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Why every virtual presentation you attend now is so awkward

In a virtual environment, we’re left without the typical signals in body language and speech to lead us over uncomfortable moments.

Why every virtual presentation you attend now is so awkward
[Source image: demaerre/iStock]

Recently, I had a meeting with a client who came in beaming, describing how he would be using the latest technology to interview a big name. “I’m going to be a big hit! He’ll be behind the screen, projected as a huge animated  character of himself.”

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“Really?” I said. “And what about you?”

“Oh, I’ll be at the podium, asking him the questions.”

“How small will you be?” I asked.

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He looked at me dumbfounded. “I never thought about that. I never thought I’d diminish myself. I just thought that the technology would make the conversation so cool.”

Lately, we’re all getting swept up in the allures of virtual technology in a remote setting. It was an initially exhilarating experience to see everyone, everywhere. But it’s important to step back, get beyond the cosmetics of lighting and staring at ourselves in the camera, and deal with some new questions. For instance, what is the impact of all these new technologies on how we communicate? Specifically, I can think of three fundamental changes in our virtual digital environments, changes we have to embrace to keep our audiences engaged and keep our leadership presence strong.

Here are some of the changes I’ve noticed in virtual communication.

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Shift from a visceral to a flat environment

One of the changes you have to deal with is going from a 3D environment to a 2D environment.

Yes, you feel the energy in the room. If you are telling your story effectively, you will feel the audience cohesion, a unified feeling; no audience shuffling, no clicking of keys. You will feel a unified flow of energy coming at you right away. You will feel the energy. You will feel the emotion.

In your virtual environment, you can see, you can hear, but you can’t feel. You’re in a flat environment. In movies, they compensate for the 2D by adding a soundtrack. The soundtrack stirs up the feelings associated with the visual.

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So how do you add feeling to your virtual speaking without a soundtrack? You add rhythm. In speaking,  you add rhythm by speaking in the personal voice, and you add rhythm by having repetition. Here are some examples of rhythm.

  • You say, “We made decisions.”
  • You say, “We executed our plans.”
  • You say, “We achieved results.”

By repeating “You say,” you are building in a rhythm. You are adding your soundtrack to your 2D virtual meeting; you are adding your feelings to your 2D virtual meeting.

Adapting to a stop-and-start pace

A noticeable change is the shift from speaking in a style of telling a whole story, to fragments of your narrative. In an in-person meeting, you have people coming and going occasionally. So you usually can tell your story from the beginning through the middle to the end, like reading a paper.

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But in a virtual meeting, you have to deal with a fragmented presence. People are coming and going, coming and going, putting up their pictures, popping in, popping out. You have to tell your story in a more fragmented style. You have to build in redundancies to remind people of what you’re talking about. You have to get to the point immediately and over and over again. You can’t count on when your audience will be in and when your audience will be out.

The best way to speak in today’s fragmented and virtual environment is to think of your presentation as having a core message with planets of information connected to your core message. You have to keep coming back to your core message, so you don’t fly off into outer space.

Acknowledging live commentary

Another change you have to deal with is instant messaging while you’re talking. Years ago, I worked with the Home Shopping Network. When their salespeople were on the air promoting their products, they were receiving real-time feedback about how their products were selling. With a slow seller, move on fast; with fast sellers, stay on the product.

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In in-person meetings, you don’t get real-time feedback and messaging. No one slips you information on a notepad or texts you while you’re speaking. Instead, you concentrate on looking at your people, feeling your engagement, and staying tuned in to the pulse of the meeting. In a virtual meeting, you have a continuous flow of instant messaging coming at you: comments, reactions, feedback, flowing publicly across the screen. What do you concentrate on? Do you pause to address the questions? Do you get distracted by the comments?

There are no rules of the game right now. What is polite? What is correct? How many conversations are going on simultaneously? Are they all productive?

To improve your ability to tell your story in this virtual environment, you have to define what you feel is right in your organization. You have to establish what your protocols are. Do you have pauses to discuss key messages? Do you deal with text messages later? Do you ignore the key messages and just concentrate on telling your story? To be effective in today’s virtual environment, you have to establish the rules of etiquette, just as you have rules in your real meetings.

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Improving your body language

Another one of the changes you have to deal with is projecting leadership presence. In an in-person meeting, you can establish a leadership presence in many ways. You can have a strong natural advantage if you’re big, if you move around frequently, and if you occupy a lot of space with your gestures.

But in a virtual meeting, every speaker occupies the same screen size. So, how do you project leadership presence? You have to gesture with intention. You have so little space, so you can’t focus on big gestures. You have to focus on small, intentional gestures that stay within the frame. The key to making small, intentional, and powerful gestures is to move from your body. Think about using your body in fluid ways. Try to avoid flopping out your arms to the sides, instead getting your whole self into your movement.

By delivering small gestures from your core, you can help build your leadership presence, especially in today’s virtual environment.

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