And now we get to the good stuff. What are some of the ways an in-person presenter can tailor their style to a digital audience?
Many presenters will be familiar with the notion that only 7% of how we communicate is based in the words we say. A much larger proportion, around 55%, is attributed to our body language. Simply put, body language is the biggest factor of what others interpret when we communicate.
When we are presenting to an in-person audience, body language normally comes naturally for us as we bounce off the other humans in the room. However, when presenting to a digital audience this is not the case. There is no-one there to bounce off of and your audience cannot easily interpret your body language (if you are indeed displaying any) unless it is made very obvious to them. Particularly if they can only see a small portion of you. I think this might be one of the reasons we experience ‘Zoom fatigue’ because either we are going over the top to show people our body language or our brain is working overtime to try and interpret other people’s body language cues. To deliver an engaging digital presentation it is essential to consider your body language and put extra effort in conveying it clearly. The most natural body language to get across on a conference call is your hand movements and facial expressions.
Hand movements – as mentioned previously try and aim for slower, less jerky hand movements in case either you or your audience is experiencing poor bandwidth. This will also assist anyone with poor eyesight. Importantly, consider your frame. Draw an imaginary box around your head that you know is ‘in shot’ and make sure you bring your hands and actions purposefully into this space. Don’t have them so close to your face that you obscure it, and be careful of losing them off the bottom of the screen. Finding the best placement and sticking to it will probably feel quite forced and unnatural at first (we would never talk and move like that in real life), but it makes all the difference in terms of engaging your viewers. Move your hands as you naturally would, but now in full view of the camera. Also, where comfortable and appropriate, add physical emphasis to words that already have natural hand movements e.g. ‘big’ ‘slow’ etc. For younger audiences you could make use of Makaton or other well recognised hand signals too.
Facial expression – Matching facial expression to content and tone is something that we are likely to be doing without thinking about it and will feel natural. However, when presenting to a digital audience it is worth turning this up even more and playing with a greater range of facial expressions than you would in person. If it’s not too daunting, remember your face might be the only one they can see on screen and you are at much closer range than you would be in person. Try to keep your face as entertaining as possible. Your face might be quite small in comparison to any other content (e.g. if you are screen sharing media) so it is additionally important to keep expressions clear, visible and understandable.
One very proud and happy reflection I have from training educators recently is observing them deliver and my speakers stopped working. But, they were so engaging without sound, using their smiles and hand actions, it just made me really want to hear what they were saying. They got it spot on. This led to me developing a useful experiment that demonstrates the importance of body language. Practice a presentation with an observer, but put yourself on mute. Deliver the same words, but try to use additional means to communicate too. Record it, watch it back and compare it to another typical piece of you presenting. As a muted presenter I am certain you will find that you turn up aspects of body language (bigger hands, bigger smiles) without much thought and that this makes a huge difference in engagement. Study what exactly it is that you do when muted and use these techniques to enhance all of your presentations.
Tone of voice
I have done other experiments with my presenting colleagues in which we deliver the same piece of content in three different ways. First using only the words. Then, add in tone of voice and finally add in body language too. We saw, as you might expect, that audience engagement increases with each stage. Interestingly, we also all agreed that the biggest difference was between stage one (words only) and stage two (words and tone of voice). We saw that it’s hard to do stage two (words and voice) without stage three (body language) unconsciously creeping in there too. This is good news for virtual presenters! Tonality of voice accounts for 38% of our communication and good in-person presenters will already be skilled at using their voice to tell a story and hook their audience. The practice of using your voice doesn’t need a huge amount of adapting when working with a digital audience, apart from including extra variety. And happily, it seems that when you do this, your body language follows suit. Be aware of the connection between tone of voice and body language and use it to your advantage. For example, if your voice slows to emphasise and punctuate a point, you might feel your face changing too – recognise the added facial expression and maximise it to full effect.
A useful feature you may have noticed in conference calls is that it will usually prioritise audio over video when bandwidth is low. Since your voice carries more than just words (remember tone of voice is 38%) should your video drop out, your audio alone will be up for the challenge of carrying the presentation for a while, without the rest of you.
Props can be a great way of adding variety and engagement to digital presentations. Bear in mind good placement of the prop, within your imaginary box and frame on camera. It can be worth rehearsing prop placement, perhaps moving your head and shoulders to one side to make an empty space, and ensure it doesn’t cover your mouth when speaking. It can also be nice to instruct your audience to come along with their own props too. In one of the presentations I recently delivered I asked all the participants to bring an object from their garden/park for them to use as I demonstrated my own props. It worked well in increasing engagement and also peaked their curiosity before the session began. You can also get your audience using their own hands as props to demonstrate certain points and this is a particularly useful engagement technique for children. Even small hand movements will help to re-liven Zoom fatigued viewers.
Co-presenters and guests
A very successful way of increasing engagement is by welcoming a co-host or guest to share delivery and there are a few key things to note when doing so online. When interviewing a guest, try to stick to non-verbal responses while they are speaking. Refrain from utterings of ‘yes’, ‘mmhmm’ or ‘wow’ as your audio will conflict with theirs. Instead, use smiles and nods to show you are silently engaged. You may also want to determine a way of communicating behind the scenes with your co-deliverers in case something unexpected were to happen. It may not be appropriate to use the public chat box, so having an emergency WhatsApp group or other private means could be useful.
When inviting guests also be aware of screen space. Depending on your software, consider limiting guests to three individuals. Beyond this each person’s image may become too small on screen to be that engaging.
In my experience, delivering with high energy is one of the hardest things to train but is one of the most important aspects of a presentation! Every presenter’s energy will be unique to them and it’s worth working out what high and low energy looks like for you.
Getting energy right has been one of the biggest learning curves I have experienced regarding presenting. Like body language, energy is not something that is translated perfectly on a webcam so it will need to be artificially enhanced, particularly if you are having a bad day or are tired. The team at the Presenter Academy have some excellent resources on how to turn your energy up and one of their method’s that I have had success with is to channel ‘You, on a good day’. Simply imagine yourself on a really great day and embed this into your presentation. It will feel a bit unnatural at first (to be so energetic with no physical audience), but be assured that it will be very well received.
A virtual audience is quite likely to be bored of looking at their screens. It is important to introduce carefully placed injections of energy, particularly in the middle and end of presentations where there is often a slump. Identify parts of your content where you expect a lull and plan to boost energy here. Techniques for doing so include; varying tone of voice, body language, pace, storytelling or doing something unexpected (but relevant)!
With both these factors in mind, don’t underestimate how exhausting digital presenting is. You are likely to throw so much into it to overcome all the barriers, that you finish exhausted. My teammates and I are always surprised just how tired we are after a show. Look after yourself. Try to schedule presentations with sufficient time to recover from them, ensure you have plenty of water and snacks to hand and of course get a good night’s sleep.
There are lots of methods of digital audience interaction (asking for comments and questions, using break out rooms, virtual hands up, real hands up, voting, drawing, demonstrations, interactive whiteboards and more). Be sure to encourage your audience to get involved. When reading out comments or questions, use participant’s names to make them feel valued and build rapport. If you are unsure of how to pronounce a written name, don’t avoid their comment on that basis, give it a try and ask them to correct you if you are wrong.
When interacting with an audience, be patient. Particularly if you cannot see or hear the participants and are awaiting written responses. It is very tempting to ask a question and if you don’t get an immediate response, rephrase and ask again. I am particularly prone to doing this as I don’t like awkward silences. But, be bold and fight the urge to speak. Allow your audience time to get themselves together and respond. We know that for many individuals (in person or online) it can take up to seven seconds to process verbal instructions. If you ask again or rephrase the question, that may be a whole new seven seconds for them to process before they are able to start to construct a response. And even then, it might be a few more moments before they finish typing and hit send. If you become concerned after a while, ask them if you need to repeat the instruction.
If you require a longer answer or really want everyone to think about something, announce they have a few minutes to do so and consider turning your own camera off whilst they do so. Presenter silence and patience are important for successful interaction.
Waiting for answers will be additionally prolonged if there is a delay resulting from poor internet connection, which there almost always is. Also, for certain live broadcast platforms, there can be as much as a 30 seconds delay built into the platform. I have learnt to pose a question and have something else planned to say to cover the time awaiting responses.
With any of the above techniques, both in-person and online, variety is the spice of life. Vary your tone, volume and pace, using different types of interaction methods. One unexpected observation I made of some excellent presenters is that they accidentally got stuck at max energy and I have reflected that I do the same from time to time. I expect it is because we get so concerned with bringing high energy, that we turn it up and forget that we can (and should) turn it back down again. Delivering all of the presentation at 90% energy will soon become dull. By contrast, starting at 30%, going up to 50%, back down to 30% then up to 90% will be exhilarating for the audience to watch. Take time to identify appropriate points in your content and introduce different levels of energy. Use keywords as a reminder of where your planned energy changes are.
Simple yet effective, but easy to forget when you are nervous or concentrating on getting a script right. Smiling is a key part of body language that is worth its weight in gold and therefore deserves its own paragraph. A smile will help you communicate digitally when your audience is unable to naturally perceive your full body language. It triggers a change in tone of voice, so you buy one get one free. Very handily it is also successful at helping to disguise if you are reading from a script, helping your speech seem more natural.