Video conferencing for non-geeks

blue corded headphones
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Over the last week I have spent a bit of time helping older friends and family members get started with video conferencing so they could stay in touch with their friends, their study groups, choir sectionals or religious services. It looks as if we are going to be socially distancing (or worse) for quite a while so I expect there are going to be more people who will need a little help with this stuff.

First up I am assuming that you have a reasonably new mobile phone (say less than 3 years old) or a computer with a microphone, camera and speakers (that’s just about all laptops that are less than 5 years old and many that are older). Second up you need a reasonable internet connection preferably via wifi as using your mobile phone data plan could get a bit expensive (ask a family member or friend if you are not sure).

I’m going to focus on 2 tools that I use a lot and which are very widely used at the moment: WhatsApp and Zoom. There are other tools that you could use e.g. skype or Google Hangouts which are quite similar and when I get time I will extend this post to include those.

If you find a mistake or want to suggest a better way of using these tools leave me a comment at the bottom of this post.


Billions of people are using WhatsApp every day and have groups for family, friends and other activities. If you aren’t already using WhatsApp then this section probably isn’t for you unless you have a family member of friend who can help you to get started.

Did you know that you can video conference with people in one of your groups on WhatsApp? It is the easiest way of setting up a conference call with up to 3 other people.

Thanks to my daughter, Flora, who introduced me to this WhatsApp feature a couple of days ago, I have been using WhatsApp for several years but I didn’t know you could do this!

  • Open the group that you want to conference with, at the top of the screen you will see a small telephone and a + symbol to the right of the group name
  • Press on the telephone symbol at the top right hand corner of your screen
  • A list of the members of your group will pop up and you can select the people you want to call (up to 3)
  • When you select the people you want to call, the video and phone options will appear
  • Select the video option and you will start a video call with the people you have chosen, if you have poor internet you may be better to just choose the voice call only.
  • You will see each person being contacted and as they answer they will all appear in their own window


Zoom is my favourite conferencing tool for larger groups and for more formal meetings, it’s easy to use and very reliable with some good features. Their free plan allows you to hold video conferences with 3 or more people for up to 40 minutes (1 to 1 calls can go on for as long as you want) but you can always disconnect and reconnect if you want to stay online for longer than 40 minutes. The free Zoom plan supports up to 100 participants which should be fine for almost everyone, if you need longer calls or more participants you can sign up for their paid plan which is only £12 per month.

  • To get started you need to download the zoom app for your laptop or phone or tablet (or both). There are apps for Windows and Mac computers and Android and iOS phones. For those who are most nervous around technology I recommend the tablet or phone versions
  • The first time you login to zoom you will be prompted to set up an account (same as any other service). You need a zoom account to be able to schedule a meeting although you can join someone else’s meeting without an account, but since it is free, why not join?

Joining a meeting with Zoom

  • There are 2 ways to join a meeting using zoom
  • Click on the link that you received in the email or WhatsApp, you will be taken to a web page where you will be prompted to open zoom, go ahead and your meeting will open up in the zoom app.
  • From the home page in zoom click on the Join button, you will get a dialog like this asking for the meeting ID
  • You can copy (Cmd+C on Mac, Ctrl+C on Windows) and paste (Cmd+V on Mac, Ctrl+V on Windows) the link you were sent into the Meeting ID box or just enter the Meeting ID number. Then click Join

Setting up a call with Zoom

  • I’m going to describe how to schedule and join a meeting using the desktop application but the process is just about identical if you want to use zoom on your mobile phone.
  • Open the zoom application (all of the screen shots that I will use are for the Mac version, the Windows versions and the phone versions will be pretty similar)
The Home screen

New Meeting

  • Across the top you have 4 icons: Home, Chat, Meetings and Contacts.
  • There are 3 ways to schedule a meeting, the simplest is to click on New Meeting on the Home screen, you will start a meeting with just yourself!
  • There’s a menu bar at the bottom of the screen which will appear when you hover your cursor over it. Click on the Invite button.
  • Choose whichever email service you use (“Default email” will start the “Mail” application on a Mac or “Outlook” on a Windows machine). You will then get a fully filled in email filled in like this:
  • Just fill in the email addresses of the people that you want to invite and wait for them to join you.
  • Alternatively you could copy the details from the body of the email and and paste them into a WhatsApp message or a text message and send to the people you want to join you.

Schedule a meeting the simple way

  • Often you want to invite people to a meeting at a certain time rather than just starting a call and then inviting them (helps with punctuality and allows people to prepare by downloading zoom).
  • Click on the Meetings icon at the top of the Home Screen
  • Click on Copy invitation, a message will pop up to tell you that the invitation has been copied to your clipboard.
  • Open your email and start a new email. Paste the Invitation into the body of the email and remember to type a message above the invitation telling people when the meeting is taking place. It will look something like this
  • The part in bold (I bolded it) starting “Steven Feldman is inviting you ..” is the bit that you have pasted into the email
  • Press send and that’s it. But remember to make a note of when you have scheduled the call for, as it won’t be in your calendar!
  • You can also paste the invitation details into a WhatsApp or text message and send that way.

Schedule a meeting with calendars

  • Scheduling a meeting anticipates that you use the calendar app on your computer or phone. If you don’t use a calendar app (or if most of your participants don’t) then this may not be for you, use the simple method above for a calendar free way of scheduling a meeting.
  • Click on the Schedule button on the Home page
  • You can change the topic, set the date and time, set a meeting password (I don’t bother with this), switch video on for the host (that’s you) and the participants. Leave the audio setting as Telephone and Computer.
  • Choose your calendar app and click Schedule and you will be presented with a dialog something like this (it will vary depending on which calendar app you use)

You can then add invitees through your calendar app in the same way that you would schedule any other meeting.

This bit will vary depending which calendar app you use
  • The great thing about this way of scheduling a meeting is that it pops up in the invitees’ calendars and they have the link to click on to join the meeting and will get a reminder beforehand.
  • Don’t worry if that sounds too complicated, use the simpler way of scheduling a meeting above.

Tips for your first zoom meeting

  • If this is your first meeting as an organiser start the meeting a little early and invite others that have not used zoom before to join early so that you can work your way around any glitches. You might even run a test with your group a few days beforehand so everyone can test their connections.
  • Tell people that if they can’t connect, can’t see you, can’t hear others or can’t be heard that they should try logging off and rejoining and that if that doesn’t work you will continue the meeting without them and try to resolve for the next time otherwise the other people on the call may get frustrated at the delay to solve one person’s problem.
  • When you want to leave a meeting click on End Meeting in the bottom right hand corner of the meeting window (it will appear when you hover your cursor near the bottom of the window)

The Mute button is everyone’s friend

  • DON’T ALL TALK AT ONCE! Video conferencing only works well if one person at a time talks.
  • In the bottom left hand corner of the meeting window is the Mute button
  • If there are lots of people on the call, it is good practice to mute yourself when you are not speaking. Click the Mute button and you will be muted. You can un-mute yourself by clicking the button again or you can temporarily un-mute yourself by pressing and holding the space bar if you just want to interject a few words

Phew, this has been a long post! Well done for getting to the end of it! Hopefully you are now ready to join your first zoom or set up your first video meet-up with your family or friends.

Have fun, stay in touch, stay safe.

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