How to present successfully online
Back in 2019, our reality was rocked by a worldwide pandemic. Within weeks, even days, companies and individuals had to suddenly pivot from in-person meetings to meeting virtually using platforms like Zoom, Teams, WebEx and Adobe Connect. I’m sure many people thought that it would be easy. Presenting is presenting, they said. Meetings, trainings, interviews, negotiations, etc. will go on without a hitch. If you are good at presenting in person, you’ll be successful online…right?
Here we are three years later. Seems those assumptions were wrong. It became quickly apparent that holding meetings, providing training or presenting information online is an entirely different experience, and for most people, a painful experience.
Online presentations struggle with keeping attention, maintaining engagement and fostering interaction with participants. Internet glitches, poor quality cameras and microphones make even hearing and seeing one another a challenge. “Zoom fatigue” is alive and well.
Does this mean online presentations can’t be successful? Absolutely not! I’ve both participated in and presented online with great success. But, it is definitely a different skill set.
If you are already an experienced presenter for in-person events, moving to virtual doesn’t mean that you have to start from scratch. It does mean you will benefit from adapting your presentation skills with a different focus and style that is particular to working virtually. That’s what this blog post is about: how to make a presentation successful when presenting online.
First, we’ll look at how to engage with your audience by leveraging our facial expressions and vocal dynamics. We’ll look at some ways you can initiate robust interactions online. And finally, we’ll discuss some steps you can make to avoid those nasty technology “gremlins.” When you’re done with this post, you should have a better idea of how to rock the next time your meeting or presentation moves online.
Ready? Let’s go.
The keys to engaging online
In online meetings, the only parts of you that are visible are your head and shoulders (and your messy living room or home office in the background!). This limits how much body language you can leverage compared with an in-person audience. This can make us feel more or less just a “talking head” and definitely impacts the overall effectiveness of our communication and the level of connection we have with our audience. So, we need to adapt our presentation skills to maximize eye contact, facial expressions and vocal dynamics.
Eye contact: Making eye contact is crucial in building a connection with your audience. A challenge when presenting online is either too much or too little eye contact. For example, it’s distracting when you see a participant looking off to the side of the screen, and conversely, it can be exhausting to try to make eye contact continually. There needs to be a balance.
For good eye contact, I recommend that instead of looking at the thumbnails or video pictures of participants to instead looking directly into the camera (assuming the camera is placed in the middle of the top of your monitor or laptop). This will help ensure that you will appear to be looking directly at each person in the meeting. Then, be sure to take periodic breaks to look down at your notes, perhaps looking away to the side as you consider a response to a question or comment. This allows you and your participants to have a break time to time from the intensity of continuous eye contact.
Facial expressions and gestures: With only our heads and shoulders, we can send and receive body language – it’s just dramatically reduced. Effective online presenters leverage the value of facial expressions to enhance their message. Raise your eyebrows, smile, nod your head. You may want to practice in the mirror to become comfortable with more intentional facial movements.
Same goes for gestures. If you talk with your hands when in person, talk with your hands when online. If you are using a virtual background, your hand movements may not show up as well, but I’m still a big fan of using them to keep your energy up. Interestingly enough, research has shown that because there are so many visually distracting elements in a virtual meeting (all the other participants, the screen, the chat panel, etc.), keeping the audience focused on the speaker is a real challenge. Gestures can help mitigate this to an extent. Just don’t overdo them. See: Gestures to use in your presentation—and some to avoid.
Focus on your voice: Vocal dynamics—such things as pace, volume, tone, and enunciation—is always important when making a presentation. When presenting virtually, they are vital. By varying your pitch, volume and pace throughout your presentation, you will make your message more colorful and, in turn, more interesting for the listeners. And more memorable.
Creative use of vocal techniques such as onomatopoeia (making words sound like the word), using silence to break up a “wall of words” and increasing and decreasing volume will all be helpful to break the monotony that can happen when presenting online (“Bueller, Bueller…”).
More tips for a robust online experience
Good eye contact, gestures and varying your voice will greatly enhance your online presentation, but there’s more to do to get your audience involved.
If you can, stand up: With the proliferation of stand-up and convertible desks, it’s easier now than ever to work standing up which is great for online meetings. Standing up keeps you alert and keeps your energy flowing. It also helps keep your meetings shorter. If you must sit, be sure you are keeping good posture with your monitor placed so that your head and neck aren’t stretched up or tilted down.
Use visual aids: When working online, visuals are essential to keep your audience engaged and make your presentation more memorable. Make liberal use of slides, images, videos, and animations to illustrate your points. Ensure that the visual aids are clear, concise, and relevant to your presentation. Limit text and go for more images to make sure your audience stays focused on you.
Encourage interaction: Interaction during an online presentation will make or break your presentation because keeping the audience's attention is the name of the game. According to author Susan Weinschenk in her book, “100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know about People,”an audience can lose interest in a presentation in as little as 7 seconds." Yikes! Thankfully, most online platforms have interactive tools you can use including emoticons, chats, polls, Q&A, whiteboards and breakout rooms. And remember the power of posing questions to your audience – and really expecting an answer! Plan on using some sort of interaction about every 3 to 4 minutes of content. Encouraging interaction not only helps you gauge the audience's understanding of your presentation, it discourages your audience from multi-tasking.
Be yourself: Being yourself and showing your personality can help you connect with your audience and make your presentation more enjoyable for you, too. Don't be afraid to inject humor or personal stories and anecdotes into your presentation. This can make you more relatable. Additionally, being authentic and genuine can help build trust and credibility with your audience.
Avoiding the technology “gremlins”
Murphy’s Law was invented by a presenter, don’t you think? If your technology can go on the fritz—it will. Here are some steps you can follow to minimize the risk of technical difficulties during your online presentation:
Test your equipment: Before the presentation, make sure your microphone, headset, speakers, and webcam are working properly. Join the meeting at least 10 minutes before the presentation is scheduled to start. This will give you time to troubleshoot any issues and ensure everything is working as expected.
Use a Producer: If your presentation is high-stakes or is for an unusually large group, partner with a technical Producer. Producers are responsible for managing all the technical aspects of the meeting including welcoming participants as they join, troubleshooting audio and visual issues, recording the session and closing out the virtual room. Additionally, you can send your presentation to the Producer who can reload it online if something is amiss with your system. IMHO, having a producer for online presentations and trainings isn’t a luxury, it’s a requirement.
Have backup technology: If you are presenting on your desktop, have a laptop open and logged in as a backup that you can quickly switch to if there’s a problem. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have had to jump over to my backup system because something on my main computer went haywire.
If you are already an experienced presenter for in-person events, moving to virtual doesn’t mean that your skills won’t work online. It does, however, mean you will need to adopt a different way of using your presentation skills. Increasing your attention to facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, vocal dynamics and visuals that support your story while mitigating the technology “gremlins” by testing your equipment and utilizing a technical producer will help make your next virtual presentation engaging and memorable.
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Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional speaker and performer, Marie brings her positive energy and enthusiasm to clients around the world. You can contact her at Marie@NobleEdgeConsulting.com.