I have been doing virtual presentations for maybe a decade or so. And if I am honest, I have not enjoyed the experience mostly because I was not able to see the audience and read their reactions.
But now, thanks to new and improved streaming technologies -- and some practice on my part -- it’s all changed. I love the virtual medium.
Where once we considered live presentations to be best, the coronavirus pandemic has altered expectations. Jennifer McCollum, CEO of Linkage Inc., a leadership development, coaching and conference firm, says, “The best presenters are pivoting successfully by engaging participants with new and useful content that allows for real-time learning and application.”
These presenters, according to McCollum, are using technology like video, polling and break out rooms to connect and teach -- and stimulate learning -- more effectively. Additionally, higher-end presentations have higher production value with graphics and animations might find on cable television.
What virtual presenters advise
The secret of a successful keynote presentation is twofold: experience and engagement. I spoke with some presenters who have mastered the art of doing both via virtual presentations.
“You must begin with the fundamental assumption that not everyone is digitally savvy, competent, capable, or comfortable,” says David Nour, a strategy consultant. So Nour provided a pre-session for participants to try out the technology. "We also gave them a glimpse into the learning sprints, we discussed the format for the two-day course and broke them into Zoom breakout rooms for a dry run."
For many moving to virtual is a new experience. "Do your due diligence, prototype a few different environments, ask for forgiveness, and try relevant and intelligent new ways to engage the audience in the content you're extremely knowledgeable and passionate about," Nour says.
If you don't adjust, Nour says, and if you “take the same dull, boring content you’ve been delivering online, that’s virtual education murder!”
Eddie Turner Jr., an executive coach who has done many virtual presentations, says, “Engagement must not be an after-thought or a ‘nice to have.’ It must be fundamental to the event. Audience members should not be expected to sit back and let information scroll by them passively.”
“Most people want to be personally involved, either through activity or through customized content, that they feel uniquely applies to them," he says. "Engagement in today's online world demands multisensory options to be included in any design."
Engagement can be built through real-time online messaging, says Tasha Eurich, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist, speaker and New York Times bestselling author of "Insight." “For me, the chat feature is everything. When you’re speaking to a live audience of, say, 300 people, there’s no way you can ask everyone to respond to any of your questions.
“But in a virtual event, and with the right approach,” adds Eurich, "every member of the audience has a chance to contribute their thinking, insights, and experience meaningfully. The speaker can share the stage with her audience! And when the experience is 'one to many' and ‘many to one’ at the same time, you can help them make connections and cement their learning even more powerfully.”
A secret to effective presentations is authenticity.
“The virtual presentation, which had primarily been reserved for C-suite executives communicating formally to employees, has quickly become the ‘normal’ way of learning and doing business,” McCollum says. “There is suddenly far more acceptance of kids interrupting, dogs barking, informal clothing and constant reminders to ‘unmute yourself.’”
Speaking from your office or even your home creates a feeling of intimacy. Intimacy hides little. That means the real you becomes quickly evident. Audiences don't want bluster; they want information that they can use to apply to their careers, their jobs, and maybe even their own lives.
“I recently saw Serena Williams deliver a virtual presentation from her living room, in casual clothes with a picture of her daughter behind her,” says McCollum. “It felt completely different than seeing her on a stage alongside 5,000 others, and Serena seemed much more human and vulnerable. We see each other in our real surroundings, allowing us to connect at a deeper level."
Intimacy does not preclude energy. You need to prepare for in advance so that you know what you are going to say. At the same time, you also need to deliver with conviction.
Consider radio performers. The best ones are those who bring enthusiasm and commitment to their shows; they do it with the power of their voice. Virtual presenters must do likewise, with the added advantage, they are visible. Facial expressions and gestures (minimal gestures) are effective.
And one more thing. Don’t forget to have fun. It is an honor to be asked to speak in front of a group of strangers. Enjoy the experience. And show your appreciation by revealing how you feel. Speak authentically but do so with a spirit of humility and joy.
Speaking virtually may not be as exciting for the audience or the speaker as a live performance. But in times of physical distancing, speaking via video conferencing is here. And it's up to speakers to make the most of it.
John Baldoni is an internationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach who provides his services via video conference. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, Inc.com named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. In 2020, Global Gurus once again named Baldoni a top 30 global leadership expert, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, Inc.com named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of 14 books, including “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership” and his newest, "GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us." You can find his tips on leading in a crisis here.