SXSW was among the first major events to be canceled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the list is now long and distinguished. For the next several months, and potentially much longer, the vast majority of business conferences, pitches, and presentations will be virtual.
Connecting with an audience through a screen is an uphill battle. We have conducted business primarily online since March, and the initial excitement of virtual happy hours is long gone. Videoconferencing fatigue has set in.
To engage your audience and hold their attention, you have to bring them into the conversation early and often. Keep in mind that rather than talking to a group, you are talking to a series of individuals who are sitting at home alone at their computers. They have every temptation and opportunity to multitask.
Connect with your audience from the beginning by sharing a relevant story and asking for their participation. It’s okay to choose a story that is more personal than you would tell in a regular work setting. The barriers between work and life are coming down. Use that to your advantage.
Pitching to a small team
If the group is small—perhaps you are pitching to a potential client—ask a question from the start and turn your presentation into a conversation. Moderate the discussion yourself as you would in person around a conference table.
Plan markers throughout your pitch to ask how this solution would work for their company. For example: Does that sound like it would address your challenges? What doubts are you having? How does this compare with other approaches you have seen? What would your ideal solution look like? How would this approach affect your department? Your customers?
Presenting to a large audience
If the audience is large—that annual conference that is no longer happening in Las Vegas this year—bring audience members together through polls, “raised hands” in response to yes-or-no questions, and the chatbox. Encourage participants to respond to questions and give comments to the whole group, or to chat directly with a “conference buddy” during your presentation, just as they would if they were sitting next to that colleague in the audience. As Keith Rollag, dean of the Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College, wrote in the Harvard Business Review, finding a go-to colleague makes it much easier to ask questions. Ahead of the event, enlist your team members to moderate the chatbox and bring others into the conversation.
Projecting energy through a screen
In front of a live audience, I feel the level of electricity in the room. I know if there is lively conversation before the event begins, and I can read people’s faces and body language. All of these cues feed into my energy and how I project it back to the audience. Online, not so much. Our main tools to project energy through a screen are vocal variety, hand gestures, facial expressions, and posture.
We all know the sleepy nods a monotonous speaker can induce. (“Bueller? Bueller?”) Raising and lowering your voice, changing your tone, speeding up and slowing down are great ways to keep an audience listening. Be mindful of your individual audience member sitting at home and don’t crank your volume too much.
Talk with your hands
Record yourself in your videoconferencing software to make sure your hands are saying what you think they’re saying. Be sure to keep your gestures within the frame of the screen. Back away from the camera to include your hands in the view. A good rule of thumb is your head should take up 1/3 of the screen. If you are using a virtual background, keep your gestures in front of your body, rather than out to the side. This will help mitigate the digital halo effect.
Not just happy to be here
A smile is a great way to project energy. Of course, don’t smile if you are talking about bad news—pandemics, economic devastation, injustice, etc. Even if these are your topics, you can smile when you are introduced and when you finish. Your smile shows that you are looking forward to the conversation and you know you have value to add. Make sure your smile is genuine, crinkling your eyes, and lingering on your face. A fake smile risks losing credibility. Look your audience in the eye by focusing directly on the camera lens.
Stand and deliver
Even though our instinct is to sit down at a computer, try standing up. As economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett wrote in her groundbreaking book on Executive Presence, “While standing at attention bolsters your own self-confidence, it absolutely signals to others that you are paying attention.” In addition to improving my posture, standing for a presentation helps me project energy.
When will we be back to speaking in front of people in person? It’s hard to say. What we do know is until then, the most important people in the room are the individuals sitting alone at their computers. Reach through the screen to include them in the conversation and deliver your message.
Eileen Smith is a public speaking coach who helps businesses, think tanks, and universities deliver their message.