How to prepare for a virtual presentation? Dana Brownlee advises avoiding these five common mistakes
When Mosaic Resource Group Founder Crystal Richard’s overseas keynote presentation was almost cancelled during the early days of the pandemic, she insisted to event organizers that she could still present but just do it virtually. “One of the reasons why I was so comfortable proposing that I present virtually was that I’d already become quite comfortable recording video.” She didn’t wait until virtual presenting became necessary to become familiar with the platform. Similarly, as conferences and other professional events transition to virtual events for the foreseeable future, many professionals will need to get comfortable in a space where they’re most likely not comfortable right now – virtual presenting. Contrary to popular belief, virtual presenting done well requires conscious adjustments to simulate the benefits of a live presentation. For those who do it well, there are five common mistakes they avoid.
Mistake #1 – Being stiff and robotic
Whether sitting or standing, body language still counts. Some might argue that it matters even more because the online format immediately creates distance. Faced with this natural constraint, the presenter really does need to work to break down that barrier and instead build a sense of connection. One of the best ways to do this is to maintain really high levels of energy and exaggerate gestures and other forms of body language (within reason). Before your next presentation record two versions – one with natural delivery and one with exaggerated facial expressions and other body language – then critique both and determine which gestures create a more authentic connection with the audience. I did this recently and realized that when I laughed a bit during stories, my delivery felt more personal and authentic so I decided to try to consciously keep those small laughs in my delivery. Professional speaker, and bestselling author, Rob Jolles advises professional speakers to continue live presentation habits like drinking from a cup of coffee or taking off your jacket to maintain your natural style and encourage a feeling of intimacy. Obviously, the camera will limit your mobility, but Jolles insists, “Be as mobile as realistically possible, have the audience pin you so you’re all they’ll be seeing and get your energy way up. The audience will appreciate it and lock onto you…literally.”
Mistake #2 – Maintaining poor eye contact
Eye contact can be a tricky proposition when presenting virtually. While the best live presenters often work the room by constantly scanning the audience and moving around, that approach obviously won’t work for a virtual setting. “Many people make the mistake of looking away from the screen as they are seeing an image of themselves and that can be distracting,” explains keynote speaker Heather Monahan. “Most platforms have an option to hide your reflection if that is a problem, but regardless you want to be looking directly into the camera so your audience feels you looking individually at each of them.” Instead of walking or looking around the room, virtual presenters should focus on leaning into the camera occasionally to enhance eye contact. Also, if you find your eyes wandering, tape a small smiley face next to your camera to remind you to look there.
Mistake #3 – Talking too long
It’s important to remember that it’s harder to maintain the audience’s attention virtually, and for that reason virtual presentations should ideally be shorter. “Ten minutes virtually feels like twenty minutes live,” explains Jolles. “To help you win the battle to hold your audience with you, develop a “communication shot clock” – limit stories to 45-60 seconds to keep the program moving.” Indeed, part of holding their attention is customizing content to make it more digestible in a virtual setting. This typically means stripping down slides to just one or two key points, using more visuals and boiling your comments down to the most salient (and interesting) points.
Mistake #4 – Not conducting a dry run
Conducting a dry run for a virtual presentation isn’t just “nice to do.” It’s absolutely necessary. The virtual presenter doesn’t just need to practice the flow from slide to slide or story to story, but also get comfortable with the mechanics of the online meeting application (e.g. Zoom, WebEx, etc.), their home office equipment, and the unique ebb and flow of engaging with an audience reduced to a computer screen. There’s a difference between knowing that you’re going to run a poll after slide five and practicing it so that you’ve got an example ready to share during the downtime while the audience is voting (to avoid that dreadful awkward silence). There’s simply no substitute for conducting an actual dry run of your presentation so get a few friends to call in (if possible) and practice it a few days prior. You’ll be glad you did.
Mistake #5 – Lecturing instead of truly engaging
Without a doubt, the best way to hit a home run with a virtual presentation is engaging the audience throughout. The more they’re actually engaging with the content, the more effective the presentation will be. While most of us are familiar with common video conference interactive tools like polling/Q&A, chatting, raising a hand, and promoting an attendee to panelist, there’s a tendency to think of these as elements that are sprinkled into the presentation here and there to create interaction. Instead, the best presenters completely flip that lecture-focused paradigm and instead focus primarily on the interactive components (e.g. What questions do I ask the audience?), then sprinkle in their content around those interactive components. It’s a completely different mindset and delivery approach that typically yields a much more attendee-focused experience. The best presenters also don’t stop with the standard interactive tools and instead also incorporate tools like Slido, Mentimeter, and Poll Everywhere to infuse audience engagement into the DNA of the session. (For more information on creating ridiculous levels of audience engagement, stay tuned for an upcoming article on this topic).
Delivering a great virtual presentation is so much more than reading slides on a Zoom call. The truth is that many professionals will continue to robotically read slides as their version of a virtual presentation, but those who truly master the art of virtual presenting will absolutely distinguish themselves. Keynote speaker Heather Monahan likens the difference to her experience riding her Peleton. “I ride my cycle virtually now instead of in an actual class; however, it really is no different when I choose one of my two favorite instructors. The connection doesn’t come from the proximity to the other person – the connection comes from the presenter’s ability to connect with the audience regardless of the platform.”