The COVID-19 epidemic has seen the world go into lockdown and in-person events be cancelled. Many organisers have looked at online options to deliver events, whether they are industry tech meetups or conference, or school and universities etc. For many speakers, this has meant quickly learning a new skill – presenting remotely!
It’s important to appreciate that this IS a different skill to presenting in front of a room full of people, on a stage with bright lights and a lapel mic. So lets look at some of those differences and tips for delivering a great talk online.
But what about the technology?
There are a bunch of other conversations, blogs and videos about the technical aspects of presenting remotely – suggestions for web cameras, lighting rigs, microphones, meeting and streaming platforms etc. Feel free to drop any link to those you’ve seen, into the comments. This blog will focus on the craft of public speaking and the things that you as a speaker need to consider with your remote delivery.
In-person crowds have an atmosphere. You sense that build when you are in an empty room, all set up for your talk, and then people flood in and take their seats. That can either terrify you or charge you up, but it’s totally missing from a remote event. The closest you may get is chatter (text chat pane or audio if participant mics are allowed), but it is not the same. Having a sea of faces looking up at your can impact you differently to the round circle glare of a camera lens. Don’t feel like a failure if you love being on stage but freeze or freak out at the thought of recording yourself or being on a live broadcast. Like the stage, the more you do remote presentations and camera work, the more you can train yourself to be comfortable in this environment. For some speakers, this takes work, and others seem to pick it up more easily.
Note to the audience: If a usually great speaker seems “off” in a webcast, this might be why!
Background and lighting
So while I promised I wouldn’t talk about technology, if your face is going to be on camera, you do want to pay attention to what’s behind you and how your face is lit. A tidy room behind you should go without saying, but I’ve seen remote presentations where the clutter or mess has been distracting. You only need to tidy the part of the room that’s in the camera’s field of view! My favourite hack is to do this once, take a photo, then use that as a custom background if your video platform allows it.
Pay extra attention to every item that will be visible – do you want that all seen on camera? People have been caught out by this before – whether it’s photos, whiteboard scribbles or post-it notes with passwords! Personally. I’ve altered my desk configuration so I have my burnt orange wall behind me, with my Microsoft MVP awards, instead of two boring white sliding cupboard doors.
Where is your light source? If you’re at home, do you have one single light in the middle of the room, that’s now behind your head when you are on camera? Where does any natural light come in from and what does it reflect off? Again, a desk shift means I’m now not lit from behind because of the placement of windows, and I have vertical blinds I can angle to adjust the lighting level and direction. If course you could also invest in a desk lamp and/or lighting rig or ring light for your camera, but I’m trying to save you some money here by getting you to make the most of (or improve the worst of) what you already have.
No brand recommendations here, but a word about mic placement. If you wear a headset with a built-in mic, play with the positioning of it if it is adjustable. You want a clear, unmuffled sound with as little breath noise as possible. If you have a stand mic, play around with the best place to put it, and adjust the mic levels (on the mic itself of via your software) for the best mix of picking up your voice (and not shouting) but picking up the least amount of other, ambient noises. I use a Rode microphone arm fixed to my desk which hangs my Blue Yeti mic upside down above my camera, with a foam Kaotica eyeball around it (with an inbuilt pop filter). I find that this upwards mic placement (like they tend to use in radio stations) minimises breath noise and generally has me sitting at a better posture to breathe and use my diaphragm.
Don’t neglect a strong opening statement. You have everyone’s full attention at the start of the call and you’re competing against all the other things they could possibly doing while they are listening – including all the other apps they have on their computer. Get their attention and make them want to listen attentively.
Please don’t ask if they can hear you of if they can see your screen. You’re likely to already know at least one person on the call (maybe a co-organiser) so organise with them in advanced to be your “spotter”. Get them to send you a sign in the chat that everything is good, or ask them to get your attention if there are any technical issues when you start. For the most part, testing the platform and technology before the event should iron out any major issues, though all it takes is one rogue mute setting.
Visual aids become even more important during remote events. When planning your content, will you be on camera the whole time? Will you never show your face because it will all be PowerPoint? Or will it be a combination of camera and screen sharing for demos?
Make your PowerPoint decks interesting, as they are a visual anchor to connect the audible message you are delivering to a mental picture memory. As for in-person events, don’t cram them with too much information. Even though font size is less of an issue, overwhelm and boredom still is. Change your slides frequently so people aren’t stuck with the same visual onscreen for 8 minutes. Slides are cheap! Use as many of them as you can!
Now, I could make a whole separate blog post on live versus recorded demos but I won’t address that here. Instead I will say practice transitioning from camera/PowerPoint to screen sharing, before the event. Tidy up your desktop and remove the task bar, clock and any files saved onto your desktop (even better – never save files to your desktop). Also clean up the display of any applications you’ll be using – increase font sizes, remove excess toolbars or navigation menus and watch out for sensitive file names in recently used lists! Make sure you’ve close any other applications and turned off notifications. The audience doesn’t want to see your recent emails.
Gestures and body language:
This is one of the hardest things to adapt to as a remote speaker. Our natural (or praticed) stage mannerisms are constricted when we have one little static camera to perform to. Your body language is just as important on a call though, yet people tend to freeze. On the other hand, be too wildly animated and you’ll make your viewers sea-sick.
The audience isn’t seeing your screen, they are seeing you, thought it’s natural to automatically stare at your slides. A great trick is to print a picture of someone and place that behind and slightly higher than your camera, and talk to them! It takes practice to maintain eye contact with a camera that doesn’t smile back, especially when you’re used to making eye contact in different areas of a room full of people.
Above the fold
Hand gestures can make a big difference to how alive and engaged you come across as. Use your hands as exclamation points, but fight the tendancy to do “waist level” gestures, as they may not be seen on camera. It’s not natural to raise your hands higher, but your camera’s field of view has a cut-off point. Record yourself and experiment with what can and what can’t be seen on camera.
This is all about where you are in relation to the camera. Are you up close, to talk seriously about a sensitive topic? Do you have good posture or do you slouch? Are you standing up instead? This is a great alternative if you can get the camera height right, as it more naturally mirrors a stage talk and improves your breathing and your energy levels. The catch though is to watch your desire to pace, or to shift your weight from one foot to another. Both are really distracting on camera, especially if your background highlights your changing position.
Speed and pausing
Personally I don’t change the speed of my speech or the use of pauses much for a remote delivery, because they are things I’m conscious of and actively watching when I’m delivering on stage anyway (so it’s a habit for my talk delivery). But without visual or audible cues from your remote audience, it can be easier to let your monologue gather speed like a train. This is especially true when you’ve thrown in some humour and can’t hear when the audience has stopped laughing! Try and pretend you are talking to a friend. Breaking up your content into sub-sections can also help enforce some mandatory pauses. And just try and relax!
This is one of the biggest differences from an in person event. From a stage, I can get a sense of how many people I’ve lost to their phone screens or how many people are nodding in agreement. None of that exists online, so you almost have to pretend things are going perfectly! (they probably are). If you are an audience participation “raise your hand” kind of speaker, this is also hard. Some people get inventive and add live polls to their talks. Others ask people to respond in the chat. Try a few things and see what works for you, but be prepared for a longer delay, that you may have to fill with more talking.
Set the expectation for questions
Tell your audience how you will be handling questions. Can they ask freely in the chat throughout the session? Will you leave time for Q&A at the end? Or is there a way for them to submit a question some other way, that you will then go through?
The size of your event and the platform will usually determine whether participants will have an opportunity to freely chat during your session or not and whether you’ll be able to keep up with both delivering your talk and watching the chat. It’s a great idea to appoint a chat monitor, who can alert you (maybe they turn on their mic) to important questions as they come up, or if they are a colleague who also knows the topic, maybe they can answer directly in the chat.
Leave your contact details on the closing slide, including any websites links or how they can download a recording or the slide deck. Consider allocating youself an additional 15mins or so after the event to stay on the chat and continue the questions or conversations, if people are happy to hang around. This happens when people come up to the stage afterwards in person, and it’s often missing from online events.
Online/virtual/remote events will never replace the full in-person experience, for all the reasons we encourage people to buy a conference ticket. But right now, they’re a great alternative to no content at all.
That’s my two cents (or 2,000 words)! What are your tips? Are you a seasoned remote presenter with things to add that I’ve missed or have you seen some great, engaging remote events? See you in the comments!