Virtual presentations are certainly the way of the world right now, and for good reason. Beyond giving me a legitimate reason to shave and wear grown-up clothes, virtual presentations enable me to come together and share a communal work experience with other adults. And with so many of us working from home these days, that’s become a surprisingly precious and meaningful thing.
To make a strong virtual presentation, much of the same practices and approach apply as when presenting in-person. There are, however, some things you can do to work around the distinct challenges of video conferencing while leveraging its unique benefits. Some of these things I have learned through my own trial and error while conducting virtual storytelling training workshops over the years. Others stem from guidance I provide during our presentation skills training. But all of them are relatively small things you can do to make a big difference.
Before You Start
ONE: Allot enough time for everyone to overcome technical challenges — 99% of presentations involve technology. When you’re presenting in person, that technology has to (typically) only work for you. When you present virtually, that technology has to also work for your audience. To make sure everything is running smoothly for all parties involved…
- Book your video conference line well before your scheduled presentation start time (at least 15 minutes prior).
- Ask people to use that “buffer” period to log on and work through technical difficulties before your presentation starts.
- Make sure you’re there, as the host, at the start of that buffer period to let people into the meeting, make sure they can see and hear you, and you them.
- Provide a technical support phone number so people can call someone (ideally, not you) if they run into problems.
TWO: Try to look your best — The great American football player Deion Sanders once said, “If you look good, you feel good. And if you feel good, you play good.” Therefore, try to put your best face forward. There is already lots of great guidance on this online (e.g., avoid overhead lighting, neutral background, camera at eye level, etc.), and you should follow it. At the same time, know that no matter what you do, you will never be fully satisfied with how you look on camera. It’s the nature of the beast. So look your best, but once your presentation starts, don’t obsess over your appearance or get sucked into watching yourself on screen. Afterall, we wouldn’t check ourselves out in the mirror when presenting in-person. Don’t do so when presenting virtually.
THREE: Set clear expectations and requests of your audience — Good presenters act as good hosts, and good hosts take care of their audience and the experience. This is important for any presentation, but especially so for virtual ones, with more moving parts involved. Before you start your presentation, let you audience know what they can expect and how they can engage and interact (e.g., interrupt with questions or thoughts; use the chat and raise-hand functions; etc.). In addition, I always turn my camera on and ask my audience to do the same. It creates a more personal experience for everyone, especially you. But it also helps keep your audience focused, engaged…and honest, because we’ll all see if they’re multi-tasking or zoning out.
The confines of presenting through video mean the physical aspects of your delivery have less room to make an impact. So, your vocal and visual elements have to work harder.
During Virtual Presentations
A presentation’s success is contingent on the content (what you’re saying), but also the delivery (how you’re saying it). And many factors contribute to successful delivery: vocally, visually and physically. However, the confines of presenting through video mean the physical aspects of your delivery have less room and ability to make an impact. As such, your vocal and visual elements have to pick up the slack and work harder. With this in mind…
FOUR: Give your voice extra energy — Your voice must be dynamic in virtual presentations. If it is some monotonous hum droning on and on over the speaker, no matter how good your content is, you will lull your audience to sleep. Increase the tone and inflection of your voice. Infuse it with rise and fall, varying volumes and projection, rhythm and cadence. Don’t scream, but keep your vocal energy up from beginning to end to ensure you audibly capture and hold your audience’s attention.
FIVE: Have more, simpler slides — Try to have more, simpler slides that change more often. For example, instead of talking to one slide with complex content for five minutes, take that same content and spread it across multiple slides that build on each other over the same time. This will give your presentation momentum and direction by ensuring something is visually changing more regularly on your audience’s screens, versus them staring at the same, static visual for too long. In addition, give the same energy to your visuals as you do to your voice. Use bolder graphics and colours. Try to incorporate more images. And switch up the graphic layout from slide to slide to keep things interesting.
SIX: Look into the camera — One effective way to engage an audience is to have strong eye contact with them. This is easier to do in-person, but you can also achieve this in virtual presentations. Try not to lock your eyes on the multiple faces lined up to the side or bottom of your screen. Instead, maintain soft focus on those faces, but direct your gaze towards that tiny little light (and the camera behind it) at the top of your screen: like a great newscaster does. When you do so, your audience will sense that you’re looking directly at them and feel more personally connected to you.
SEVEN: Create more space for your audience to jump in and invite them to do so — When you’re presenting in-person, you can instinctively sense when someone in your audience wants to speak. You pick-up small physical cues (e.g., someone sitting up in their seat) and, as a good host, you might pause to ask if they have a thought or question. You notice this of your audience, but they also notice this of each other. They will get into a natural rhythm with each other, which leads to easier and smoother group discussions.
That group dynamic is more difficult to achieve in virtual presentations. People feel less comfortable interrupting, worried they’ll be talking over you or someone else. Accordingly, you should fill your presentation with ample space for people to jump in. Take more pregnant pauses. Ask more often if people have any thoughts or questions; maybe even pose a question directly to someone. And once you invite audience participation, give them ample time to participate. Be comfortable with some awkward silence and stretch it longer than you normally would. Someone will jump in eventually, they just want to make sure they’re timing it right.
EIGHT: Encourage use of the chat feature — One great and unique component of video conference platforms is the chat function. It allows members of your audience to type in comments or questions while they’re occurring to them. So urge your audience to use it (or the “raise hand” feature). But if you do, make sure you stop your presentation every once in a while to look at the chat stream and address any questions or comments that might have appeared.
NINE: Bring your whole self to the experience — One of my favourite videos is the one of the British professor being interrupted by his two kids (and horrified wife) during a BBC interview he took from home. It’s not only funny, but also familiar. Because no matter how well we set-up our virtual home studios and try to create a distraction-free, professional-looking cocoon around us, the unexpected will always happen: a cat jumping across your desk, a child climbing into your lap, a spouse walking behind you in sweatpants drinking a beer and carrying a massive plate of nachos. It happens, and it makes you human, which makes you relatable and helps create a stronger personal connection between you and your audience. Try to proactively prevent these interruptions; but if they occur, just smile, acknowledge it and move on.
After Virtual Presentations
TEN: Review the recording — One other fantastic feature of video conference platforms is they enable you to easily record your presentation. I encourage you to use this feature if you’re able and it’s appropriate. While all of us typically cringe when watching ourselves on video, doing so can be very illuminating and productive. It allows us to step outside of ourselves and look at our performance more objectively. We notice little ticks or bad habits we need to break (e.g., filler words, talking too fast, packed slides, etc.). We identify larger areas for further improvement. But we should also recognize things we’re doing well, leaving us with a positive impression and putting us in the right headspace for the next virtual presentation we have to make.
Bill Baker is the founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling. For over 12 years, BB&Co has been providing Effective Presentation Skills and Leadership Through Storytelling training to companies and organizations such as Coca-Cola, Cisco, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Prudential, Dell and others. BB&Co’s training helps managers, sales people, finance directors, engineers and others understand how to use storytelling to improve the impact of their communications and presentations and, with that, their ability to persuade, engage and inspire others.