Presenting virtually? Here’s a checklist to make it great.

Tamsen Webster
Find The Red Thread®: Toolkit
7 min readOct 5, 2020

One of the things that’s most different about these past few weeks is how much we’ve had to meet, and present, virtually. While we may know, or sense, that the biggest enemy of virtual presentations is your multitasking (on the part of your audience), often our focus is on minimizing that multitasking, it helps to understand the role our senses play in that.

Remember actually being in a meeting, or at a conference? All of your senses — touch, taste, smell, hearing — all experienced the same thing: “I’m at an event.” Even the incidental experiences, like the scratchy fire-retardant fabric of the chairs and the carbtastic snacks in the hallway, said, “You’re in a different place, doing a different thing. Pay attention.”

But now? Those senses are split. Your audience sees something that reads to their brains as something like “cat video” or “something I have to watch for work.” The smells, tastes, and sounds are mostly familiar ones — of home.

And that makes the “off” sound… you. You don’t “belong.” But rather than pay more attention (as humans are usually wired to do), your audience pays less attention. Why? Because the majority of their senses are saying, “You’re home, you’re safe, carry on.” And so their attention wanders to the things that matter more to them in the moment, which is usually anything BUT you.

So, what to do? Well, rather than try to battle multitasking (you can’t), my experience is that the answers lie in leaning into it: maximize the multisensory. Engage as many of your audience’s senses as possible so you tip the sensory scales from “You’re home, you’re safe, carry on,” over to “You may be in the same place, but this is is a different thing. Pay attention.” You can’t do anything about smell or taste, but you can maximize your message across sight, sound, and touch.

How? Well, here’s a quick checklist (most links are affiliate links, fyi, and thanks to the sudden rush on these kinds of things, many of these are currently out of stock):

To capture their EYES:

  • Can you put the video of yourself and your slides up at the same time?
    YOU are often the most important part of keeping your audience’s attention, so keep yourself onscreen and on-camera as much as possible. Your movement helps keep their attention. Related to that:
  • Are you looking into the camera, and not at yourself? (Turn the image of yourself off, is possible)
    It’s much harder to ignore someone who seems to be looking at you in the eye.
  • Have you chosen someone to imagine you’re giving it the presentation to? (Consider putting a picture of them next to the camera to “warm-up” your onscreen persona)
  • Have you raised up your computer or camera so that it’s at eye level?
    This helps your audience’s eyes see you at their same level (not as if you’re looking down on them or up to them), another aid to connection. I use the Roost laptop stand (with a Bluetooth keyboard and a USB mouse), but you can also use books!
  • Have you considered getting an external webcam? (E.g., Logitech c920, Logitech Brio, Razer Kiyo, etc.)
    A higher-quality of image of you helps you look more dimensional and “real” to your audience, and thus harder to ignore.
  • Do you have earbuds, in-ear headphones, or a “headset mic”?
    I’m a fan of using earbuds and a mic that are invisible to the audience. It’s yet another way to help the audience feel like you’re talking directly to them.
  • If you aren’t using a headset mic, have you considered getting an external microphone? (Blue Yeti, Samson GoMic, etc.)
  • Can you stand, if possible?
    You breathe differently when you stand, which usually means you have more energy.
  • Have you made sure you have a light source in front of you (but not behind you)?
    It’s easy to ignore someone you can’t see clearly, so put your light source in front of you.
  • Have you minimized distractions in your background?
    The last thing you want is people distracted by what’s going on around you. Something solid and stationary is often best, or you can use an artfully arranged corner of your home. Be very thoughtful about the use of virtual backgrounds and green screens. Virtual backgrounds can potentially be a way to communicate personality, but some folks seem to be inherently suspicious of “fake” backgrounds (though I would argue an artfully arranged background has some measure of unreality to it, too). The big thing with virtual backgrounds is to make sure you contrast with them (or you’ll get weird “fuzzing out” of your edges), so again, make sure you’re well-lit from the front. I live in a VERY small space (675 square feet), and do almost all of my work on-camera and virtually, so I chose to get a pop-up green screen I could use to (a) face a window and (b) hide the kitchen behind me. I usually use as my background either a two-tone pattern that’s in line with my brand standards or a picture of my living room. That picture is what you would see if I had my back to the window and was presenting from there. Here’s what that looks like:

The only light I’m using is from the window that’s now in front of me, though it looks like it’s behind! If you’re wondering how I blurred the background to look like it would with a fancy camera: you can either take a blurry picture, or use a photo editing software (I like Acorn — way cheaper than Photoshop!) to add a “bokeh blur” filter. Either can help recreate the depth of field you lose with a green screen or virtual background.

  • Are you wearing a solid color or wide pattern?
    Avoid thin stripes and other small patterns — they create movement that’s distracting.
  • Have you moved your hand gestures “up” into camera view?
    You can see the tip of my hand in that picture, above. I’ve trained myself to gesture on-camera, rather than lower, where I would if people could see me head to foot.
  • Have you practiced flipping the orientation of your gestures to the audience’s view?
    Yes, you can “mirror” yourself on-camera, but that means any text you hold up will be unreadable. It takes some practice, but eventually you can learn to reverse your gestures so that you’re creating them from your audience’s point of view. Pro tip: anything you do right-to-left will appear to them as left-to-right (like a timeline).
  • Are your slides as simple as they can be (but no simpler)?
    I’m a fan of having MORE slides in a virtual presentation so that the screen changes quickly, and often. That movement also helps to recapture your audience’s eyes. If there’s too much information on your slide it probably will be up long enough for people to either ignore it or scan it quickly before you’ve actually covered everything. Either way, they’ll likely turn their attention to something that isn’t you… so simplify your slides.
  • Do they contain only ONE idea?
  • If they need to contain more, do the slides build those ideas one-by-one?

To capture their EARS:

  • Are your slides secondary to what you’re saying? (They should be!)
    By keeping detail OFF of your slides, you also make your audience listen more. The slides orient and connect them to the “big idea” of what you’re saying.
  • Do they reinforce the key points?
  • Do they avoid serving as a script?
  • Are they leveraging what visuals do better than words? (pictures, processes, visualized data, etc.)
  • Have you built in differences of pitch, pace, pause, and volume?
    Nothing grabs people’s attention faster than a pause, so use them often, but thoughtfully — you don’t ever want the audience to feel tricked into listening.
  • Have you listened to recordings of yourself (or of your rehearsal) to find opportunities to improve?
  • Have you marked your presenter notes with directions to help your delivery?
  • Do you know what your “green,” “yellow,” and “red” sections or lines are? (I discuss this concept starting at about the 26-minute mark in the interview)
  • Have you identified places you could address the audience directly? (Referencing the handout, “Imagine…”, “Have you ever…?”, doing polls, using their name when you see comments in the chat, etc.)
    The sweetest sound someone can hear is their own name, so if you can someone include audience names in your commentary do so. At the very least, questions — even rhetorical ones — get your audience to be more engaged than they otherwise would be
  • If possible, can you do a “hot seat” (where you interact with an audience member, and their voice) or have a co-host you can interact with so you have a variety of voices?
    Hearing a different voice, or having the opportunity to use their own, gives the audience’ brains a break in the “sameness” of sound. That’s yet another way to reengage their attention.

To capture their HANDS:

  • Would a handout help simplify your slides?
    Thanks to my days with the fine folks at Oratium, I’m a big fan of using handouts always, but especially for virtual presentations. Please note: a printout of your slides is NOT a handout. I’m talking about something like a worksheet or a narrative recap of your points — something people can interact and/or follow along with.
  • Have you sent the handout out in advance? (Do this! Also, post links to it early and often in your presentation, and let your audience know that you’ll be referring to it… and then do so.)
  • Are you having the audience type responses to polls, questions, etc.?
    Yes, this is a callback to the earlier question. But if you have the technology, have people interact with you — via their fingers — in polls, the chat, etc.

Want even more detail? My husband Tom and I went deep on this on the latest episode of The Freenoter, so you can get your fill (and Tom’s different perspective) there.

This post, along with other great content, originally appeared on www.tamsenwebster.com. Want to get it before anyone else? Sign up for my newsletter! Questions? Email me!

#marketing #messaging #persuasion #startup #entrepreneurship #psychology

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Tamsen Webster
Find The Red Thread®: Toolkit

Message designer, English-to-english translator, idea strategist. I help leaders build messages that build buy-in for transformational change.