Giving a virtual presentation to a tech audience has special challenges, but an expert provides tips to overcome any obstacles and give an engaging and informative talk.
It’s fairly easy to tell if people aren’t paying attention during your presentation or meeting. Eyes glaze over, bodies slump in chairs and someone appears to be engrossed in a Sudoku puzzle. That’s the signal that you need to make more of an effort to engage the audience by soliciting feedback or doing anything short of juggling to get their interest.
But when you’re giving a virtual presentation, how do you know when things aren’t going well until it’s too late? How do you salvage your presentation and all your hard work when your virtual audience tuned you out 20 minutes ago?
Matt Forrest Abrahams, a lecturer on organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, teaches how to make virtual communications more effective, and he says that speaking in front of a virtual audience that is tech-savvy does have unique challenges.
“I’d say the biggest problem is that people don’t practice their (presentation) content,” he says. “By that I don’t mean checking their slides. I mean actually recording themselves to ensure the technology will work correctly, and they’re being engaging.”
Abrahams explains that when there is a virtual audience, the speaker must plan ahead and consider not just his or her role – but what he or she wants from the participants, such as support of a new app or cross-functional collaboration.
In a virtual presentation, for example, the presenter may need to prepare the audience beforehand to be engaged. This can be done by sending out a poll or contacting participants beforehand to get a handle on their concerns or interest that can be addressed during a virtual get-together.
“Remember that people in a virtual presentation are going to be sitting in front of the biggest distraction there is: the computer,” he says.
Plant ways throughout your discussion to grab their attention, such as revealing the poll results, or asking them to imagine something (“Imagine getting to collaborate with whomever you want….”), he suggests.
Abrahams says virtual presenters may not realize that it can be more difficult to solicit questions or input from virtual audience members, which is why it’s important they contact some beforehand.
“You don’t want to ambush these people, but you can contact them and say, ‘I might ask you to share your experience about….,’” he says. “By asking them to share beforehand, then this also makes them pay more attention during your presentation. You don’t have to do this with everyone who is going to attend, but it’s sort of like a jigsaw puzzle – you’re asking others to contribute a piece.”
In addition, virtual presentations mean that you’ve got to pay more attention to details like your voice and gestures since your audience will find it more difficult to pick up body language and other subtle clues that underscore your message.
The next time you need to give a virtual presentation or lead a remote meeting, here are key things Abrahams says you need to think about to ensure your message has the most impact:
- Speak slowly and distinctly. Again, recording yourself will pay off because you may notice that you “swallow” the ends of your sentences, making it very difficult for your remote audience to understand your words or you’re speaking too rapidly.
- Watch your gestures. When giving an in-person speech, you may gesture widely, which can help hold the interest of an audience. But virtually, those gestures won’t be seen, so work to keep your gestures close to your body – and don’t gesture toward the camera because from the audience’s point of view, it “looks like a monster is coming toward you,” Abrahams says.
- Cast yourself in the best light. Ensure that any lighting doesn’t cast shadows on your face. Don’t wear patterned shirts as they can look like they’re “swimming” on camera. A solid-colored shirt is more flattering than a white one, and make sure you check the background so that it’s not distracting to your audience.
- Keep your head on straight. Don’t tilt your head, or look at yourself on your computer. Your eyes should look straight into the camera, and your head should be held straight. If you’re sitting in a chair, be sure not to jiggle or swivel back-and-forth.
- Set the pace. Plan to change things up every eight to 10 minutes by showing a video or asking someone a question. “This keeps everyone paying attention – partly because they think they may be called upon,” he says.
- Don’t dumb it down. If you’re presenting complex information, don’t talk down to your audience, but rather look for other ways to illustrate your information, such as through analogies or graphics. Or, consider starting with the end product and then saying, “How did we get here? I’m going to tell you.”
- Shut down motormouths. While it’s great to have audience participation, you don’t want someone to hijack the presentation with a long-winded question or other off-topic rant. “When someone is talking a lot, just paraphrase them by saying, ‘OK, the point you’re making is….,’ which lets them know you’re listening. Then, you quickly turn to someone else and say, ‘What do you think, Sally?’” Abrahams says.
- Don’t rush the ending. If you will be taking questions at the end, be sure and make that clear when you begin. Still, in a virtual presentation it can be tricky to see who has a question, which is why tools such as WebEx, GoToMeeting and join.me can come in handy. “Give people time to process what you’ve said and muster up the nerve to ask a question,” he says. “You’ve got to do what you can to mitigate their reasons for not asking a question, and technology can really help do that.” If the first question is slow in coming, a presenter can “pre-populate” by saying, “A question I’m often asked is….,” he says. “That may help the second question arrive easily.”