With schools, universities, institutions, and other organizations closing or urging employees to stay home to counter the spread of the coronavirus, thousands and thousands of people are now working remotely.
But what if you are an educator, or a manager who typically presents to your board in person, or a sales representative who usually makes in-person pitches? It likely means that, for the foreseeable future, video conferencing and livestreaming programs, such as Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom and GoToMeeting, will be your go-to.
A recent New York Times article noted that students and instructors—faced with the prospect of more online learning—have described the courses as “improvisational and primitive.” Marilynn Johnson, a history professor at Boston College, was quoted as saying: “I feel like I’m teaching out to the void.”
While you may not be able to “read the room” as easily as if you were there, here are 10 tips on how to hold the attention of your audience, even if they can’t see you and you can’t see them:
1. Get technical.
One of the best ways to feel more secure and confident in your presentation is to set yourself up so that you look and sound good, whether on-camera or off. There are three areas to consider:
- Your online connection. You’ll want a secure, fast, and strong Internet connection whether or not you are filming yourself or doing an audio-only presentation. However, a strong digital link is even more important for an on-camera presentation since high-quality video takes up a lot of bandwidth. Take a moment to run a speed testor arrange for a wired connection (a DSL line, for instance) rather than a wireless one.
Ken Molay, the founder of the consulting firm Webinar Success, says he will always trust wires more than wireless signals, which can have dropouts. He adds: “They can have interference. You can lose battery power on a Bluetooth headset…I want to have as much control as possible.”
- Your audio. The mic in your computer should cut it, but if you suspect you’ll be doing these remote meetings for more than a couple weeks, you might want to consider purchasing an external mic, such as a lavalier microphone, a freestanding mic or even a headset—particularly one that is not too obtrusive on camera. (Molay suggests a small whip mounted head set that won’t be overemphasized on camera.)
- Your camera. Most people will use the camera in their laptops, which mostly works. If you are a frequent presenter, you might want to consider investing in a quality external webcam, which offers a far better picture.
2. Be animated.
It may be difficult to generate enthusiasm right now—but students still need expert instruction. Clients are still in the market for quality products. Employees are looking for answers about the future. Conference attendees are seeking expert opinions on myriad topics.
Your words as a virtual presenter should reflect the excitement you have about your material. If you can’t evidence interest in your material, how do you expect your audience to do the same?
3. Vary your voice.
As with in-person presentations, how soft, loud, high, low, slow or fast you go can adjust the mood of your presentation and the meaning of your words. You can vary your intensity, modulate your pitch, and alter your pace to make your words far more expressive.
Assess your baseline to discover the volume and pace that best serves as your “norm,” and work from there to explore the full range of your vocal delivery.
4. Use effective body language.
Effective eye contact, gestures and facial expressions can make you appear confident and relaxed, which leads to a more compelling presentation. If you are on camera, gestures and facial expressions become even more important. But, even if you are an off-camera virtual presenter, movement can help you to deliver a more dynamic presence. Here are some specific tips:
- Go ahead and move. Researchers have found that gesturing not only adds emphasis and verve to your words but also can help you to better remember what you want to say.
- Try not to fidget or flail with your hands or arms, or make quick movements in and out of frame.
- Don’t get too close to the camera. As Molay notes, “Near-field camera is a danger zone for anybody. Anything that tends to move toward the camera, whether it is your head or whether it is your hands, gives you that 3-D house of horror effect.”
- Go ahead and smile. Research has shown that people can “hear” you smile, so don’t let the lack of a camera stop you from expressing yourself.
- Sit up tall, try not to scrunch your shoulders and rest your arms or hands comfortable on the table or desk before you.
- Make sure your camera is at eye level, which may mean putting boxes, books or any other object that won’t slip under your laptop to raise the camera.
- Try to avoid continuous small or darting glances toward your monitor. Simple eye movements, however, tend to become overexaggerated the closer your face is to the camera. Practice a steady, relaxed gaze on the lens.
5. Visualize your content.
Here’s what Molay has to say:
“Static visuals don’t hold attention. They can’t. If you put up a big dense slide, people get tired of it. They are not going to read through all the information. If you put up something that’s easy and simplistic, that’s not going to hold attention for a long time either. Think about over-the-shoulder graphics on a TV news program. They’re quick. They support and lend a little emphasis to what the presenter saying, but they don’t distract the audience from the actual words that are being used. So, visuals shouldn’t stand in for the presenter. Visuals are there to support what is being said without distracting from what is being said.”
Here are some other tips:
- Use more slides and change them frequently. A slide a minute is a general rule of thumb—but not always appropriate.
- In general, you should avoid bullet and text heavy slides. Your visuals should enhance your words, not duplicate them.
- Try to avoid excessive sameness on your slides. It can result in a visual monotone, which, like vocal monotone, won’t engage your audience.
6. Focus on engagement.
Polls, surveys, quizzes … these all help to engage your audience.
Molay says it comes down to a balancing act:
“Some speakers do a monologue for 45-50 minutes and then say we have a little time for questions, only acknowledging the audience at the end. Or, they constantly interrupt themselves to respond to questions and comments. I’ve seen people do it in mid-word. You want to find a happy medium using planned interaction breaks at various points in the session.”
A note on timing: If you do plan on taking questions or comments, be clear with your audience as to how you intend to frame your talk. Are you taking comments and questions throughout?
7. Personalize your delivery.
Molay urges virtual presenters to refrain from blanket welcomes (“I’d like to welcome all you guys.”) and reach out to one person – if you reach one person, you can reach almost everyone else, too. (“I’d like to welcome you to our webinar.”)
8. Use your pauses.
While we are not advising long breaks of silence, an occasional absence of words can be a good thing. After a steady stream of your words, a break in the action has the power to reengage your audience if their attention has strayed.
If you are off-camera, Molay notes it is particularly important to set up the pause, since your audience can’t see why you happen to have gone silent. Still, it’s best not to leave the audience with unexplained and unexpected pauses.
9. Position yourself for success.
The environment in which you conduct your remote presentation can enhance or detract from your ability to be a more dynamic and engaging virtual presenter.
- Make sure your computer is elevated and your camera is at eye level
- Properly frame yourself so that you are not a tiny head in a huge frame, nor are you so close to the lens that your face and gestures are overexaggerated.
- Center yourself (mentally and physically). Set yourself up for success that eases stress and anxiety. That includes centering yourself in the frame so there is a sliver of space above and below your face.
- Position your lighting so that you will avoid being back or side lit (or having the light come from above or below you). There are some relatively inexpensive LED camera lights you can find online, as well.
For those who are relatively new virtual presenters, remember to save time:
- to test your equipment and setup;
- arrange your surroundings;
- and check out how you appear on video.
If possible, do a test run. You’ll quickly see if you have the right equipment and software you need and if your computer has the proper settings and preferences.
Christina Hennessy is the chief content officer for Throughline Group, which offers public speaking and media training open-enrollment classes and custom workshops. This post originally appeared on the Throughline Blog