All at once last year, the way we interact changed. With the global COVID-19 pandemic came virtual meetings and presentations that forced us to communicate almost exclusively in a new way and on new platforms. While tools like Zoom and WebEx existed before the pandemic, most organizations used them as a way to connect offices in different locations or as a last resort when we couldn’t get a large group of people into a conference room—but not to conduct everyday meetings and presentations.
What we quickly learned, though, is that presenting virtually differs greatly from presenting in person. Certainly, some overlap exists (such as, eye contact is good). But the reasons for that overlap aren’t the same.
Before diving in, start with the premise that you will present better if you focus on your listeners instead of yourself.
Once we establish that mindset, we can discuss what we learned about presenting effectively in a virtual world after nearly a year of experience.
The decision about how to communicate isn’t unique to our current situation. Should we send an email? Is it better to call? Or would the information land better with a meeting? You should consider two tactical questions to make this decision:
If the answer to either question is “yes,” then a meeting is the better choice because it allows you to see the other person and for them to see you. Human beings are hard-wired to notice body language. When we remove that from the interaction, we decrease our ability to connect with and influence each other.
Another key consideration is whether to turn our cameras on or off. After hundreds of virtual meetings and presentations, it’s understandable that so many people prefer to keep their cameras off. This feeling is especially true since we invite people into our homes when the camera is on.
But without that visual element, they can’t see the facial expressions that demonstrate your genuine feelings, and you can’t read the room. How do you persuade people to turn on their cameras? Try announcing that you are going to turn on your camera and ask people to do the same. Although we generally can’t make people turn on their cameras, this simple request is usually enough to encourage people to join you.
As for the position of the camera, placing the camera at or slightly above eye level avoids awkward angles and lets you look directly at your listeners.
Despite the difficulties created by communicating over distance, body language remains a critical component. It may even be more important when we appear in a little box via a meeting platform because every movement seems to be enhanced.
How do you best use your body language?
Starting with your eyes, focus on the center of your screen. If you want to look at the people you most want to influence, you can’t actually look at their images or at any of the features of the platform. You need to look dead center. You can look at the camera too, but you may appear as though you’re looking up since most cameras are at the top of the laptop lid. Center screen is a safe spot.
Vocal variety, while nothing new to the world of presenting and speaking, becomes more even more important in a virtual presentation. Since Zoom and WebEx give listeners a more passive experience, like watching a video, speakers need to change the tone and energy in their voices to keep their audience’s interest.
If you struggle to add energy, consider going low and slow at strategic moments during your presentation. When you lower your volume and slow your pace, you add some vocal nuance while also letting the listener know that what you’re saying is so important that you’re slowing down to emphasize it. Of course, you can’t do your whole talk that way, but that change offers an option for people who struggle to add volume and energy to their voices.
Along with the critical emphasis on voice, make sure you react to what you say and hear. An absence of facial expressions can give the sense that you don’t care because you lack passion. Don’t feel the need to act, but aim to show your listeners that you think the information is important for them and that their feedback is valuable to you.
While some gesturing is always helpful, it can distract in this situation. Try smaller, essential gestures like counting off a list instead of grander gestures that might be more appropriate from the podium.
Many of us who weren’t already using two computer screens began to do so during the pandemic. This approach helps you work on a number of things simultaneously, but it can be tricky to navigate during a presentation.
When we look at a second screen, it typically is not the screen with our camera. For example, you probably aren’t looking at the camera if you’re discussing a graph or dashboard from that second screen.
We do not earn buy-in from that data or information. We earn buy-in from the people we’re trying to influence. And to influence them, we need to look at them. So, if you need to access information from another screen, do it. Just don’t get stuck talking to that screen. Use it as an opportunity to pause before returning to your primary screen.
Even if you get the technology and body language right, you still need to get the message right too. In a virtual presentation, messaging is especially important given the challenges to connect with people. A strong message should be brief, others-focused, solution-oriented, and use simple language. When you do this, your message not only cuts through the clutter, but it’s also easier for your listeners to share information with other people who may not have attended your presentation.
Whether virtual or in-person, questions represent the part of the interaction you can’t always plan in advance. You might anticipate some questions, but you can’t think of everything because different people come with different curiosities and concerns. But it isn’t a good look for you to stare blankly at your computer screen as you say, “ummmm,” while you try to think of an answer.
Give yourself the chance to catch up to the question so you give your best answer on the spot. Take a moment to think by either re-stating the question or commenting on it by saying something like, “I’m glad you brought that up,” or “that’s a valid concern,” or even “good question.” This method of thinking before you answer is something we all do in social situations, but we don’t think to do it professionally. Just make it a sincere statement. Don’t say it’s a good question if you don’t think it is. Otherwise, you lose credibility with your listeners.
Once you take a moment to think, give a clear, concise answer of just a few sentences. Avoid a deep dive into the details unless the other person asks for it. Show the same confident body language as you respond and ask if any other information would be helpful.
Avoid the common mistake of asking, “does that make sense?” Asking that question makes it sound like you doubt the quality of your answer or, even worse, doubt the other person’s ability to understand it.
As you think about the concepts you just read, identify two or three that you think will help you present more effectively in your virtual meetings. Just a few small changes can have a big impact on how you come across and your ability to influence other people. Write those speaking goals down and put that paper near your laptop. It should be in a place where you can easily and regularly see it to remind yourself of the changes you want to make. Focus on these changes one at a time.
And if you struggle as you work on developing your skills, keep in mind that the way we are all communicating right now isn’t what we’re used to. As a result, the norms are a bit of a moving target. But if you can keep your focus on what will help you communicate in a way that makes it easier on your listeners, you will ultimately present more effectively in our virtual world.
For more information about improving your virtual presentation skills, register now for Sean’s upcoming PLI Program: Presentation Skills for Attorneys 2021: Mastering Virtual Facilitation Skills.
Sean Romanoff is the Director - People & Culture and Senior Learning Consultant at Exec|Comm LLC. He consults with industry leaders in insurance, professional services, and banking & finance and specializes in presenting, writing, and building business relationships.
Also available from PLI Programs:
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Bridgestone Americas, Inc. or Practising Law Institute.
To submit an article for consideration, please contact the editor at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is published on PLI PLUS, the online research database of PLI. The entirety of the PLI Press print collection is available on PLI PLUS—including PLI's authoritative treatises, answer books, course handbooks and transcripts from our original and highly acclaimed CLE programs.
Sign up for a free trial of PLI PLUS at pli.edu/pliplustrial.