6 Ways to Make Virtual Presentations Feel Less Weird
There I was, in my low-ceiling basement office, delivering a midnight presentation to a group in China. Due to bandwidth issues, not a soul was on camera. As I stood there, speaking out loud to a bunch of boxes of white names on gray backgrounds, I found myself thinking about how strange this was.
On the other side of the world, was anyone actually listening to me? Were they signed in, but secretly cooking breakfast? If I speak into Zoom, and no one hears it, did a presentation really take place?
Presenting virtually is so weird.
When Covid forced presentations to go virtual, I assumed most of my work would involve helping clients translate their eye contact and gestures to an audience that wasn't in the same room.
I was wrong.
Eye contact, gestures, vocal variety — those things matter. Yet by far, the most difficult transition has been something else: Speakers are unable to read their audience. As one of my clients put it, "I feel like I'm speaking into this void and I have no idea if anyone is listening."
With that in mind, let's talk about some ways to make virtual presentations less weird and more human. Even if, in the back of your mind, you're wondering if anyone out there is listening.
Find your inner Jimmy Fallon
For in-person presentations, most speakers rely on the audience for confidence. A head nod or a smile from the audience goes a long way. Things feel awkward without that non-verbal feedback.
Did my point land? Did they laugh at that joke? Is anyone listening?
Remote presenters would do well to change the way they think about the audience. Though you can't see audience members, you need to lead them towards a feeling.
Generally speaking, your audience members will follow whichever emotions you demonstrate. If you sound excited, they'll be excited. If you sound nervous — or worse, announce you're nervous — your audience will be nervous. Sound flat — and most virtual presenters do — and your audience will feel flat.
If you need a speaker to emulate, consider Jimmy Fallon. Yes, the comedian. Ever notice how he laughs at his own jokes? How he enjoys his own sketches? That's intentional. It shows people in the audience how they should feel.
You can do the same. Instead of hoping the viewers enjoy your presentation, show them what that looks like. Laugh at the funny parts. Smile at the good news. Find your inner Jimmy Fallon. Be the emotion you wish to see in your audience.
Related: 5 Pro Tips for Virtual Presentations
Trust your content
A virtual presentation is a test of belief. Sure, you excel when you can read and respond to the room. But what if you can't see a reaction at all? Do you still believe what you're saying? In those instances, the best virtual presenters trust their content. They present as if they know it's good.
Having said that, "Present as if you know it's good" reminds me of when my Little League coach would tell me to be confident. If only it were that easy.
To build confidence, I've rehearsed with an actual audience. That can be one or two people. Take note of how and where they react. By the time you present over video, you can envision audience members nodding, smiling and laughing (even if they don't type "LOL" in the chat).
Present as if you know it's good. If you have rehearsed in front of others, it will be.
Structure presentations as if they are conversations between friends
Part of what makes remote presenting weird is the lack of natural back and forth with the audience.
So create it for yourself. Sit down and identify what an audience member would naturally ask about. Then insert those questions into your presentation.
Choose places to toggle back and forth between question and answer. Try using phrases like "You might wonder why..." or "Now, you might ask..." When you speak that way, it reminds you there are people on the receiving end of your webcam.
Make it short
Your Outlook calendar defaults to 60-minute meeting slots. Most presenters, then, assume they need to speak for at least 45 of those minutes. Good news: You don't.
Think about clicking on a YouTube video that's an hour long. Are you locked in? Of course not — and that's for a video that can be edited and put to music.
Your presentation will feel less weird if it's shorter. Imagine if, instead of speaking into the void for 45 minutes, you did it for 15, then went into Q&A. Present only the highlights. Allow viewers to ask questions wherever they'd like to take a deep dive.
Worse comes to worst, you will finish early. No one will complain about that.
Stage the off-camera part of your office
Even if your whole audience is on video, it's a strange mix of people looking at the camera, at a second screen or at something else. Seeing your audience isn't necessarily a confidence builder.
But what if you could set up your room to make things feel less weird? That you can actually do.
When I work one-on-one with clients, I suggest they take advantage of the off-camera space behind their webcam — the part your audience cannot see.
I've had clients write giant affirmations to themselves and tape them to the wall. I've had them write the names of audience members on off-camera whiteboards. I've had them post pictures of the vacation spot they can visit if their pitch succeeds. My favorite practice? Taping photos of smiling friends, even if they're not actually in your audience. You're likely to smile back. The presentation will feel more human and more real.
Incentivize yourself with rewards
At the end of an in-person presentation, you receive some level of applause or at least a nice handshake. You walk off stage, exhale and actively transition to a new location, perhaps celebrating along the way.
In Zoom land, you sit awkwardly waiting for everyone to silently sign off so you, too, can click the red "leave meeting" button. You never get the dopamine hit of applause. Seconds later, you're back at work. Similar to the problems with multi-tasking, your brain never has the chance to process the end of one event and the start of another.
While you probably can't replicate the applause at the end of a speech, consider giving yourself some sort of reward. Your brain needs something telling it "We just finished something difficult."
So, create a ritual of eating ice cream upon finishing a virtual presentation. Take a planned 15-minute walk. Hug a spouse. Give yourself a reward to look forward to.
Some of these tips are quick fixes. Others will take longer. Now, here's the great news. The bar for presentations is low. The bar for virtual presentations? Even lower. If you can implement any of the above tips, you'll be doing more than most people do.