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How to excel in virtual presentations

In the past six months I deliberately signed up for numerous virtual events, conferences, webinars and what not. I observed the ups and the downs of the virtual world. On numerous occasions, I also was a part of them - both the ups and the downs. Here is a non-exhaustive list, zooming in (pun intended!) on the key mistakes during online presentations and some practical ideas how to fix them.

Knowing the mistakes is your first step in the victory of defeating them.

Speakers not preparing as much as for a physical event

Everything that is true for a good offline presentation counts also for an online event. Preparation, rehearsal, setting, branding, background, quality, timing, dressing, engaging, interacting, focus - all of those and more are valid also for an online presentation. Sometimes when people are not in front of a real audience, they are tempted to skip on some elements and not prepare as much. That is a mistake which the audience punishes with instant disengagement. All presenters must be aware that reading your speech during a virtual event can be easily detected by the audience even though the viewers do not see the script or the teleprompter. If you are organising the event, don’t assume your speakers, even if they are the best in their field in the world - futurists, best selling authors, scholars, engineers - will necessarily know how to set up their camera, sound, background and how to deliver a compelling virtual keynote. Work with them and help them show their best.

No interaction with the audience

In an online event the speaker needs to work at least twice as hard to maintain and attract people’s attention. When sitting through a boring offline conference, people entertain themselves with their phones, browsing discretly internet or social media. But when one it at home, away from the public eye (always check if your camera if off), there is no limit or shame - people would switch on TV, to go the other room for coffee, open another window on their browser. It is harder to interact with the audience during an online event, right? Don’t be too fast to agree. According to Eventbrite, research shows that 47% of people are more likely to ask a question at a virtual event and 37% are more likely to speak to a person in a virtual booth than a real one. There’s plenty of opportunity to boost audience participation in a virtual event – you just need to know how, concludes Eventbrite. Among the ways of engaging the audience is to do live polls, chats, to organise a Q&A during the presentation, ask everyone to switch on camera so you can take a picture together, and much more. Do you know what people love the most? Hearing their names. While doing a presentation you can increase engagement by mentioning people’s names and their comments in the live chat.

No dynamics

Long monotonous speeches or Q&As are a recipe for boredom even if the most interesting topic is discussed. Among the remedies to that is to allot 5-10 minutes maximum per speaker, or to ask the speaker every couple of minutes to interact with the moderator, to show a video, to do a live chat or to respond to a question from the audience… The speaker needs to make sure their tone of voice is changing too. Stories, especially personal ones, are most engaging. But don’t overdo with the stories. A tip to increase the dynamics could also be to deliver the speech standing up, not sitting in a chair. In a real life event a person who is standing will also make for a more dynamic stage appearance.

No eye contact

One of the hardest things during an online presentation is to maintain attention though eye contact. The reason is that the speaker is tempted to look at themselves on the screen or at the image of the others. The key is to imagine you are in a TV studio and to talk directly to the eye of the camera. It feels awkward, but is the best way to maintain attention. I call this trick the “News anchor look”. Think about your favourite TV host or news anchor and how they look at you during their show. Well, they don’t look at you, they look at the camera. And so should you. Looking sideways is not the end of the world, but looking sideways and reading - a sure way to lose audience’s attention.

Going fully digital does not mean to forget the physical world

One of the best ways to engage the audience before, during or after an online event is to connect the experience with the physical world. For instance, instead of presenting with the usual Power Point, the speaker can use good old piece of paper and a pen, or use physical props to show on the screen - a mug, a book, a branded cushion in the background, even vigorous hand gestures. An organiser of the event might send to the speaker and or participants a small physical gift. In a world of virtual everything, a human touch can bring the wow effect.

Forgetting about the background

You know how a picture speaks a thousand words? So does the background during your virtual speech. It makes sense to put some though into it. When a professional is invited speak at an offline event, they rarely ask about the branding of the wall behind them on the stage. Usually it is enough for them to know about the microphone and occasionally, about the chairs. When the keynote speaker is at their own home or office during a virtual event, the task of branding their appearance lies on their own shoulders. This is where the organisers of the event need to step up and help. People make so many mistakes with their backgrounds that this deserves a separate article on the topic. But here’s few ground rules in resume: don’t sit too close to a wall or worse a wardrobe, or you risk looking like a prisoner in a small cage; allow depth of at least 1.5-2 meters behind you; don’t stay too close to a library with books as everyone will be busy reading the headlines instead of listening to you; the brightest light should be in front of your face, not behind it.

In conclusion, online events are not a just a link and a screen, they are an experience for the attendees and presenters and need to be viewed as such every step of the way - from the very first time one hears or reads about the event, thorough registration and participation, to the post-event management activities like “Thank you”-s and call for action for signing to the next event.

Victory Corners 2020, by Viktoriya V. Blazheva


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