When the pandemic hit, the events industry was one of the first affected. Thousands of conferences, festivals, and other public events had to cancel with very little notice as their audiences were forced to stay at home.
In an incredible effort, some organisers quickly moved online and kept things going for those, now more than ever, seeking to learn, better themselves, and expand their expertise. There was much demand for online events, but very little time to learn how to deliver engaging and educational online talks and workshops. The event industry, and the world in general, had to use the little experience it had with gathering in huge numbers online to make the most of the situation.
The art of public speaking has changed immensely during this time. A year on, we take a look at what this experience has taught us and what was gained in 2020. This is a good time to stop, look back, and sum up what makes a great online presentation.
Start with an anecdote
Acknowledge the new situation. Even though some time has passed, everybody is still trying to get accustomed to interacting with each other mostly or solely online. If you’ve done online talks in the past and have a funny or interesting story, tell it to your audience. It doesn’t matter if it was a success or a flop. If you acknowledge that these circumstances are also new to you, it will help your audience relax and relate to you.
Use compelling visuals
As the screen has become the main focal point in a presentation, visual communication is now more important than ever.
In a conference hall, there are many things to focus on: the stage, the person on the stage, other members of the audience, the visuals behind the speaker. At home, your visuals take centre stage, which is why they must look good and communicate well.
Start with a slide that maps out the talk. This will not only help you structure the presentation but will help your audience follow along more easily.
Choose a color scheme, theme and layout and stick to it. The right color scheme will instantly communicate something about your presentation — is it more of an academic or professional talk, or is it a talk about personal growth, are you trying to communicate something serious in a funny way? The colors and layout you use will set the mood of the presentation and, therefore, deserve extra thought.
Keep visuals simple and clear. If you need to include more information, it’s better to add slides rather than trying to cram all the information into too few. Slides that try to give too much information will distract the audience. They might have to stop listening to you in order to read what’s on the screen in front of them. Remember, slides need to summarize the point you are trying to make, using more visuals and less text. Explaining those points in greater detail is then down to you.
When you do include text, choose a readable font. When choosing the colors, theme, and layout you focus on aesthetics and clarity. But when choosing a font it’s time to put aesthetics aside somewhat and focus more on clarity.
Remember: 65% of learners are visual learners. A successful presentation is educational, and great visuals are the best way to ensure your audience remembers what they learnt.
Ensure you have a reliable internet connection
This is such an obvious one, yet it still gives people a hard time. It’s safe to say your internet connection can make or break the presentation. Double or triple check it before you start. Get your friends on a conference call, share slides with them, run through everything you plan on doing during the presentation to make sure you have a reliable internet connection. Any sign that it might fail you, call your provider to upgrade or consider changing providers. Also consider having a back-up provider or, if all else fails, be prepared to use your phone as a hotspot connection. Getting your internet connection right is a small price to pay for the success of your talk.
Explore the advantages of online
There are so many advantages to giving an online presentation. It opens up a plethora of possibilities you don’t have in face-to-face interactions.
If you’re bold and computer-savvy you know this, and have probably already experimented. However, you don’t have to be a technology guru to plan an interactive presentation. Conference platforms these days are user-friendly and try to make it as easy as possible to use the numerous functions they offer. Besides the standard use of videos and other visuals, you might want to consider incorporating more interactive elements to your presentation, such as white-boarding sessions, surveys, polls, and Q&A sessions.
These elements will not only make it more fun for the audience and keep them engaged, but will give them a sense of having contributed, and helped them learn by doing.
Know your online platform
There are many great speakers out there that have been left behind simply because they are not (or think they are not) tech-savvy. Don’t let the medium stand in the way of you delivering your powerful message.
One way to improve is by practicing, practicing, practicing. If, once upon a time, you practiced stage presence in front of a mirror at home, you now have to start practicing in front of a screen.
Get your family and friends on the platform and practice your talk in front of them making sure you go through all the steps: sharing your screen, presenting, sharing files, and so forth. Explore all the functionalities of the platform and see how you can use them to your advantage. Before you try it out in a live event, make sure you know all the ins and outs.
Dress up for the occasion
Everyone has had an entire year of working in their pyjamas, and it’s probably high time we stopped. You might feel silly dressing up to do something you’ve been doing all year: sit in front of the computer — but just do it!
It’s not so much about what it looks like to others, it’s more about how it’ll make you feel, and how much easier it’ll make it for you to project confidence. There’s no need to buy a new outfit, but you do want to look like this is a special moment in your day.
Engage with your audience
This is probably one of the most challenging things you have to do when giving an online presentation. Whereas before you could look audience members in the eyes, get a feel for what the crowd was like, and adapt your tone of voice and even message, sitting in front of a screen might feel paralysing in comparison. There’s no need to despair as there are some ways to get around the lack of feedback.
First and foremost, ask the event organiser for a list of participants and any other information they can share, and do a little bit of research. Find out what their backgrounds are, age groups, interests, and the stage they are at in their careers, and make sure there is something in your talk for all of them.
When presenting, don’t look at yourself. If you can, hide your image and look at the participants instead during your presentations. As humans, we rarely get a glimpse of ourselves when talking to others and while practicing in the mirror might be helpful, staring at yourself when giving the presentation will be distracting. Hiding your image will eliminate that distraction and help shift your focus to the audience, which is where it should be.
Let the audience see you. You need to be the Big Brother that is present in their homes. To keep the audience engaged, you need to make yourself not only heard but seen.
Posture is not so important anymore, but gestures and facial expressions are. Make sure you don’t look like you’re in front of a screen but in front of people. That will help your audience feel like they are being spoken to by a real person, not just an image on their laptops or phones.
Let the audience hear you. The audience engagement achieved with a great stage presence is now down to the way you speak. You have to pay attention to your tone, the intensity of your voice, which parts of your discourse you tend to stress and which not. The best way to check this is to record yourself giving the presentation and listen back to it to see where you need to make improvements. Record again and compare.
Allow time for questions. You might be surprised at how many people feel more comfortable engaging and asking questions online rather than in person. Huge conference halls and microphones are intimidating to many, an online call less so. Allow your audience to take advantage of the anonymity the screen offers, and set aside time for Q&As at the end.
One good way to connect with the audience these days is to admit that this is far from ideal, and you’d much prefer to see them all in person. That does not mean being negative, but rather acknowledging that it is a difficult time for everybody and that everyone attending, speakers and participants, show a positive attitude simply by trying to make the best of a less than perfect situation. This will make the skeptics feel understood, and encourage those who were positive to want to engage even more.
Create your own background
Remember, you’re practically inviting everyone into a corner of your home. Forsake the impersonal ready-made backgrounds that platforms offer. Instead, set up a cozy spot in your home with a background that will tell the audience a little bit about who you are. You don’t need to give everyone a tour of your place, but the beauty of virtual events is that it offers you the opportunity to invite people into your home and only show them what you want to show them. It helps people connect with you, without you having to give away too much.
Online talks can seem daunting, but with preparation, they are not to be feared. Even those skeptical in the beginning have had to embrace them, and have realised they’re not so bad after all. Instead of dreading them, see them as an opportunity to engage with a lot more people, to explore new ways of engaging, and simply, to get more creative.