If there’s one skill every aspiring business person needs to master for the 2020s, it’s how to be a strong virtual presenter. With the rise of remote everything, this is no longer the sole province of social media influencers. Ordinary people now have to show up every day on video calls and present themselves and their ideas in a professional and compelling way, without benefit of in-person connection.
When the pandemic began, we were all in the same boat, doing the best we could with what we had in order to adapt. It didn’t matter if you were broadcasting yourself from a darkened garage in your gym clothes, with audio that sounded like you were in a tunnel and the camera looking up your nose. We were all novices.
Now that we’ve settled in, the bar is being raised. Content about how to have a better video presence abounds, and many people have bitten the bullet and invested in microphones, cameras and lighting. They’ve styled their backdrops and worked on their camera angles. They’re getting ready for “prime time,” whether that’s just showing up for regularly scheduled meetings, or taking advantage of invitations to present professionally in webinars and virtual events.
The latter type of career enhancing opportunity used to be mostly in person speaking opportunities, but with continuing pandemic fears, budget concerns, and a new appreciation for the power of virtual events, there are likely to be more such invitations, especially for people who master the art of presenting virtually.
As with in person presenting, the main goal with virtual presenting is to maximize audience attention and minimize audience distraction. This can be accomplished with attention to our virtual presentation tips around content, visual presentation, and audio presentation.
Creating Compelling Virtual Content
The competition for attention is greater than ever. Bore your audience with lengthy rambles, or leave them scratching their heads pondering half baked ideas and it will be difficult for you to meet whatever goals you’ve set for your virtual presentation, whether that be generating leads, signing up subscribers, or building your personal brand.
The solution is to spend the necessary time up front researching and planning what you will say. Then, write out your entire presentation. That will help you see it as a whole, refine your main points and put your ideas into a logical flow. It will also help you gauge the length of your material, avoid repetition, and identify points where you might be able to insert visual aids and breaks.
Build in breaks
In a live presentation, you can feel the energy of the crowd, and their responses can energize you. A virtual presentation can be much more draining because you have to generate most of the energy yourself. And of course, it’s far easier for the audience to wander off than if they were seated facing you.
You need breaks--for yourself, and your audience. If your presentation is more than an hour, these should include actual physical breaks where people can get up and walk around for a few minutes before resuming.
But even in a shorter presentation, you’ll want to add breaks in the form of graphics, slides, photos, live polls or other interactive opportunities so it’s not just talking heads. Your audience needs something else to look at and/or do. But don’t go too far with it. Many an in-person presentation has been made sleep inducing by the overuse of text heavy slides. Even if it’s virtual, human presence is still important--maybe even more so. Someone should be on camera 85-90% of the time. If you just want people to read a bunch of slides, send them out and let them do it on their own time.
Nailing Your Visual Presentation
There are several aspects to visual presentation. The basic goal of your visual presentation should be to minimize distraction. An intermediate level goal would be to add visual appeal. A pro-level goal would be to make it super engaging. Here’s how to work your way up to pro-level in visual presentation.
Pay attention to your setting. Do your best to find a well lit, quiet, uncluttered place where you will not be interrupted during your presentation. Take a hard look at your background. At minimum, it should be clean, professional and free of anything that could attract the audience’s attention away from you and your message. It’s okay for your setting to look like a person works there, but paper piles, kitchen clutter, unmade beds, laundry piles, highly personal items and items with words on them all convey meaning that may be incongruous with your presentation. Remove clutter from the frame, and also from the room. You never know when you might have to move the camera.
Simplicity is better than clutter; it’s better to place yourself against a plain wall than a crowded room, but if you want to take it up a notch, consider styling your space with simple, visually pleasing props such as plants, cut flowers, books, lamps and abstract art. These can add color and some personality, but make sure to avoid saturated colors and busy patterns. You should be the most interesting thing in the frame.
Bad lighting--either too dark or too bright--can be distracting and make a presentation hard to watch. If you can set up by a window with natural light, and position yourself so that most of your face is lit, that will get the job done. If that is not possible, you may need to invest in some lights to get to an acceptable level of lighting. And, if you really want to up your game, it may be worth learning about and experimenting with three point lighting to get the look you want.
Camera angle and framing
There are some nuances to camera angle and framing, depending on what you are trying to accomplish, but for a business presentation your camera should usually be straight on or pointed at a spot slightly above your nose, right around the space between your eyebrows, so it feels like you’re talking to people face to face.
Frame yourself like a plaster bust, showing part of your chest and shoulders, so your face isn’t filling the frame and giving the impression of invading people’s space. You can be right in the center of the frame, or off to one side, using the one thirds/two thirds rule--filling one third of the frame and leaving the other two thirds empty. Leave about two fingers of space above the top of your head.
Make sure your camera or laptop is firmly fixed in position, and not sitting on your lap or in your hand where it can bobble while you’re speaking. On a phone, it can be easier to use the front facing camera, but the rear camera usually makes a much better image, so get a tripod so you can work with it in that way.
Just as with your setting, the goal with your personal appearance is to create visual interest without creating distraction. Wear simple, classic garments in solid colors. Clothing in warm shades can add pop--purple, teal, coral. Clothing that is all white, black and red can be problematic on camera. Avoid bold patterns, clothing with contrasting buttons, trims, etc. and T-shirts with hard to read messages.
Active body language adds visual interest, can add emotion and emphasis to your points, and make your presentation more memorable. For a virtual presentation where you don’t have your whole body to work with, facial expressions and hand gestures can make a big difference in the energy level of your presentation. If you have any theater background, this is a good place to draw on it. If not, you’ll want to practice being a little more animated than you usually are to hold the audience’s attention.
Delighting Listener’s Ears
Video pros know that audio can make or break a virtual presentation. Viewers will tolerate a poor visual presentation, but if they have to struggle to hear you, they’ll tune out. What constitutes good audio can vary and depends on your goals, but the qualities of bad audio are universal: humming, buzzing, hissing, microphone handling sounds, background noise and echoes. The latter can be eliminated by choosing a quiet place away from fans and humming appliances, with some sound dampening qualities such as curtains and carpet.
Most laptops have a microphone in the bezel that surrounds the screen so you can use it alongside your webcam. If that is in good working order, it’s probably acceptable for most virtual presentations. Since we’re all on video meetings all day now, you can ask people for feedback on sound quality. Chances are if there’s a problem, you’ve already heard about it. With the importance of self broadcasting these days, you may want to invest in a new computer or at least a microphone.
Use vocal variety to reinforce your points and hold the audience’s attention. The five “Ps” of vocal variety are:
- Pitch--your vocal range of high notes and low notes. Practice and get a feel for your range.
- Pace--your rate of speaking. You’ll want to vary this to avoid speaking in a monotone. Draw some words or phrases out longer for emphasis. Speed it up in other places.
- Pauses--yes, silence can help your message sink in, as well as give you a little rest
- Projection--this relates to your audience’s ability to hear you. While it’s harder to project out to a big room, you still need to make sure the audience can hear you, and conversely, that you’re not too loud
- Personality--inject some of your feelings about what you’re saying into it. Combined with the right facial expression, this can be very powerful and memorable
Vocal variety can be hard to master, especially if you’re not used to paying attention to it. You’ll want to play around and practice, and make notes in your script or deck to prompt you to make a change to your voice in certain spots. One thing you want to consider: deliver your talk standing up if your set up allows for it. You can typically generate more vocal energy, and more energy in general, from a standing position than from a seated one. If you do, be sure to mark out the speaking area on the floor with tape, so you don’t wander off camera.
Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse
The best presenters make it look effortless, but behind that smooth delivery is a lot of practice. While you don’t want to come off scripted, you should initially use your written presentation or deck to guide you in rehearsal.
Run through your talk track a few times out loud, noticing any sticking points and smoothing them out. You don’t have to memorize it; just get to a place where you don’t have to look at your notes too much, so you can maintain “eye contact” with the audience.
As you become more comfortable with the material, start working in your gestures, facial expressions and vocal variety. Do it on camera so you can see yourself. Check your distance from the camera, so that your gestures don’t give the feeling of invading the viewers personal space. You may even want to consider recording yourself to assess your vocal variety. Would you find it interesting to listen to you? How could you make it more interesting?
Do at least one complete run through of the presentation, practicing operating all the controls of whatever platform you’re using, making sure you can smoothly deliver your visual aids and interactive elements smoothly while you’re talking. If you really want to be good, see if you can get someone to watch and give you feedback; if not record yourself and see where you’re doing well--and where you can do better.
It’s always a good idea to give attendees an opportunity to offer feedback on the program they attended. Be sure to collect any feedback on your performance from the program host. If whoever is hosting the program doesn’t have a formalized feedback mechanism, ask any of your colleagues or attendees you’re acquainted with to provide you with their impressions of your performance. It’s best to give them a heads up beforehand, so they can listen with that in mind.
In the in-person world, speaking on stage (provided you do it well) has always been a good way to boost your personal brand and your career. When you can get up and speak, people will see you as a leader, and if you do it well enough and often enough, you will start to see new and interesting opportunities come your way.
That same opportunity exists in the virtual world, and there may be even more opportunities for presenters now that organizations have discovered their value. But just because you’re broadcasting from your closet or your living room, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it the same attention you’d apply to in-person presentation. In fact, it may be even more important to prepare and practice, since it is so much easier to lose the audience’s attention. By following these tried and true best practices for succeeding as a presenter, and tweaking them for the virtual world, you’ll be well on your way.