One of the starting points of my marketing approach is the observation that everything is marketing. You may not realize what you’re doing is marketing—you may just be talking or acting in the way that’s most natural for you—but it is. As a result, every little thing you do will make those around you respect you more or respect you less.

One of these details that is particularly important in our modern era is what is behind you in any virtual or online meeting. So choose every detail of your background with care, to make sure it gives the right message to those you’re talking to.

Note that the wrong message to give is, “this is just me.” That’s an excuse for having a low-quality background and that excuse falls flat every time. Even if you think it “really just is you,” they will still use it to judge you.

Let’s think of a simplified example to make the point. You have a Zoom meeting with someone you don’t know and behind him is a disaster scene: blood splattered onto a cracked, filthy wall, with a poster of Hitler on the wall (hung ironically, of course; he has a macabre sense of humor, apparently) with a huge poster next to Hitler’s saying, “Death To All Jews Now!” (also ironic) and a small framed picture of Auschwitz (also ironic.) Even if the person you’re talking to thinks in his mind that this wall (and the humor it implies, to him) is “just him,” you are just going to judge him by that wall. You may judge him positively (maybe if you have dark humor?) or negatively (for many possible, obvious reasons)—but you will judge him. Even if you claim you don’t, you will.

You may think your situation is less extreme so it is different, but I would point out it’s a difference of degree, not of type. Yes, people will judge you less intensely than in this example, but they still will, for the same reason: it’s human nature.

So, here are some tips to make sure your background is on-target with your personal brand:

  • Don’t have a messy background, unless you explicitly want to give off the messy, disheveled appearance (maybe you want to position yourself as a wacky genius? Then be messy!)
  • If you use a virtual background, make sure it’s one that looks good with your shirt, and when you move around. If it looks cheap or you can tell it’s a virtual background, you may not want to use it (unless on purpose.)
  • A bland white background is better than a mess, so it’s fine if it’s your only option, but it also gives out a bland image. If you want to be seen as bland, go for a bland white background. While this isn’t negative, it also isn’t positive.
  • Don’t sit too close to the camera, nor too far away. The ideal size is that your head is the middle-third of the screen height; in other words, that you have approximately the size of your head above, and another size of your head below, the screen. Also preferably centered, but that’s less essential. Sometimes people in calls don’t even realize the top or bottom of their head is cut off, and that’s the big no-no.

While not related to the background, remember that the same principle applies to your clothing. Do you want to be seen as a kid or someone low value? Wear a t-shirt, that’s usually the messaging of a t-shirt in a video conference, even in a work from home environment. That’s often fine, maybe you want to be treated like a kid, or maybe you don’t want anyone to realize how formidable you are, so you have a surprise advantage, these are cases where t-shirts convey the right message. So, choose your clothing with care, as well.