Whether you are a department head speaking to your direct reports, a CEO addressing an all-employee meeting, a business owner giving a talk at an industry conference, or a professional speaker delivering a keynote, the shift to virtual presentations has been a game-changer.
On-site events are returning very slowly, yet presenters and attendees alike have discovered that while online meetings aren’t perfect, they do offer a lot of advantages. For one, there is an inherent immersive quality to online presentations that cannot be achieved in person. That is, if you know how to use it to your benefit to make the best impression, sell, persuade, inspire, or whatever your end goal may be.
I queried three communications colleagues who have transitioned successfully from the physical to the virtual stage regarding the most important lessons they have learned to date. I asked them to update my blog from May 31, 2021, where I give my own secrets for successful presentations.
Since May, I have done dozens of online workshops where I teach executives and small teams how to break through the drudgery of PowerPoint and harness the benefits of online platforms, like Zoom and Teams, to share the screen and interact with many participants at one time.
Here are the best pro tips for world-class virtual presentations:
1. Establish your intention.
You must start with the intended audience and the desired outcome. Who is your audience? What do they need from you? What do you want to accomplish? The classic quote from Kenneth W. Haemer, former presentation research manager at AT&T sums it up:
Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing
a love letter and addressing it “to whom it may concern.”
2. Set the stage.
One of the biggest challenges to presenting online is creating the “lights, camera, action” effect of a remote studio. Chances are that no one is setting up your webcam, microphone, cameras, background, and running your slides. You can’t just stroll to the front of the room and start speaking. Consider that everything that the audience sees on their screens the minute you turn on your camera speaks to who you are—your executive presence and your personal brand. Avoid at all costs virtual backgrounds without a green screen. If you opt for a natural set, style your background to match your message and profile.
3. Your audio quality is key.
Your audience will put up with almost anything in an online presentation except poor sound quality. If they must strain to hear what you’re saying, they will tune you out and start multitasking. You can get a good USB microphone for less than $50 that can deliver professional sound, like the Blue Snowball iCE USB Mic ($39.99 on Amazon). Check the audio quality while you’re online by inviting friends or colleagues to listen to a test video call and evaluate what they hear. The built-in microphone on your laptop will simply not deliver good sound for your audience.
4. Calibrate your eye line and eye contact.
It is important to bring energy to your presentation. One key factor is to make “eye contact” with your audience, which means you must look directly at the camera lens while speaking. Many people find this difficult and awkward because you don’t get the visible feedback that you’d get from an in-person audience. Many speakers also find that it helps to be standing versus sitting when they deliver an online presentation because this injects more energy into your delivery.
5. Make your gestures compact.
Keep body movements smaller and slower than you would in person. Use the rectangle to full advantage for controlled gestures that accentuate your message. Frame yourself from the waist up and have your hands in view. Smile and employ facial expressions to convey emotion and emphasis. Don’t get so close to the camera that your head fills the screen. Stay at arm’s length distance from the webcam to make the audience feel comfortable with the framing and composition of your video shot.
6. Use fewer slides.
That is if you must use PowerPoint, cut back the number of slides to half or two-thirds of what you would normally use in person. Why? Attention spans are shorter. Interaction is essential for online presenters. Share your screen with fewer slides, stop periodically and ask for feedback or questions. Don’t hold questions to the end as you are accustomed to doing. Break the old presentation patterns and introduce activities such as polls and breakouts to keep your audience engaged.
7. Practice your technology.
If you are adept at using multiple cameras and streaming software such as OBS and XSplit without using the video platform’s screen-sharing feature, you will create an “over the top” presentation that will wow your audience. However, you can also create a visually powerful presentation with well-designed slides and seamless screen-sharing. Make sure you have practiced and understand fully how to advance slides, mute your mic and video and when to turn them back on. Nothing says amateur more than someone who starts presenting while on mute or asking, “can you see my slides?”.
8. Your slides are your backup singers.
Give your slides secondary importance. You are the star of the show. The presentation cannot happen without you. Your slides work in support of you and your charisma and expertise to deliver a winning presentation. Use your slides to convey emotion and context and deliver the content with your spoken words. Avoid bullets and heavy text, opt for bold images and graphics instead. Image if your slides were to fail. Would you be able to convey your ideas with confidence without visuals? Rehearse with and without slides and be ready to pivot if necessary.
9. Dress for the occasion.
Too many speakers fail to consider the importance of wardrobe for virtual presentations. Dress professionally. Keep in mind that not every outfit works for a virtual event. Fine prints, polka dots, and plaids can result in interference patterns that can shimmer and distract. That’s why solid colors are preferable. Avoid wearing pure white. Cameras work best with lots of light, but white can overload the camera image. Cobalt blue, pale blue, purple, burgundy, marigold, and paprika are almost always good choices for men and women.
Video conferences will continue to be a centerpiece of the post-pandemic world of work. Research firm Gartner predicts that by 2024, in-person meetings will drop to 25 percent, driven by remote work and changing workforce demographics. That means that 75 percent of meetings would move online or go hybrid. This shift to online will provide new opportunities for those who acquire the necessary skills to deliver effective online presentations.