No More Boring Presentations: How to Deliver Engaging Content, Virtually
The Same, But Different
All of our work meetings and many of our external events transitioned from in-person experiences to virtual experiences, practically overnight. Maybe you’re a seasoned presenter — when there’s a live audience — but are feeling unsure of how to translate those skills to a video camera. Or maybe you were preparing to give your first conference talk and now have the added complexity of delivering it from your home. We have some tips and tricks to help you wow your audience, wherever you are and wherever they are!
To address the elephant in the room, yes, speaking to a virtual audience is pretty different from speaking to a live audience. If you’re used to picking up immediate feedback cues from the audience, finding yourself in a feedback vacuum will be strange. And since participants can choose to leave with only a single click — that is, if they’re not already just halfway listening while also checking their email in another tab — the importance of gaining and keeping their attention is multiplied. You should aim for the same goals for your talk that you would have had in person while also bearing in mind that the medium requires different things of you. We recommend starting to practice on camera — and watching the playback! — as soon as you can to start putting the following best practices in place.
Content is (Still) King
Some things are the same whether you’re delivering your presentation in person or to a virtual audience. Storytelling is, as ever, the best way to structure your presentation. Identify the narrative arc that best fits your content and create the presentation around it.However, attention spans are shorter online, and, as we mentioned above, people can slip out of a webinar unnoticed much more easily than they could out of a conference breakout room. This means a few things for your content. One is that you should consider shortening your session overall. If you are allotted an hour to present, why not aim to talk for 45 minutes instead, leaving plenty of time for Q&A and audience interaction? Have half an hour? Shorten your speech down to a highly engaging lightning-style talk that lasts for 10 minutes. Eliminate anything from your presentation that distracts from your main message. People will appreciate the additional time to take a bio break, grab a snack, or just look away from the screen for a few minutes.
Given that, though, it’s crucial that you hone in on your key point and get to it quickly. What is the ONE thing you want the audience to take away from your presentation? Everyone who joins is looking for an indication of what value the presentation will offer them, and they’re looking for this in the first few minutes. Don’t open up with a long housekeeping session — introductions, thank yous, forward looking statements, etc. Jump straight to the main point, and come back to the housekeeping after you’ve earned the audience’s attention. Practice this portion so that you don’t spend too long getting to the point.
And finally, consider how your slides will translate across the wilds of the internet. Bias toward using bold visuals rather than bulleted lists. Keep your design simple, with clean lines and bright colors. Bring in graphs and charts when they are useful in underscoring a point. Minimize the amount of text on any given slide, as the audience will likely tune you out in favor of reading your paragraphs. Remember that videos and animated GIFs may or may not work depending on your and the audience’s internet bandwidth, so it’s best to leave them out entirely. Switch things up! Surely you’ve experienced “slide hypnosis,” where a single slide stays on the screen for so long that you zone out. Change slides frequently, conveying a single point with each one.
Make sure your content is accessible for folks with visual challenges and those who have hearing impairments. Members of Abilityforce, Salesforce’s Employee Resource Group for people with disabilities & employees with loved ones with disabilities, weighed in with some tips. Consider the readability of the typeface you choose to use and the colors you set for your text. If you’re a Salesforce employee, the designers of the official corporate slide template have done this work for you! So use the approved slide template that has already been reviewed for accessibility. Cordelia McGee-Tubb, Principal UX Engineer, Accessibility, says this: “[B]e specific in [your] talk track; if [you] say ‘this’ and wave at an image or a diagram on a slide, audience members who can’t see the slides (whether blind or low vision, sitting behind a tall person at a conference, or listening to the recording while multitasking at their desks) won’t have any idea what [you’re] talking about. Providing just a little bit more context can go a long way.” Many streaming platforms offer a closed captioning option that is worth exploring. Remember that most changes that increase accessibility are helpful for everyone.
Master Your Technology
Now let’s talk about the technology that makes this possible. It seems there is no shortage of streaming platforms available. Communicate with your event organizer or host early so that you have plenty of time to familiarize yourself with the one being used for your presentation. Learn the program backwards and forwards. You never want the audience to be distracted from your presentation by the mechanics of the software being used to deliver it. Ask your host to do a practice run with you, whether this is days ahead of time or an hour before. And log on early on the day of the presentation to iron out any wrinkles before guests join the stream.
You may need to invest in some gadgets to step up your virtual presentation game. Derek Laney, Head of APAC Product Marketing at Salesforce, suggests buying a Logitech high-definition web camera and a set of AirPods. He’s used a variety of professional level mics and says the AirPods offer unparalleled, crisp sound while also allowing you to move around freely. With the camera, whatever you use, make sure it’s not angled such that you are looking down at it (what Derek calls an “up-nose” camera). This creates a threatening vibe, as if you’re towering above the audience. More on camera setup in the next section.
There are a lot of software tools you can experiment with to create fun, visual interludes that break up the monotony. Snagit is a great one if you are able to record your video ahead of time. With Snagit, you can cut between showing your face and showing your screen. (In fact, you might be able to approximate this by toggling your screen sharing on and off in a live presentation.) The caveat, though, is that these tools only help if you are very comfortable with them and able to integrate them seamlessly. If you can’t, skip them.
When showing your slides, consider not sharing your whole desktop. No one needs to see the 47 cat videos you have open in tabs! (Be mindful, though, that if you’re sharing your presentation and click out to show a demo, you may have to adjust what screen is shared on the fly, so make sure you know how to do this.) If you have a secondary device available, it can help to log into the stream from it so you’re able to see what the participants see. And whatever you do, go into Do Not Disturb mode and quit applications like Slack and iMessage so that no notifications pop up to interrupt or embarrass you.
So you’ve got your content optimized and your technology dialed in. Now it’s time to create the perfect presentation backdrop. Your webcam only picks up a relatively small field of view, so what is in that area is super important. Think about what your space will look like to viewers. Do you have dirty laundry piled behind you, or a distractingly well-stocked home bar? Is there a house plant that’s positioned so that it appears to be growing out of your head? Create a nice backdrop for your presentation, perhaps by hanging a sheet from something high up.
Pay close attention to the lighting on your face. You don’t want to have your back to a window or other light source, lest you come across like an anonymous victim on America’s Most Wanted. Light yourself well and from above. Maybe you deserve every Instagram influencer’s favorite accessory, a beauty light, to put your best face forward.
Frame yourself appropriately within your camera’s scope. If you have a standing desk, go ahead and set it to standing! Not only does this help you look directly into the camera, but it also opens up your diaphragm to help you project and sound more natural (more on that in the next section). Make sure your whole face is visible and that viewers can also see the top of your head.
You’ve already put your computer into Do Not Disturb mode, but you’ll want to eliminate physical distractions as well. Close the door to where you’re presenting to keep household noises out, turn off loud fans or robotic vacuums, move rustling papers of the way, and set your phone to SILENT (not vibrate). Life inevitably creeps in at times, but do your best to create a distraction-free environment.
Play to the Back of the Room
On the day of your presentation, dress for the camera. This means no plaids, stripes, or other busy patterns. Wear something neutral that you’re comfortable in. It’s more difficult to use eye contact and body language in a virtual environment, but hopefully you’re looking directly into the camera and you’re standing up. Depending on how wide your camera pans, you may even be able to move around a little bit, though you should definitely test this ahead of time so you don’t disappear off-screen. Keep gestures within the range of what the camera can see, but don’t eliminate them entirely. Offer an engaging smile directly to the camera
Ken Molay, a webinar consultant, blogger, and services provider, suggests thinking like a stage actor and “playing to the back row.” “My presentation voice on a webinar,” he says, “is like my acting voice on stage. I need to make sure that everyone can hear me, that my diction is as clear as possible, and that I am overemphasizing brightness and emotional content as I speak. As a matter of fact, a typical slides and narration webinar requires even more vocal prominence. You don’t have the assistance you would normally get from props, body language, movement, and reactions from other characters. It’s just you performing a monologue in front of the slides acting as your ‘set’.”
Infuse your delivery with emotion — anger over statistics you’re presenting, excitement about solutions. Otherwise you might as well let a bot read your presentation script! (But you might not need to take it as far as Steve Ballmer…) Speak louder and softer at times as the message calls for it.
Put an outline of your talk, maybe with time indicators to keep you on track, at eye level, so that when you’re referring to your notes, you still appear to be looking at the audience. Looking down at your notes or shifting your eyes to a different monitor to look at on-screen speaker notes comes across poorly.
Though the audience isn’t there, per se, you should still strive to create moments of interaction. Keep your tone conversational and inviting. Ask a buddy or the event host to help keep track of questions and bring them to your attention if you’re worried about missing them. Your streaming platform might offer features like live polls, a chat stream, or a survey plug-in to help you do this throughout the presentation. (As with all other technology, though, only use this if you are extremely comfortable with it and it won’t be a distraction.) If not, even asking rhetorical questions can help keep the audience engaged and thinking.
Don’t be afraid to drive participants to use the chat. Ask a direct question, and then pause until you see answers coming in. Call out participants by name and ask them what they think, or read out their comments. Questions like, “Anyone else?” and “What else?” are your friends.
If you’re presenting at a virtual conference, think about how you can recreate the all-important “hallway track” after your talk concludes. If you can stay on the stream, make yourself available to address questions or continue a conversation. Can you share your email address with attendees? Invite them to a Slack channel? It may feel forced, but much of the value of a presentation comes out in this ad-hoc interactions after it concludes.
This might sound like a lot of preparation. The good news is that, ideally, you were doing this preparation already for an in-person presentation, so you just need to shift your focus to optimize for virtual delivery! Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff reported to Business Insider that his secret to delivering a great presentation is to practice seven times. You read that right — seven times. Start with just your web cam and an empty room. Then maybe invite some trusted peers to a virtual call to practice again. Ask for their feedback and adapt accordingly. Once you get started, practice nonstop all the way through, since you won’t have the luxury of starting over once you’re streaming live. Play around with whatever software and tech gadgets you’ve decided to use. Pick out your outfit. Get a good night’s sleep. You’ve got this.
- 5 Proven Tips to Share a Compelling Story Virtually
- For organizers: https://mhall119.com/blog/before-you-take-your-conference-online/
- Inclusive Design for Accessible Presentations: https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2018/11/inclusive-design-accessible-presentations/