The COVID-19 coronavirus crisis has forced countless event cancellations and postponements, but meeting professionals understand that the show must go on—even if that “show” looks dramatically different than what we are accustomed to.
Enter virtual gatherings. As these online events increase in frequency, odds are you are going to be asked to present at one, and how do you make sure you hit it out of the park even if you are sitting on your bed in your comfy socks? Here are some tips to help you avoid virtual meeting faux pas.
“The number one way to present at a virtual meeting or conference and nail it is to be engaging. Many of the traditional methods presenters use to engage their audiences in person, like physically moving around the room and using eye contact and body language, will need to be modified a bit for the virtual environment,” explains Dr. Sheree Sekou, a leadership consultant and learning professional with over sixteen years of virtual and in-person presentation experience. “Begin your session using an upbeat tone that captures the audience’s attention immediately. Pace yourself so that you can maintain your energy throughout your presentation.”
Lest you think a virtual presentation is like any other face-to-face experience, it’s important to remember that it is not: The bar is actually set higher. “It’s easy for participants to drift into another browser tab, get sucked into their phones, or decide to fold laundry instead of giving you their full attention,” explains Lee Gimpel, founder of Better Meetings, a meeting training, design and facilitation company. “There’s often less accountability with online gatherings,” he adds.
Your Grateful Dead tapestry may add color to your bedroom, but it should not be the backdrop during your virtual presentation. Ensure your background is visually appealing and not too distracting (hard pass on your tchotchke collection). Do add a nice picture or a plant and remove any clutter.
“Since my office is a converted bedroom and I don’t want to look like everyone else working from their home office, I use cityscape photography backgrounds behind me,” shares Gretchen Asher, founder of The Essential CEO, a change management company. “I have some beautiful cityscapes of destinations like New York and San Francisco. On camera, it looks like I’m in a high-rise building, and it certainly captures the attention of my audience. I change them out to keep people guessing where I am. I even have a backdrop of the Opera House in Sydney, Australia, and another overlooking the San Juan Islands off of the coast of Washington.”
Some virtual meeting software, like Zoom, offer virtual backgrounds, so you don’t even have to worry about making sure your apartment is picture perfect. These will work without greenscreens, but a simple greenscreen setup can improve the quality and may be worth investing in if you think virtual presentations will become routine for you.
“If you’re not used to presenting virtually, you might feel lonely,” shares Lisa Braithwaite, a public speaking coach, trainer and author. “Your energy may not be where it needs to be if you can’t see and hear your participants. Be sure to stand up. Allowing yourself to move around with a wired headset mic will help you breathe deeper and access more energy for your audience.”
“If your video screen doesn’t allow you to see yourself, or there isn’t room to see yourself, your presentation, and your audience simultaneously, you may want to put a mirror in front of you to see how you’re coming across. When we don’t have the feedback from real people in a room, we can lose our energy; seeing one’s self can be a reminder to smile, add that energy, or gesticulate more in online meetings,” says Gimpel.
In order to really shine, you need the right lighting. Natural window light is great, but as the sun goes down, the setting may be too dark. Even on a bright day, a cloud might cover the sun, and your face will suddenly be in shadow. Use the best lighting you can access to make sure your face is lit. “You don’t need to buy expensive lighting packages, but if you intend to do regular virtual events from home, you can buy decent lighting setups on Amazon for $50 to $80,” says Braithwaite. A simple ring light is an excellent place to start, she advises.
Even though you may be presenting in the comfort of your home, that doesn’t mean you can dress as such. Choose attire that you would wear if you were attending an in-person conference. Plain-colored shirts and pants are optimal; patterns or stripes may not display well on remote sites. Also, avoid wearing white, red, or a color similar to your background. And while your puppy is probably adorable, she doesn’t belong in your virtual presentation. Pick your presentation spot carefully, where you will not be interrupted by family, friends, or pets.
When presenting virtually, good quality audio is a must. “Using your computer or phone audio is not good enough to wow everyone listening and will usually have a scratchy quality,” explains Stacy Caprio, an experienced virtual presenter and founder of Growth Marketing, an online marketing company. An inexpensive USB computer connected microphone will do the trick, but if you want to invest in the experience, a directional mic is even better as it will only pick up the noises you are making, not what is happening outside,” she advises. Many people don’t realize how much audio affects the overall feel or quality of a presentation, but it actually makes a very big difference,” she adds.
Be sure to test your audio first to make sure the sound is clear. “People will forgive bad video, but if they can’t hear you, they’ll leave,” says Braithwaite.
It’s also more important than ever to speak slowly and clearly. It’s much more difficult for participants to process speech over a virtual presentation, where it’s harder to watch the presenter’s face for vocal and body language cues. Quick speech can tend to get garbled over shaky internet connections as well, so slow down and be clear. It’s also important to keep the mic away from your mouth; breathing sounds can be distracting.
“You don’t have to go it alone. Ask someone to help behind the scenes,” explains Braithwaite. “If you have an assistant, make sure they know how the platform works, so they can keep an eye on questions, comments, and technical issues while you focus on your content.”
If presenting at a virtual event is new to you, there’s comfort in having help. While we all dutifully strive to keep our six feet of distance between us, you can still reach out virtually for back-up. “The very first time I ran my own virtual presentation years ago, I was dropped off the line for 90 seconds. Just having my helper there to tell people, ‘She must have been dropped. Hang on, she’s calling back in,’ made a huge difference,” explains Braithwaite.