we're using them to connect with coworkers, students, friends, or family, apps such as Zoom, Hangouts, and others are one of the few ways to bridge the social distance that now separates us. Many people are new to these apps, so here's a primer for using some helpful but less obvious features. From touching up your appearance or using a digital whiteboard in Zoom to testing out Hangouts' hidden "Easter eggs" for livening up a call or sharing files in Skype, here are tips and tricks for looking like a video-calling pro.

Related: 15 Mistakes to Avoid When Working Remotely

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Video-Calling Via Zoom

This 2011-founded video communications company is the undisputed leader in the video conferencing and mobile collaboration world right now, despite raising some privacy and security concerns, and a lot of that has to do with two things: It responded to the Covid-19 crisis almost immediately by not only offering K-12 schools free plans, but also making available a lot of free resources aimed at educating new users; and it has a lot more bells and whistles than most other options out there, giving it more versatility and customization options. So, to start, here are tips and tricks for Zoom users.

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Zoom: Apply the 'Touch Up' Filter

One of the beauties of working from home is not worrying about your personal appearance as much as you would if you had to go into the office — but then you're suddenly video chatting, and any little bit of help is nice. Under Preferences > Video, find the option that says "Touch up my appearance" to apply a very slight blur to the way you appear on camera. You can toggle it on and off to see the effect.

Space Bar
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Zoom: Unmute Using the Space Bar

Most of us have probably learned by now that if we're on a video call, especially in large groups, we should make liberal use of that mute button. But there is a simpler way to unmute yourself in Zoom, and that's by going to Preferences > Audio and clicking on Press and hold SPACE key to temporarily unmute yourself. Then, instead of having to position your mouse over the unmute button and click while everyone waits, you just reach out and hit the space bar. It's a small but surprisingly effective shortcut.

Turn Off Auto-Video Option
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Zoom: Turn Off Auto-Video Option

You don't really want to put your "game face" on every time you join a call, so under Preferences > Video, you can also toggle Turn off my video when joining a meeting. That way, if you're wildly pantomiming for your kids to hush when joining a call, you won't be seen until you're ready to pretend all is harmonious at home by clicking the "start video" option.

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Zoom: Do the Same With Auto-Audio

You can do the same thing with sound underPreferences > Audio— click Mute microphone when joining meeting so you're auto-muted by default. That way you can skip the pantomime and just yell at the kids to be quiet.

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Zoom: Get to Know Your View Options

There are multiple ways to display participants on-screen in Zoom, handy if you're not super-fond of seeing your own giant face fill the screen every time you utter a sound (called "speaker view," the default option). One of the more popular ways to display a meeting, whether for work or a virtual happy hour, is by using "gallery view." To do this, click on the view options dropdown menu — typically in the top right of the Zoom screen on a laptop or Mac/PC — and selecting gallery. Other options include side-by-side, active speaker, and mini views.

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Zoom: Set Up a Virtual Background

One of the more fun aspects of Zoom, this preference allows you to use a default virtual background (earth, grass, or a scenic San Francisco scene) or upload your own. Find it in Preferences > Virtual Background. Click the + button to upload your own image.

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Zoom: Get to Know Keyboard Shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts provide ways to do such things as starting or stopping a screen share, muting everyone else on the call if you're the host, switching view options, and more, without having to go through clicking buttons or menu items to do so. They can be found under Preferences > Keyboard Shortcuts.

automatically copy invitation URL in zoom

Zoom: Auto-Copy Invite URL

Whether you're the boss hosting a lot of meetings or a social (distancing) butterfly organizing lots of virtual happy hours, this is a handy tool for making it easier to invite people into your digital lair. Go to Preferences > General and click the Automatically copy invitation URL once the meeting starts to "on" status. It's just one more time-saving step.

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Zoom: Share Your Screen

No matter why you're using Zoom, it might be necessary on occasion to share your screen to show call participants something on your own computer. To do this, click on Share Screen in the bottom Zoom menu, or if you want to be keyword-shortcut cool, hit shift-control-S on a PC, shift-command-S on a Mac.

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Zoom: Deploy Whiteboarding

If you're on a team that uses a whiteboard regularly, you can do this digitally within Zoom (though it may take some getting used to). To use this free feature, click on Share Screen and then the whiteboard option. From there you can type, draw, erase, and undo/redo to your heart's content.

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Zoom: Use Minimal View...

Zoom is great, but it sure does take up a lot of screen real estate, which can be an issue if you need to work on other things while listening to a meeting. For that, go to Meeting > Enter Minimal View, and you can shrink the screen way down to make room for working in other applications.

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Zoom: … Or Full-Screen View

If your coworker or boss is sharing documents from their screen, it can be tough to make out small type. For that, you can enter full-screen view either by clicking the bracketed square in the upper right of the application, or go to Meeting > Enter Full Screen.

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Zoom: Raise Your Hand

If you work for a company (or have friends and family) that prizes etiquette, this is a feature that lets everyone know you have something important to say but doesn't require you to interrupt. To do this, click the icon labeled Participants at the bottom center of your screen. This makes a smaller, secondary window pop up, where you can click Raise Hand.

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Video-Calling Via Google Hangouts

Hangouts is a simpler way to meet up with family, friends, coworkers, or students via video calling. It doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles, but here are a couple of features it does offer that you might not already be familiar with.

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Hangouts: Easter Eggs

Very few folks know about the hidden features of Hangouts, so you're almost sure to surprise the people you connect with — that is, if these animated features work for you. Many users report that some work only on mobile platforms and some only on desktop platforms. They include running ponies, adorable corgis, and other cute animations and emojis you can send onto or across the screen. Some of the commands for the more popular options can be found here.

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Hangouts: Share Screen

To share your screen in Hangouts, click on the three vertical circles in the upper right-hand corner, which will prompt a drop-down menu. Click share screen — you can choose to share the entire screen, or a specific application window.

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Video Calling Via Skype

Not many people use Skype (despite mega-tech company Microsoft acquiring it for $8.6 billion back in 2011). But for those that still feel more comfortable with the application (or whose company is insisting upon using it over other video conferencing apps), here are a few tips and tricks you might not already know about.

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Skype: Share Files Above 25MB

Your typical email app won't accommodate files larger than 25MB — but Skype will. In fact, there is no file sharing size limit in Skype. To do this, go to Conversations > Send Photos and Files.

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Skype: Access Call History

Need to remember when you had that important conversation with a coworker? Go to Window > History (or just press command/control-Y) to see all the calls you've made or received.

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Skype: Change Text Size

If your eyesight isn't what it used to be, you can make text bigger and smaller within the Skype app using command/control + or command/control - to suit your needs.

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Skype: Embrace the Emoticon and More

Skype has a large selection of emoticons, "moji" video clips, gifs, and stickers to use in its chat function that also can be typed using a keyboard shortcut. For example, if you're on the phone with family and want to blow a kiss using chat, you type (womanblowkiss). More information ishere.

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Other Free Conferencing Apps

Zoom, Hangouts, and Skype are not, of course, the only video-calling apps out there. Here are a few others — all with free plans — you can try to see if they're right for you:

  • Join.me- Allows up to 10 participants for free using a VoIP (voice over internet protocol) feature.
  • UberConference- Up to 10 participants, screen sharing, call recording, and a 45-minute limit.
  • FreeConference- Up to five web participants (of 1,000 call participants); screen sharing, online whiteboard, document sharing, and more.
  • WhereBy- Allows up to four participants; screen sharing and YouTube video play integration also available.
  • GoToMeeting- Up to three participants, VoIP, screen sharing, and a 40-minute time limit.