Delivering an Engaging Online Presentation

16 Tips for Presenting Virtually


5 minute read

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I love speaking to groups!

I especially love presenting to a live audience, face to face. I get energy from the room, and I am invigorated by the interaction with a live audience. Many of you may feel the same way, but as the novel coronavirus continues its relentless path around the world, our ways of working and interacting have had to undergo a change. We are being forced to eliminate face-to-face interaction to keep people safe and slow the spread of the virus, which means more online presentations.

Presenting virtually is significantly different from presenting in person on several levels.

One difference is that, depending on the type of virtual presentation you are giving, your audience may or may not be able see you. And you may only be able to see some of them. This can be disconcerting as a presenter. All that feedback and energy you get from a live audience is missing, which can lead you to wonder how your message is being received … or if it is being received at all.

Another challenge is keeping your audience engaged. Audience engagement is difficult with a live audience, but with a virtual audience the challenge increases significantly. In-person audiences can turn you off mentally, but virtual audiences can literally turn you off, with the click of a mouse or a tap on their phone.

If your audience can see you, there are certain techniques you can practice to hold their attention. If they cannot see you, there are other techniques to employ. The following tips will help you to be successful no matter what kind of online presentation you are delivering.

Tips for All Types of Virtual Presentations

1. Keep it short. In person we can use gestures, intentional movement, and eye contact to connect with the audience and pull their attention back to us. However, when presenting virtually, many of those tools are missing or reduced. In the virtual realm, it’s better to cover less content and keep the total length of your presentation to 15-30 minutes.

2. Stand. Whether or not people can see you, you should stand when giving your presentation. Standing ensures that you can breathe from your diaphragm and that energy is able to easily flow through your body. It also makes it more likely that you won’t lean on a table or surface, which never looks professional. Use your hands to gesture, even if they can’t see you.

3. Use lots of signposting language. Signposts are simple words that trigger the brain to pay attention. They are things like “That’s all I have on xyz, now let’s move on to…” or “Now I’d like to explain…” This language helps your audience follow your presentation and keeps them with you.

4. Use language to create intimacy with your audience. Use “you” and “your” when referring to things. If you are communicating with a team, use “we” and “us”. Each person should feel like you are speaking directly to them. Instead of “Can everyone hear me?” say “Can you hear me?” It’s a small change, but it makes a big difference.

5. Prepare. When presenting virtually, the technology has to work. If it doesn’t, you have no presentation! Take the time to test the technology you plan to use. Either do a dry run several days in advance or, at a minimum, start 30 minutes ahead of the scheduled time of your event, so you can work out any bugs. It’s a great idea to record yourself giving the presentation and then play it back to yourself. What do you hear or see that you would like to change?

6. Silence please. Remove any and all distractions from the area you are working in. Silence your cell phone, turn off email and other notifications, and avoid rustling papers.

7. Don’t go it alone. It is awkward at best to try to field questions and deal with technical issues all by yourself. Enlist the help of a moderator or assistant to field questions that come through the chat or text, to tally the poll results, and to assist with any technical issues that might arise. If people are asking questions verbally, ask them to state their names prior to speaking.

Tips for When Your Audience CAN’T See You

1. Change it up and keep it moving. Keep slides simple, clean, and colorful. Use graphics and images as much as possible, and minimize the number of word slides. Use more slides than in a normal in-person presentation and move them along. Don’t stay on any one slide for more than 20 seconds. Your audience needs a new image to wake up their brains.

2. Involve your audience. Use engagement tools to involve the audience (raising hands, polls, quizzes, and asking questions in chat). But don’t use these tools just for the sake of using them. If you insert a poll, make sure the question is relevant to the content you are presenting.

3. Consider inviting a guest speaker or co-presenter. A change in voice and style facilitated by having two presenters can keep the presentation interesting and the audience engaged. However, you will need to choreograph the interaction. Only one of you should be speaking at a time. Resist the temptation to interrupt each other or talk over each other. Joking around too much is also not a good idea; it can make the audience feel excluded.

4. Use your voice to communicate passion and energy. If people can’t see you, your voice is all you have to keep your audience engaged. Your voice needs to be dynamic and engaging or you will lose people. If you don’t naturally have a lot of “music” in your voice, you can practice by reading a script using exaggerated emotion and volume. (I have often used Steve Job’s commencement address in my classrooms.) Stand up and move around as you speak, using a wireless headset. This may help you to generate the right amount of energy in your voice.

5. Slow down and pause. Speaking at a measured pace, not too fast, not too slow, will hold people’s attention. Learn to pause for 2-3 seconds at the point of transitions or when you have made an important point. Your audience is dependent on your voice, so a silence will catch their attention and bring it back to you.

Tips for When Your Audience CAN See You

1. Maintain eye contact. When presenting virtually it’s important to look directly at the camera during the entire presentation. Don’t look down at notes or anywhere else. The minute you break eye contact, people lose interest, and if you are looking all around (for example, if you have more than one screen and you have notes on a screen that causes you to look from one screen to the other), it is distracting to the audience. They will remember much less of what you say and may tune you out entirely. Direct eye contact also engenders trust and sincerity. You can’t see them, but they can see you, and maintaining eye contact with them will help them trust you and believe your message.

2. Stay still and centered in the camera. Don’t shift on your feet. Balance your weight on both legs equally and keep the lower body still. Make your gestures a bit higher than usual so that people can see them. Make them intentional and keep them contained. Be sure not to move to a place off camera, where your audience can’t see you. This comes across as amateurish and unprofessional.

3. Smile! Or at least keep your facial expression pleasant and neutral. This is where practicing on video and watching yourself can really pay off. You might notice that you look overly serious or that you are frowning in concentration. Work to relax your face and smile at appropriate moments. Practicing your presentation several times and getting very comfortable with the content will help you to relax and come across naturally.

4. Logistics. Wear neutral clothing, but avoid black. Black swallows you up on camera. Solid colors are good. Make sure you are well lit from above. Be mindful of what appears behind you. Make sure it is not messy or distracting.

I hope you will find these tips useful as you engage in more online presentations. If you are interested in learning more about communicating effectively in our virtual world, please join me for a free webinar on Tuesday, August 11, where I will be discussing the topic in depth.

Barbara Boldt Dion Leadership Coach & Consultant

Barbara Boldt

Coach & Consultant

Barbara is an international facilitator, educator, and coach, specializing in communication skills for global executives and managers. She has trained and coached hundreds of leaders from diverse industries, including pharma, banking, mining, chemicals, oil & gas, and technology.

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