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6 ways to engage your audience when speaking virtually

Speaking dynamically can be a challenge when you’re on a video call. Here’s how to draw your audience in, no matter what you’re talking about.

6 ways to engage your audience when speaking virtually
[Photo: Westend61/Getty Images]

Speaking virtually can be an enormous challenge if you want to inspire your audience. After all, listeners don’t receive the usual visual cues from a virtual speaker, nor do they hear the presenter’s voice with the same clarity that characterizes in-person communication.

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This has led to what Nick Morgan, in his well-argued book, Can You Hear Me?, describes as  “communication [that] is overwhelming, boring, and forgettable.”

But video meetings aren’t going away any time soon. In fact, speaking virtually is fast becoming the new normal. What can you do to be a vibrant speaker who excites—rather than bores—your listeners? Try these six strategies:

1. SET THE STAGE

First, set the stage so that you are the center of attention. Avoid distractions or clutter.

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This is such a simple thing to do, yet many speakers fill their backgrounds with everything under the sun. In a recent Zoom call, I found it challenging to stay engaged with the speaker, who surrounded herself with wall hangings, stuffed animals, colorful quilts, and a room full of furniture.

A cluttered space takes attention away from you. Keep your background clean, with only a vase of flowers or books neatly stacked on shelves.

2. SPEAK WITH YOUR BODY

Second, use strong body language. Many people when speaking virtually don’t think of what their body is saying. They may turn their cameras off, rather than indicate they are actively listening.

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Your audience needs you to be physically engaging. That can’t happen when your webcam is off.

To use the power of your body, begin with eye contact that’s focused directly on the camera. Don’t drop your eyes or look around the room, or you’ll appear disengaged. Eye contact is one of the best ways to create an emotional connection with your audience.

Be aware of your facial expression. A smile can help others connect with you emotionally. But don’t smile all the time or put on a big smile. You’ll want a natural smile that flows from your enjoyment of the conversation. And laughter is a great antidote to boredom in an audience.

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Check yourself, too, for any telltale signs of negativity in your face. As Patti Sanchez writes in her book, Presenting Virtually: “Be mindful of what your face is conveying. Annoyance, impatience, and other negative feelings have a way of making themselves known if you’re not careful.”

Gesture warmly. All your actions should be open, moving in the direction of your audience. Avoid flipper gestures (with elbows locked into your sides). And avoid busy wrist gestures. And never fold or cross your arms, or you’ll be creating an emotional distance between yourself and your audience.

Don’t slouch in your chair. Good posture shows that you are in the “ready” position, receptive to what others are saying. 

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3. FOCUS ON IDEAS, NOT INFORMATION

When you speak, don’t meander or overload your virtual audience with too much detail. Speak with a sharply focused set of ideas that reflect your thinking and move as quickly as possible to your conclusion.

Instead of saying, “I was asked to report on Project X, and I looked into X, Y, and Z, and I had five people work with me . . .” Say: “Project X has gone brilliantly, and my conclusion is that the program will attract new customers.”

Studies show that employees prefer meetings that are no more than 15 minutes long. A full 39% of those surveyed in this 2022 study admit to falling asleep during meetings. So get to your point and keep your remarks short and focused.

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4. USE PASSIONATE, COLLABORATIVE LANGUAGE

Draw upon the power of language to convey clear and compelling messages about your passion and collaborative leadership style.

Passionate language like “I’m excited,” “I am confident,” and “I know we can make this happen,” show enthusiasm for projects that are underway. Such verbal energy is contagious.

Collaborative language is also important, because it builds ties with your listeners. When you say “Gerry, let’s hear what you’ve been up to,” or “Somu, tell us how that project is coming along,” or when you refer to “all of us here today,” you are closing the digital divide. Call people by name, recognize them for what they are accomplishing, and show through collaborative language that you are emotionally connected to them.

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5. SPEAK WITH ENERGY

As a speaker, your job is to bring great energy to the virtual room. Your energy is what makes people want to be around you, work with you, and follow you. So keep your energy at a high level; don’t disengage or fall into silence or long pauses. This study looked at lag time on phone or conferencing systems and found that delays as short as 1.2 seconds made people see the responder as less friendly or focused. Silences in virtual conversations can seem like you are checking out.

The human ability to perceive nuances in voices is extremely sophisticated, research shows; in fact, the voice is even more critical in evoking a response in our audience than our facial expression is.

6. REINFORCE OTHER PARTICIPANTS

Reinforcing the thoughts or opinions of other participants will help others to see you as virtually vibrant.

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Use expressions like, “That’s a good point, Abdel. I agree that we should pursue this next opportunity,” or “The team is right, it makes sense to rev up our social media and give a higher profile to our executives.”

You might close a meeting with, “Thank you all for your contributions.” Conclude a one-on-one meeting with next steps, like, “I will follow up with client X, as you’ve suggested, and get back to you with their response.”

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