Going Virtual: Presenters Adapt to the New Normal

By: Lou QuintoLeadership Speaker & Executive Coach, Executive Development Associates, Inc.  

Business presentations have changed during today’s COVID restrictions. Most, if not all, are taking place virtually on video conferencing platforms such as Zoom®, Microsoft Teams®, WebEx®, GoToMeetings®, and others. Nobody knows exactly when – or if – we will return to making presentations in-person. While many presentation skills and best practices apply to both in-person and virtual presentations, the need to adjust our approach to match the video conferencing medium is vital. 

In-person presentations provide you with a captive audience. But with virtual presentations, you are competing with distractions that you would never experience during an in-person presentation. It wasn’t too long ago (March 2017) that we all laughed at a video involving Professor Robert Kelly being interviewed by the BBC from his home in South Korea. During the interview, his young children marched into his home office and his wife came crawling in – thinking she wasn’t in the camera’s view – to get them out. The video went viral, getting over 86 million views in just two days. Today, that video wouldn’t have received 100 views because it’s not uncommon to see a child, hear a dog bark, or have a cat pop into the frame during a virtual meeting. More than ever, we find ourselves competing for the undivided attention of the meeting’s participants. This is forcing presenters to adjust their presentation style. They must create more appealing and dynamic visuals and shorten their presentations while still delivering the same impact on their audience. And, to do more advanced preparation to avoid technical issues. 

As a public speaker and corporate trainer for over 35 years, I have had to embrace this change faster than most because it is my livelihood. I have had to rework every one of my presentations to fit this new medium and learn how to present “to the camera” as opposed to an in-person audience. There are differences, and those differences if not executed properly will make or break a presentation. After just a few months I’m still learning, and I do make mistakes. In this blog, I’d like to share some tips that I have gleaned that will help the occasional presenter look professional, be engaging, and to deliver a message with maximum impact. 

Preparation 

Your Background: Select a background that isn’t distracting and maintains a professional image. If you tend to work in a cluttered or messy home-office, clean it up! Remove objects that might draw your audience’s attention. Be aware of the placement of plants or other objects which – from your audience’s point of view – might look as if they’re growing out of your head. Virtual backgrounds sometimes work, but be careful because quick movements can appear blurry if you are not employing a green screen behind you. Your background will add to or detract from your professional presence. 

Lighting: Your audience needs to see your face – and all of it. Bad lighting can cause you to look distorted and unnatural. You don’t want to look as if you’re filming a sequel of the “Blair Witch Project” and you’re holding a flashlight under your chin. That’s just creepy. Position lights on both sides of you or one directly in front of you. If only one side of your entire face is lit, you take on a “half-moon” appearance. You should consider making a small investment and purchase a “circle light” to set up behind your computer. Also, if your back is to a window, close the shades. If not, the glare will distort your appearance. 

Position Yourself in the Camera’s Frame. You want the camera to frame your face, neck, and shoulders. You don’t want to appear as a “talking head.” Consider standing while giving your presentation. Standing increases your energy level and puts you into a presentation mindset. If you have to sit, lean forward. Avoid slouching as it might be interpreted by the audience that you are uninterested or unenthusiastic. 

Look at the Camera: When presenting, look directly into your computer’s camera. Your eyes do not need to move too far before people see that you’re looking at your screen and not at them. This takes practice, as we want to look at the people to whom we’re talking. Adjust your computer so that the camera is at eye level. You’re not taking a “selfie” to post on social media so don’t position the camera too high so that you are looking up the entire time.  And, if it’s too low, you create a double chin. (Of course, selfie aficionados already know that!) Good presenters understand the importance of making and maintaining eye contact with their audience, this is as important virtually, as it is in-person. 

Know the Platform’s Functions: Being unfamiliar with technology will destroy your presentation. Take time to explore the platform. Become familiar with simple things like sharing your screen, using chat features, and muting and unmuting participants are second nature to you. Trying to figure out how things work during your presentation will just add to your “presentation anxiety.” Consider doing a practice run so you’re comfortable with the essential platform features. You may even want to have a “producer” to be in charge of technology. This will allow you to focus solely on your presentation.  

Check Your Sound: Your sound is as important as your video feed. While most computers have decent built-in mics, many make you sound as if you are speaking from within a cave. You want to sound as if you’re in the same room as them. Again, consider making a small investment ($50-$70) and purchase a microphone that you can plug into your computer. You’ll be amazed at how a professional mic increases the quality of your voice. As with all new equipment, practice with the same technical configurations and location that you will use for your presentation. 

Check Your Wi-Fi: The most annoying thing in a video call is when your video feed cuts in and out or your transmission “freezes up.” If possible, set up your computer as close as possible to the Wi-Fi modem in your house. Or plug your computer directly into the modem. This will give you the strongest signal and most stable Wi-Fi connection. If that’s not possible, my techies have advised me to do one – or all – of these three things. One, before signing on unplug your modem and wait for ten seconds and then plug it back in. I’m told that this clears the modem’s cache and helps improve your Wi-Fi connection. Two, (yes, spend more money) invest in a Wi-Fi Mesh Network and install a hub in the same room as your computer. And finally, make sure that during your presentation nobody else in the house is using up any available bandwidth. In other words, “Kids, don’t stream any movies from Netflix for the next hour!” 

 

Techniques 

Be Energetic: Just like in a live presentation, you want to present with high energy. This involves the proper use of gestures and facial expressions. Have proper voice inflection and tone. Avoid being monotone. Don’t speak too slow, and definitely don’t speak too fast. Vary your rate of speaking to pull people into your message and to keep their attention. The goal is to keep the audience engaged and that requires you to be engaging. 

Engage Your Participants. Just as if you were doing an in-person presentation, engage your audience. Use chats, polls, raised hand features, etc. As a rule of thumb, every 10-15 minutes engage the audience with a polling question or ask for any personal observations they may have experienced in the area about which you are discussing. Call participants by their names. Have people chat or raise a hand if they want to speak, then call on them. (Be sure to tell them to turn on their mics!)  

Visuals: I know, “Not another PowerPoint®. Alas, PowerPoint decks are still the mainstay of presentations. In virtual presentations, they play a more prominent role. Visuals help people remember more. Visuals grab people’s attention. Visuals create an engaging environment. During a virtual presentation, you need all the help you can get to make your presentation memorable, grab people’s attention, and keep them engaged. During an in-person presentation, I normally advise against animation on a slide. But for virtual presentations, I recommend using animation and let your slides “build” such as revealing one bullet point at a time. It can be a tool to keep people engaged. I’ve also discarded the typical bullet point dots, squares, and triangles. I recommend using uniform-sized text boxes with a dark background fill and white lettering for each point. Our eyes are attracted to color so get away from the white background slide with email-like bulleted text. That won’t grab anyone’s attention. Also use fades, peel-offs, or turning cube transitions between slides. Be conservative and consistent with your transitions and only use two or three different types of transitions per presentation. 

Be You: Just like in an in-person presentation, audiences appreciate authenticity! Let your true personality be front and center. Have fun. If the audience believes you’re enjoying delivering the presentation, they will pick up on that and be eager to listen. Also, people retain information better when they are relaxed and in a happy mood. If you deliver a presentation that doesn’t exhibit excitement and enthusiasm, your audience will tune you out and your message will fall on deaf ears. Model the energy that you want to create. The audience takes its cues from you! 

Record Your Presentations: Improvement happens when you can see yourself present. If possible, record your presentation and then watch it. When you see yourself presenting you will pick up on things that you want to change for future presentations (“I didn’t know I said ‘and uh’ so much!)  The road to becoming a powerful presenter, whether virtual or in-person, is by continually honing your skills. You won’t know where to improve your skills unless you actually see those areas that need work. You also will observe your strengths and by seeing them in action you can reinforce those behaviors. 

Remember, whether you are presenting in-person or virtually, everyone in your audience is giving up something to listen to your presentation (project work, connecting with customers, answering business emails, etc.) Their time is valuable. Your number one goal should be to deliver the best presentation possible so they will realize a return on investment for the time they spent listening to your message. 

 

About the Author: 

Lou Quinto has over 20 years of experience in employee development, management training, executive coaching, and consulting with expertise in teaching managerial skills, critical thinking skills, professional presentation skills, and motivational speaking. His style of training and consulting is described by clients as engaging, motivating, and productive, making him a popular choice for conducting seminars, management retreats, and executive coaching sessions. 

Lou is also the co-host of a weekly video blog and podcast called Q&A on Breakthrough Leadership that provides leaders with the latest insights on leadership, business planning, critical thinking, communication and developing teams. He is a graduate of Purdue University and resides in Indianapolis, IN.