Picture this! April, 2020. The current world situation.
What a different place we all find ourselves in right now. Just a couple of months ago, I hosted presentations and facilitated classes the way I’ve always done: standing in a room in front of a group of people. With a presentation deck behind me, I told my stories and connected with my audiences face-to-face, as I’ve done for more than twenty years.
As everyone reading this knows, that all changed last month. Now, so many of us find ourselves hosting meetings, even teaching classes, in a virtual world. We suddenly use technology tools to somehow replicate the face-to-face interactions that we have all become accustomed to over the years.
I’ve taught hundreds of classes to over 25,000 participants in my career. But virtual classes and presentations are fairly new to me. What I’ve learned is that the key components of preparation and engagement truly remain the same. One just needs to keep these skills in the forefront of our minds more than we are used to doing. The first step, as in any face-to-face presentation, is to prepare for your audience.
Dress the part. I know, I know. In our current environment of virtual meetings, it’s very easy to throw on a hat, a casual shirt, and pajamas on the bottom. Please reconsider. A professional look will command attention, respect, and credibility. It will also make you feel confident. Put on your most confident outfit, even if your audience will only see half of it.
Test your technology. Make sure you are comfortable with the features of the system you are using. Practice smoothly transitioning from speaking to showing a presentation deck. Run a test meeting with trusted colleagues to make sure everything is right.
Be on time! It’s ok to start the presentation right at start time, but be signed on and ready to go a full 5 to 10 minutes early. That way you are prepared and can push the button at exactly the right time.
Don’t forget to introduce yourself and give a warm welcome once you get started! Never assume everyone knows you or is even sure why they’ve been invited to your session.
Some of the most popular virtual meeting platforms offer the ability to change the background. It’s a sort of virtual green screen, if you will. What a great effect! Imagine giving a presentation or hosting a meeting with a fun and unique setting behind you. Now you can teach a class from the inside of the Millennium Falcon! You can host a meeting under the sea! Your audience can watch you present on the surface of the moon!
I’ll loosely quote Dr Ian Malcolm from the 1993 Spielberg classic, “Jurassic Park,”: Just because you could, doesn’t mean you should. (I actually use this advice a lot; call it one of the famous “Craig-isms.”)
Consider if using a virtual background is a good idea.
It might be. I recently participated in an online book discussion of Ray Bradbury’s 1950 short story, “The Veldt.” The moderators changed their background to the African plains, some with lions behind them. It made sense. It was themed. It was cute and clever.
As you think about your presentation, ask yourself the point of using a virtual background. Is it because it’s cute and clever? Or is it polished and professional? Don’t let the background distract from your content. Think of this space, including your background, as your actual meeting space or classroom. Perhaps presenting from a superhero secret base doesn’t make sense when you are delivering content on finance or operating strategies.
You are already competing with some pretty vivid distractions. On the participant end of your presentation are children, pets, windows with enticing views outside, and endless distractions from other rooms and hallways. Do you really need a fun background to add to those distractions? If it doesn’t make sense with your topic, put some thought into not using it at all.
Besides, you don’t want technology to take away from the most important part of the presentation: you!
Most of today’s virtual meeting platforms include a chat feature. This is a group discussion tool, done through a text chat environment, that can be used as you are presenting material. I find it much more effective than letting everyone talk via their cameras and microphones.
Consider what happens when you open your presentation up to real-time discussion through voice. We’ve all been there on a conference call. Participants will wait politely, then start all at the same time. It’s a symphony of “I’m sorry,” “Go ahead,” and “Please you first,” followed by the silence of no one talking or, worse, everyone talking at once.
There’s nothing wrong with making good use of the mute function. As moderator, consider placing everyone on mute at the beginning of the session. You then have control if you’d like another person to speak. Think of it as participants raising their hands and you calling on someone to speak. But for group discussions, you can’t beat the chat feature. Have participants discuss your content via their keyboard. Give them time to chat and share ideas. Then, once you call the group’s attention back to you, review what you see. Give feedback on things that have been shared. If something adds particular value, mention it. Then ask if the participant would like to expand. Unmute them and let them add to the conversation.
The chat feature provides a dynamic, easily controlled environment for people to share ideas without worrying about talking all at once and overwhelming the technology.
The Star of the Show
Simply put: this is you! You’re the star of this show. So look your best (see above), but also remember to focus on your audience. Give your full attention to your participants. It’s easy to get distracted with pop-up messages, emails, or your phone. Resist the temptation!
Maintain eye contact by trying your best to look directly into the camera. If you are distracted, your audience will be able to tell. Believe me, they will know if you are checking your phone when your attention should be on them.
As with any presentation, your multimedia (videos and decks) should enhance and support your message points, not overshadow them. Put great thought into what will be competing with you on the virtual screen.
We’ve talked about virtual backgrounds, but put some thoughts into your real-life background. Are there pictures behind you? Do they reflect your personality, yet not distract from your presentation? Is there a bookshelf behind you? Pay particular attention to the titles that are seen, because I guarantee you that your participants will be looking at them. Everything behind you is going to say something about you, one way or the other.
And what happens if a loved one interrupts? A pet jumps on your lap? To ignore it, brings more attention to it. I give the same advice I would as if you were in a real class or meeting environment: Acknowledge it, and move on.
Many of these distractions will actually build your relatability. Let it happen, laugh along with your participants, and bring your focus back to the topic.
Above all, be yourself. Let your own personality continue to shine through, just as you would in front of a live audience. Make appropriate use of humor and storytelling to continue to engage your audience.
In a recent class that I facilitated virtually, I wasn’t sure if I should continue to use my “Craig-isms” and “Dad Jokes” that I usually use when I present. The moderator advised me to throw them in. We both believed that it would lighten the material, and make the class come alive, becoming more than just a dry lecture. But allow time for technology to catch up. Remember there’s probably a lag in connection, so give your participants time to react to the story or get the punchline.
A Great Close
Finally, don’t forget to close your meeting or presentation appropriately. Thank your participants for coming together in new and exciting ways. Thank them for their participation. Give your contact information (phone number or email) in case your participants have questions or comments after the presentation has ended. Put this information in the chat feature, so it can be easily copied and pasted.
If appropriate, you can leave them with a takeaway. Use the chat feature to send links to important information. It could be relevant articles to enhance your messages. It could be a plug for your content. In the virtual book club I attended this week, the presenter gave us all a link to the museum that sponsored the meeting, as well as a donation site.
Remember that presenting virtually is not all that different from presenting in a meeting or classroom. Look the part, be aware of distractions, and let your personality win them over!
Craig has over 20 years experience as a leader, facilitator, and storyteller for a Fortune 100 company. Stories are his speciality, using them to motivate and inspire his audiences. You can learn more at craigwingerson.com or by connecting with him at @storiesbycraig on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.