Should you turn on your webcam?
If you listen to those who sell them or the services that enable them, you always should. Just think about how much better you’ll connect with others!
To be fair, they have good reasons. A lot of people rarely (or never) turn on their cameras, often for the wrong reasons, and are missing out on the potential benefit.
But there are arguments for turning your webcam off some or all of the time, too.
What follows is a look at both sides of the argument, and since turning your camera off is a bit more contrarian, I’ll start with that (don't take the order of the arguments below as implication of importance). The objective here is to thoroughly lay out observations that ultimately lead not to a conclusion of whether you should or shouldn't, but when you should and shouldn’t.
Arguments against using a webcam
You’re unwilling to learn to use it effectively.
Of course, if you’re reading this, you’re probably here because you’re interested in learning and improving, so this will probably make you think of someone else who’s resistant. The truth is, though, this stuff (webinars, webcasts, virtual classes) isn’t hard, it’s just different. So if somebody sucks at webinars or online meetings and does not want to learn, maybe you just move on and figure there’s no helping them. :P
Your environment is awful.
To be fair, we don’t always have the luxury of working from an environment that we control. Ask yourself, “Is what is behind me going to be a problem for other participants?” Sometimes you may actually the cause by turning it off.
You want to direct attention to what you’re showing instead of you.
As a professional who speaks, your job is to direct attention, and sometimes that’s something you want them to focus on besides you. This entirely flies in the face of “you’re the presentation and your slides are just there for support” (which is crap even in in-person environments posited by people think they are the center of attention or who aren’t thinking about the aforementioned comment about directing attention). Sometimes you do NOT want people looking at you instead of the thing you’re trying to show on your computer or the collaboration tools you want them to use. Don't be the center of attention, be the director of attention.
You won’t wear a headset if you’re on camera.
The difference in sound quality between a quality headset and just using your computer’s microphone is HUGE (which is why you really should use a good external-to-your-computer microphone, especially if you need a good recording). But if you’re worried about your hair or won’t buy a good headset that doesn’t mess with your hair or whatever, you might be better off not being on video. Note that this isn’t ideal and I’m not endorsing it – you’re essentially saying that being heard is more important than being seen like you can only have one or the other.
Bonus idea: Don’t ask “Can you hear me okay?” People will say yes. Ask, “Does my voice sound rich, is there a good signal-to-noise ratio between my voice and other ambient noise, and have we eliminated the sound of reverberation from the room?” In other words, use a headset.
Your conferencing vendor sucks.
The truth is some vendors’ technologies work better than others when it comes to bandwidth and hiccups in the interwebs. Distracting video may be worse than no video. To be fair, the vast majority of technology issues are things they or you have no control over, though, like the fact that some attendee is on a wireless connection that they’re “borrowing” from the dude in the apartment above them and… you get the idea. Pro vendors (versus cheap vendors) do this better.
You’re going to read a script.
Mind you, I don’t think you should ever ever ever read a script. But if you’re going to, we don’t want to watch you do it.
You’re looking for a reason to turn off your camera.
A camera is a tool that serves a purpose. Looking to justify not using it would be like looking for a reason not to use the brakes on your car. The right question to ask is “When should I have it on, when should I have it off, and how do I rock both ways of delivering?” Keep reading.
Arguments for using a webcam
It may help people interpret your pauses. The use of pauses has long been a strategic technique for presenters. As one study found, video helped audience members interpret such pauses. Note that people in music and radio have long been using pauses effectively sans video, but if you’re not a voice pro, the visual cues may help your audience.
Attendees like it.
I’ve asked thousands of webinar participants (quite literally thousands) what they prefer. Overwhelmingly they like it. By a huge margin. It’s not a scientific answer, it’s just a preponderance of opinion. But I aim to please.
Seeing a presenter improves the sense of “being there” for the webinar attendee. They can look you in the eye. I count this as different from the “they like it” argument because, whether they consciously express it or not, we’re wired to connect with human faces.
The quality of your voice is awful.
I worked with a senior exec once whose voice was seriously awful (squeaky and thin) and she was entirely uncoachable. She refused to use a headset which would have improved her sound because of proximity effect. We (the team and I) wanted her on camera because she looked professional even when she didn’t sound good or use her voice well.
It’s unique relative to other forms of digital content and communication. When you’re live, in real time, you have opportunity that you don’t have in a paper or YouTube video.
You can be spontaneous and/or show something that’s not on your computer screen.
While it might seem like a no-brainer, let me add this emphasis – if you’re going to pursue improving your presentation skills, you will necessarily improve how you interact with the audience. Sometimes this is formal (planned), but sometimes it is informal and you need the audience to be able to see you.
People have difficulty understanding you.
Watching a speaker’s lips and/or facial movements can dramatically enhance someone’s ability to understand words, especially in noisy environments. This may also benefit those whose native language is different than the presenter’s.
Personalization of experts and executives.
Hearing somebody important say something in their own words is one thing, but seeing them is likely even better for engendering trust in your webinar’s message.
Gestures benefit the YOUR memory.
Yes, you read that correctly. It is generally assumed that appropriate gestures assist audience engagement, but at least one study suggests that gestures also assist speakers in some instances.
The bottom line
As you can see (pun fully intended!), there are good reasons for not using your webcam, but I also took the liberty of poking a little at the pervasive problem of presenters more worried about what they like and want versus what’s good for connection and communication.
Learning to use your webcam well (and strategically at the right time) isn’t hard – most of us just didn’t get any training (or even exposure) growing up. It’s just different. The benefits usually far outweigh the negatives, and with a modest amount of effort your webcam will not only be a comfortable part of your webinar presentation, it’ll become indispensable.
And as always, we’re here to help. It’s what we do.
 John C. Tang and Ellen Isaacs, “Why Do Users Like Video? Studies of Multimedia-Supported Collaboration,” Journal of Computer Supported Cooperative Work 1, no. 3 (1993): 163-96, www.izix.com/pubs/Tang-WhyLikeVideo.pdf.
 Ma WJ, Zhou X, Ross LA, Foxe JJ, Parra LC (2009) Lip-Reading Aids Word Recognition Most in Moderate Noise: A Bayesian Explanation Using High-Dimensional Feature Space. PLoS ONE 4(3): e4638. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004638
 Ezequiel Morsella and Robert M. Krauss, “The Role of Gestures in Spatial Working Memory and Speech,” The American Journal of Psychology 117, no. 3 (2004): 411-24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4149008.