I am a presenter and educator and I adore what I do. I have loved presenting to diverse audiences in various venues across the world. I also train and mentor others in presentation skills and enjoy continually learning about the nuances of audience engagement.
The pandemic has given many of us a whole new arena – the virtual audience. I think it’s fair to say that these audiences are often trickier than their physical counterparts, but I have relished the challenges and opportunities that this new way of working has thrown at me. Over the last year I have been learning new techniques and tweaking my style to connect with the ‘pixels’ on my screen. I have also enjoyed working with a wide range of educators and presenters across my various roles and professional networks, to establish best practices. We have delivered, recorded, observed, self reflected, practiced and tried and tested various techniques; and here, I attempt to assemble some of the things I have learnt. The following are my observations and practical suggestions regarding presenting techniques, adapting from a physical audience to a digital one, and keeping engagement high.
Developing digital content is a distinct discipline and has been discussed in many other articles, seminars and conferences. I won’t attempt to replicate them here, nor will I comment much on how to set up a good ‘stage’, lighting or audio. This article will instead focus specifically on adapting existing presenting techniques from a physical audience to a virtual one, as I felt such a specific discussion was missing.
Of course, there is a huge overlap between content and delivery and so a few things stand out, to mention here briefly before we get started…
Use of multimedia and digital engagement tools: Ideally your content should be optimised for a digital audience and include good use of media such as videos, sound effects or interactive tools (e.g. polls and questions from the audience). The use of these is likely to be engaging in itself, but a presenter can (and should!) enhance these elements through their delivery. For example, don’t just play a video and move on. I’ve seen this many times and it always feels like a missed opportunity. Instead, interact with videos before and after; give it the exciting build up it deserves and remark on how awesome/useful it was after watching. Similarly, if conducting an audience poll comment on the results and weave these into the narrative of the session.
Inclusion and accessibility: Content should be as accessible and inclusive as possible. As a presenter you should be sure to fully embed and exemplify this. Ensure you are well framed and lit on the webcam, and that your mouth is always visible as you speak. Empower your audience to let you know to slow down, speed up or repeat sections. Make full use of the scheduled breaks and reiterate the importance of the audience looking away from the screen and moving about. Use slow hand movements and well paced speech. This will help if anyone is experiencing low bandwidth (and therefore frame rate), and prevents the presentation from becoming blurry or garbled. Many conference call platforms support the use of auto-generated captions (as does PowerPoint) so become familiar with how to use these so you can direct others to the options. These auto generated systems will not get it 100% correct, so practice your presentation with them turned on and note any glaring errors (misspelling of key words or names). With this knowledge, you can speak clearly or slow down at sections where the captions might struggle. Virtual backgrounds can be fun but, in my experience, aren’t always fully accessible, especially during physical demonstrations. I have seen many presenters ‘ lose their hands’ at the mercy of a virtual background. These should be used with consideration. A virtual background generated with a green screen is often far more reliable than those automatically generated by your video conferencing software.
Just as with any in-person presentation or show, preparation is key. Here are a few extra items to consider when dealing with a virtual performance.
Live vs Pre Recorded
If you are new to presenting to camera it is worth considering the differences between live and pre-recorded sessions. Both have their pros and cons. Live sessions allow audience interaction (hopefully!) and immediate feedback, but can fall victim to technical issues. Pre-recorded presentations, on the other hand, permit re-shoots to ‘get it right’. But, be careful not to fall into the trap of, “Oh just one more take!”. You may be there for hours. Watch a few back right away to work out key improvements, but know where to draw the line. For live presentations try to make the most of audience engagement and use this to fuel your energy. For pre-recorded, you will have to depend on your own energy and enthusiasm. A method that I have found useful is to imagine a friend standing behind the camera (or put a photo, cuddly toy or pet there) and talk to them with a good, old fashioned, cheesy smile.
Consider the virtual audience
When presenting in-person you would always consider the best style to use, based on the demographic of your audience. There are a few additional things to consider when working with a virtual audience. Your audience is likely to be in a different ‘environment’ from yourself, and each member may even be in their own little bubble, experiencing their own set of conditions and distractions. It is worth considering any barriers to engagement they may experience so you can plan accordingly. This is something my team and I recently covered when developing a virtual show for school groups. We are very familiar with how students behave in museums and classrooms, but much less so in a Covid-classroom. With support from teachers, we took time to understand this niche audience setting and considered which styles might work best. This included ensuring activities allowed for social distancing and handwashing, the importance of brain breaks for the children and empowering teachers to ask for extra breaks as needed for the multitude of distractions that might pop up.
When observing others’ presentations, I have noticed that digital audiences tend to appear more reserved than they would in-person. There is less smiling back at the presenter and laughing at their jokes. For those that do, their body language is often lost in translation across camera and screen. Additionally, when presenting to audiences in multiple locations, they will engage to various levels depending on what’s going on around them (be it house rewiring or a toddler redecorating). As a presenter, be aware of these factors and don’t take it personally if there is less feedback and interaction than you would expect. Have confidence in your presentation and trust that the content is landing well (even if their faces aren’t showing it).
Confidence in content
Become as familiar with the content as possible. It will do wonders for your confidence, particularly if you are presenting ‘into the void’.Take time to research around your script and highlight any areas that need special attention so you don’t trip up. Practice the pronunciation of tricky words and spell them out phonetically on your notes. Make sure your script is comfortable for you to read aloud and is written in your own turn of phrase. Or, even better, ditch the script and use memory techniques to learn it. Hopefully, you are presenting top-notch content and can ground yourself in the fact that your audience will really enjoy it or find it useful. Use feedback from previous sessions to remind you that people are enjoying it. If nervous right before a delivery, instead of cramming in a small space huddled around your keyboard, try to go outside and open up to a large space to get in the right frame of mind. It’s possible you have been looking at a screen for too long, so do yourself a favour and get some fresh air!
When collaborating with co-hosts or guests allow plenty of time for rehearsals and voice any concerns early. Practice with and check any props, tech or digital tools both in advance and on the day. I learnt this the hard way. In a recent debut of a show I was depending on a third party interactive whiteboard. It had worked consistently well for weeks, but then experienced major technical glitches on launch day. It didn’t occur to me to check it before the session. Typical.
Just like with my interactive whiteboard, things will go wrong. Luckily with many of us having worked from home for over a year now, your audience will be understanding and patient (and quite possibly any kids in the audience will find it hilarious). You should minimise the chance for things to go wrong by double checking your set up, content, props and colleagues. But, having a solid back up plan is key. I also found that tech issues were the number one concern of presenters new to digital engagement so well worth addressing. Don’t start a presentation without an emergency plan!
When learning to SCUBA dive some Dive Masters experience something called the ‘stress-test’, which aims to artificially simulate some of the biggest errors that could go wrong underwater. The trainee diver must establish calm control and deal with the situation, be it recovering a rogue mask or running out of air and sharing with their dive buddy. This prepares the diver for almost anything that could go wrong and is a stable foundation to know they can (and importantly already did) handle problems. Put yourself through a mental ‘stress-test’ regarding your presentation. What are all of the things that could go wrong and what could you do as a backup? Have your plan B (and even C) to hand and fully rehearsed. Not only will this increase your confidence overall, but when things go a bit pear shaped you will sail through them without hesitation. The audience may be none the wiser that anything unexpected happened. In my virtual sessions, I always have a filler activity planned which I can give the audience to keep them busy whilst I fiddle with tech issues. If it gets really bad, I announce I am just going to go off camera for a moment but will be back. This removes the time pressure but also means people aren’t staring at me whilst I frantically Google how to fix a new and unforeseen issue.
Whilst your back up plan should be thorough, also know the importance of calling time of death when things have gone very badly wrong. Some tech issues just cannot be rectified without additional support or time and in these situations hopefully you are able to reschedule rather than persevere against the odds. Before the session, consider where your ‘point of no return’ might be.
I want to briefly touch on the tech set up. Although this is covered in lots of other articles, there are a few things that have stood out to me that are not overly obvious until you have learnt the hard way. Firstly, two screens are better than one. Place any scripts or notes as close to the camera as possible, potentially putting the webcam in front of another screen, to reduce the appearance of reading given away by your flickering eyes. An ethernet cable will provide faster and more reliable service than a Wi-Fi connection. Headphones with microphones reduce echo and are often better quality than those built into the computer. Before the presentation close all other non-essential programmes on your computer, as these zap its processing abilities. And, please, please, plug everything into the mains. Some of my colleagues have experienced situations all too frequently where their guest has suddenly dropped out of a live talk, only to reappear later to sheepishly explain their laptop ran out of battery. But it’s not just laptops, I forgot to plug in my internet hotspot (which I used whilst we experienced broadband issues in the area) and it clocked-off in the middle of a live broadcast. Luckily, fast thinking got me back online pretty quickly, where I was able to smugly recite my planned ‘Plan B emergency phrase’ (“Looks like my internet went extinct, but now back to the dinosaurs!”). It was only after the session concluded did I also realise that my prepaid data pack only had 6mb left on it. Eeek.