Virtual Presentations : Think More TV Show Than Keynote 

Had a big presentation go from in-person to virtual?

You’re not alone. With everything from major events to client presentations going online across the country in the wake of the coronavirus, even seasoned presenters are finding themselves in a tough spot as they try to keep audiences engaged via live stream. 

Presenting online has challenges, but expert virtual presenters say it offers some unique benefits. The key is to approach your presentation in a whole new way. You’re no longer a speaker—you’re a TV show host.

“Virtual talks are different than in-person talks, but ‘different’ shouldn’t mean ‘worse,’” says seasoned speaker and writer Jay Acunzo. “It’s on the speakers and event organizers to add back the elements that were stripped away with the move to virtual.”

Before you get discouraged by your event going virtual, read these tips from expert virtual presenters on how to take advantage of the situation.

Take the Audience on a Journey

Think about your local news broadcast. In just 30 minutes, they mix live, in-studio presentations (the anchors and weather report) with pre-recorded segments from the field. If the whole broadcast was just two people at a desk telling you about the news for half an hour, chances are you’d tune out.

Virtual presentation should be approached in much the same way. When you’re not bound to a stage, you can take your audience anywhere. Try incorporating some pre-recorded segments into your live presentation to add some fun variety.

“In one of my (virtual) speeches, I talk about the experience of buying a car, and I actually take the audience with me to go buy a car,” says keynote speaker and award-winning author Andrew Davis. “I could never do that standing on stage but with a virtual presentation, it’s no problem.”

Of course, your entire speech probably shouldn’t be a pre-recorded bit. You still want the “live” element that makes an event, virtual or otherwise, worth tuning into. But mixing in video segments helps you maximize the medium.

“I’ve found that I can do things (in video) that I can’t do on stage,” says Davis. “When you’re presenting virtually, you have complete control of the experience from the moment they hand you the reins to when you finish.”

“More Colbert Than Coldplay”

If you’ve ever been to a late night TV show taping, you know that even with a live studio audience, the show is aimed at the folks watching at home. So much so that the producers coach the crowd beforehand on how to clap and when to laugh, all to enhance the experience for the viewer at home (spoiler alert).

“Virtual talks should be more Colbert than Coldplay,” says Acunzo. “You’re performing either way, but one feigns the live experience in order to create a better experience for people at home, and one relies on a live crowd bursting with energy.”

Online, you don’t get to hear the audience’s reaction. While it may feel silly, you need to remember to leave some poignant pauses at the proper moments and maybe even give a knowing chuckle after your planned jokes. Now is not the time to test out your deadpan humor on the audience.

“Online, the ‘boring’ moments are amplified to become even more boring,” says Acunzo. “In-person, you’re surrounded by elements that earn credibility, like the stage, the lighting, and the crowd in the room. Online, it’s all on you. You have to perform, not just talk.”

Think Like a Sportscaster

Ironically, virtual presentations bring you physically closer to your audience than ever before. At a typical conference, the audience watches your presentation from perhaps a couple hundred feet away as they sit in the crowd. In virtual presentations, they’re as close to you as you are to your camera.

That can be intimidating (and we definitely recommend flossing before you take “the stage”).

But it also gives you a unique opportunity. Many speakers like to use a large notepad or whiteboard to illustrate their points as they speak. That’s not really a medium that translates well to a video presentation. The solution here is to get in touch with your inner sportscaster and try writing on the screen.

“I made a lightboard for my virtual presentations that basically lets me write on the screen while still maintaining eye contact with the audience,” explains Davis. “On stage, I’d have to turn my back to the crowd to write on a whiteboard.”

Of course, this means you’ll have to learn to write backwards. Easier said than done, but a great party trick once you’ve mastered the technique. If that’s too challenging, there are plenty of other ways to engage the audience online in ways you can’t do in person—consider incorporating live polling or even break-out sessions.

Focus on Your Message and Audience

If you’re looking for advice on how to look natural in front of a camera, look no further than news anchors and reporters like Constance Jones.

With 16 years of broadcast experiences, Jones knows how to capture the attention of an audience on the other side of a camera’s lens. Her advice for virtual presenters boils down to this: have respect for your audience and focus on your message while presenting.

“Lots of new reporters are worried about looking good and they end up not sounding authentic,” says Jones, who is currently an anchor with Richmond, Virginia’s ABC affiliate. “More than anything, audiences want authenticity.”

Jones says that, of course, it’s important to look your best (“If you look the part, you’ll feel the part,” she says). But the time for prepping is before your presentation. Once the camera is rolling, it’s time to focus on your material. With Zoom meetings, it’s tempting to constantly check your picture to make sure you’re sitting up straight, your hair is in place, and nothing crazy is happening in the background. Jones says presenters must fight that urge.

“Focus on your words and what you have to communicate,” she says. “The information you’re presenting is important for the viewer—treat it that way!”

More Than a Webinar

More than anything, a virtual presentation gives you a chance to try something new and stand out from the crowd. The worst thing you can do is treat it like another boring webinar.

“I was the opening keynote and emcee at a virtual conference in May, and one attendee tweeted that my content didn’t feel like a webinar,” recalls Acunzo. “I can’t think of a higher compliment, given how many webinars (and Zoom calls) people are asked to attend right now, and how truly cheap they all feel compared to in-person experiences.”

No one is happy to see their event canceled or moved online, but with some practice and ingenuity, you may just give your best presentation yet.

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