If you’ve been on Zoom or watched any news lately, you’ve probably checked out the bookcase in the background. That bookcase has a name: the credibility bookcase. I’m going to show you how to build the perfect one for yourself because, as the name implies, you don’t just want to wing it.
Up until 2020, most in-home video segments were conducted in front of a blank wall, with maybe one prop like a plant or a single lamp. Honestly, it drove me crazy, because it didn’t look natural. In fact, I know it wasn’t natural, because I was the subject on some of those national TV segments, and there was a lot of prep work to scope out some benign corner and stage it properly. Here’s me last December with a cameraman from Good Morning America and a living room full of lights.
You were used to seeing white walls, one or two props, no personality. Here’s as close as we got in this old house for this photoshoot. I’m actually strategically placed to block the bookcase in the background. There are no white walls in my house. Shocker.
Flash forward to March of 2020, and suddenly everyone is working from home and everyone is on video. We weren’t expecting to show our homes to our clients, our work teams, or our boss, but who had time to get TV-ready overnight? We had to learn what to do…and what not to do…fast! You’ve heard about the woman who turned herself into a potato. (It’s hysterical.) The woman who didn’t realize her coworkers on Zoom could see her going to the bathroom. And reporter Will Reeve, who didn’t realize that the video frame was wider than he could see on his phone…and went on national TV wearing a sport coat but NO PANTS! But what did he have? Check out that video again, and you’ll see that he was sitting in front of a credibility bookcase.
OK, so you’re not a national news reporter, but people still form an impression of you based on what’s in your video background. So what’s it gonna be? Plain vanilla with a plant, a cheesy virtual background (you’re not fooling anyone with that backdrop of the beach; we all know you just didn’t feel like cleaning up), or a bookcase showing off what makes you awesome and unique?
The world has changed, and working from home is legit now. Even though things are starting to open up a bit, you might not be going back to the office anytime soon. If you do, you might not spend as much time there in the future as you used to. It’s important that your home office become your real office.
Here are tips to style your background bookcase for credibility and a good impression:
Lighten up. You don’t have to start by emptying everything from the shelves. Whew! Instead, scan each shelf from left to right and edit a few items. Old candles, ragged notebooks, stacks of papers, dried flowers, obsolete CDs, mementos that don’t mean that much to you, and bookends that serve no purpose. Edit the fluff from your bookshelves to start. Anything with a layer of dust is a good bet. Do this quickly. Then take a second pass and remove a few more things.
Edit your titles. If you are a book person, I feel ya, but it really is time to pare down. Remove the dime-store novels, duplicates, and out of date reference volumes. More than one interviewee has had the titles on their bookshelves scrutinized on Twitter. Maybe it won’t happen to you, but it might. Keep the titles that represent you today, not the you of your past.
Want to keep all of your beloved books? Turn your books backward. If your bookcase still feels more book-heavy than you want it to, or if there are some titles that you don’t want other people seeing, turn them so the page side (technically known as the fore-edge) instead of the book spine faces the room. White pages facing out can lighten a heavy bookcase, while also preserving your privacy. This was a hot design trick a few years ago, but you can absolutely still use it today.
Coordinate the colors. No, you don’t have to go all-in on rainbow-order, but pay attention to colors. If there is a bright yellow book or accessory that begs for attention in the video frame, move it. If you have a company or brand color, maybe go heavy on that signature hue. Coordinating your bookcase with a signature color or monochrome hue is a way to signify sophistication, and sophistication makes you look like you have it all under control, even if you don’t.
Change the pictures. Do you have family pictures on your bookcase? Keep them if it feels right for you. If you want to preserve privacy or limit viewer distractions, move those photos elsewhere for now. On the other hand, if you have pictures with celebs or big shots, you can highlight those with prime placement. You can also turn a batch of books on their side to create a nice platform to perch a favorite framed photo.
Show off your toys. Especially if you run your own company or if you sell for a brand, show off your products. If you are really into some hobby or community (Star Wars fan? Is your favorite mantra something about eating the elephant?), then make some space to show off your interests. Your credibility is anchored by authenticity, so if you are playful, by all means, have playful bookshelves.
Leave some space. You don’t have to fill every book nook. Designers know that leaving some space lets the eye rest a bit and contributes to a sense of calm.
Use baskets, bins, and magazine file boxes to store smaller essentials. Keepsakes or office supplies are necessary, but you don’t have to put them on display. Hide them in plain sight in attractive bins. You can also move all the books to the very front edge of the shelf, creating a bit of space behind your titles to store small items that you’d prefer not to have on display.
Candles and plants in a bookcase can seem very manipulative and staged. If you can’t light that candle on the shelf without it being a fire hazard, leave it out. Don’t force a plant to be unhappy just for show. This is one time when faux flowers, especially ones in vases, can really shine.
Even if your style is more casual (haphazard?), take a minute to line up shelves on adjoining bookcases. The camera doesn’t love staggered shelves across more than one bookcase, especially if your camera angle isn’t perfectly straight-on. Say yes to quirky, but say no to wonky. To convey credibility, stick with predictable shelf heights, and add your personality with color and accessories.
Keep an eye on what shows up just above your head when you are on camera. Pro photographers never place their subject where background objects appear to be growing out of the subject’s head, unless it’s for humorous effect. Watch out for souvenir chopsticks that look like antennae when you are on camera, for example.
I work at a desktop computer, so I don’t have the flexibility to easily change my filming location. My bookcases are always behind me when I’m on a video chat, so they have to be both functional and attractive. Honestly, I fuss with them all the time because things are always coming in and out of my office, and those white boxes and blue magazine files are storing a ton of less-than-glamorous office supplies and paperwork.
Below you’ll see why I don’t stress about what’s in the middle of the case. I’m covering it when I’m in front of the camera. Yes, I’ve got some storage shelves on the sides of my office, but that’s real life. Once upon a time those were random, too, but I’ve since tweaked those shelves and containers to stick within my white and aqua color scheme.
Your bookcase won’t look like mine, in my vintage house with a very particular office. But hopefully these tips on creating your own unique credibility bookcase will help you let your personality shine through.
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