September 28

Avoid Background Blunders: Elevate Your Virtual First Impression


Avoid Background Blunders: Elevate Your Virtual First Impression

I worked as an extra on several films and television shows. We were referred to affectionately as “background.” The purpose of background is to create a tone, mood, or atmosphere to support the scene and the performers, not steal the show. On a video call, the background is your virtual first impression and it’s there to support you as well. As a salesperson, you’re already in competition for the customer’s attention and the sale itself. That’s why it’s crucial not to let your background become a distraction. However, your background can impact your customer and your sales in other surprising ways as well.

Your Background and Your Virtual First Impression 

Your background plays a big role in the first impression you make in virtual meetings. It’s where decisions about your credibility, competence, and interest level are formed. While it’s possible to overcome a negative first impression, it takes a lot of effort. And lately, I’ve seen a lot of sellers who have their work cut out for them as the result of poor decisions (or lack thereof!)  Here are some recent examples:

    • Cluttered offices with overflowing piles of papers

    • Bookshelves lined with The Top 50 Business Books Ever Written

    • Inadequate lighting casting half of someone’s face in darkness

    • Half-indoor/half-outdoor views

    • Fixtures or artwork appearing to sprout from people’s heads

    • Beds in hotel rooms (especially unmade ones!)

    • Weapons

    • R-rated (or simply disturbing) photos and paintings

    • Items signaling a specific political affiliation

    • Half-eaten food items

Why start off on the wrong foot with your audience? Your background sends a message, whether it’s professional, competent, authentic, or something else entirely. When used thoughtfully, it offers context and insights into your character, creating opportunities to connect. However, if used incorrectly, it can be a source of distraction or disconnection. Let’s explore some of the choices you have when it comes to backgrounds.

Choosing Your Background: Authentic vs. Virtual

With virtual meetings, the location is up to you. That means you can hold meetings anywhere from your home office to the captain’s seat on the Starship Enterprise. But choose wisely. Unless your real environment provides a negative experience for your audience, I recommend using an authentic background whenever possible.  Here’s why:

The Leveling Power of Authentic Backgrounds

For decades, most B2B meetings have been held in the customer’s business location, (aside from the occasional restaurant, bar, or golf course). Video provides a unique opportunity to eliminate that unequal footing of being on your customer’s turf. Authentic backgrounds humanize you and invites customers into your world, making meetings more personal than ever before.

Considerations When Using an Authentic Background:

A good background should be neat, clutter-free, well-lit, and reflect a spark of your personality. Personal elements—or props—like books, pictures, or furnishings, may stimulate conversation and deepen connections. But even the best intentions can quickly cross the line into scene stealers or credibility crushers if you’re not careful. Here are a few to avoid:

    • Obvious ‘Props to Impress.’ Have you really read the Top Business Books of All Time strategically laid out on your shelf?  If you have, congrats. Unfortunately, it’s become such a cliché’ that it appears as a blatant attempt to impress. And if you haven’t read them? Well I know one person who got caught and it was pretty embarrassing.

    • Obvious ‘Props that Distress.’ Video calls are not the place to share politically incorrect or otherwise controversial subject matter. Your family and good friends may give you the benefit of the doubt, but assuming customers will is simply naïve. Use good judgment and when you’re in doubt, ask a peer or two.

    • Intimate spaces or furnishings – like beds.  

    • Poorly or overly lit spaces.

    • Cluttered desks or shelves.

When to Use a Virtual Background

Sometimes your space is not “camera ready.” Perhaps there is too much clutter, you’re in the middle of a home repair project, or the only suitable space provides TMI (Bedroom Zoomers, I’m talking to you!) Then it’s time to consider using a virtual background.

Considerations When Using a Virtual Background

    • Choose an understated virtual background that is appropriate for the meeting size and audience.  For example, avoid the ‘super-sized conference room’ or ‘sea of cubicles’ for a one-on-one conversation.

    • Avoid backgrounds that include a lot of diagrams or fake calculations – unless you want your customer to try to solve the puzzle while you’re speaking!

    • Be cautious with humor and cultural references to prevent potential offense.

    • Beware of ongoing distractions, like backgrounds featuring giant cartoon characters or leaping tigers.

    • Avoid fast movements to reduce disappearing body parts.

Your background is just one part of your virtual first impression, but it’s an essential one. Don’t leave it to chance, and when possible, leverage the benefits of a natural background.

For more tips on how to make a great virtual first impression consistently, check out my Virtual Presence for Sales Pros On-Demand Course below.


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