How to Keep a Virtual Audience Captivated I got trolled, and learned an important lesson in taking public speaking from the stage to the screen.

By Neil Gordon

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As we all know, all sorts of previously live events are now going virtual. People who planned to give presentations in front of a large room of people are now hunched over their laptops, doing the honors via teleconferencing software.

As we cope with this daunting outbreak, those of us who are live presenters are faced with another formidable challenge: Keeping people engaged with our content. We must ensure that they'll stick around to the end of our webinar to hear our call to action. And if we work for a company, we want them to stay put so they'll have the necessary guidance to move forward effectively with a project.

Many of us might give the exact same presentation and just hope for the best.

But that's not going to cut it.

The sad truth is that virtual presenters face significant obstacles that live presenters do not. In a live presentation, there is an unspoken contract that the people in the seats are going to remain there the entire time. It would draw significant attention to them if they got up and left halfway through, and most people are more likely to just zone out with their phone. But they'll stay in the room, and could possibly be engaged at a later point.

In contrast, a virtual audience can leave whenever they feel like it. They can even be on their machine doing other things throughout the presentation without anyone even realizing it!

What can a virtual presenter ultimately do about this? How can we ensure that people stay with us to the end?

The good news is that there's one simple insight that can make or break whether someone bails on us halfway through.

Related: How to Run a Virtual Meeting That Gets Results

The first 15 seconds

It's an insight that can best be illustrated by a Facebook ad campaign I ran last year that, to be quite frank, earned me a number of trolls.

The Facebook ad directed folks to a free, five-minute video that gave a tip on how to captivate your audience in the first 15 seconds of your speech.

The basic gist of the tip is that rather than warming up the audience by visiting with everyone and saying how nice it is to be there, milk the tension that begins any live talk. Pause for half a beat and then just begin with a story or some other compelling opening line.

Since sharing that tip, I've had followers who have used it to get their first standing ovation, who have had people coming up to them at the end in tears, and even some who have made nearly six figures in sales from a single presentation.

But despite the tip's value, quite a number of people wrote comments below the ad that were some variation of this:

"Lost me in the first 15 seconds."

Indeed, one person after another accused me of not following my own advice.

And they were right. The video didn't start with a compelling first line of a story.

I know I could have gotten rid of the offending video and done something different. But the truth was that for every person who hated on the video, there were eight to 10 people who bought my program on crafting a signature talk.

Not eight to 10 positive comments — eight to 10 customers. In other words, it was a very successful campaign.

Still, with so many people trolling me about that one issue, I was curious. What if they actually had a point? Would starting with a story give me even better results?

I ran a split test of the original video, which buried a client success story halfway through, with a new version that featured that story right at the beginning.

The original video had 78.3% engagement.

The new video with the story at the top?

Only 67.3 percent. The video with the story up front had 11 fewer percentage points of engagement. What was going on?

Related: RingCentral Meetings Makes Aligning Your Remote Workforce Simple

Understand your audience's problem, as they see it

The truth is that I wasn't surprised by these results at all. I had very deliberately started the original video with something other than a story, and I'd done it for a particular reason. While the tip about starting powerfully with a story was solid gold, those amazing outcomes of standing ovations and almost six-figure sales were in the context of live presentations.

Whereas this online video was, of course, a virtual presentation akin to the types of things we are now all being forced to offer in response to the crisis.

So how did I actually start the original video? It was very simple, really. I said:

If you're a public speaker, what's the first thing you're supposed to say in your speech or talk?

I then followed that with research that suggests audiences form their whole impression of a speaker in the first 15 seconds. In other words, I started with a problem that public speakers believe they have — how to start off their speech with a bang. I then promised them a tip that would fix their problem.

Given the fear that's now emanating throughout the country and even the world, the reason someone will bother to watch someone else's virtual content is because it's going to help them solve a problem that they care about solving right here and now. Everyone has a problem they're desperate to address: tanking stock prices, withdrawal of business, how to manage children at home for weeks, how to stay healthy or something else of emotional significance.

Your task, then, is simple. Rather than launch right into your solutions (be it your tips, tricks or even a more elaborate multi-step process), begin your virtual presentations with the problem your audience believes they have. See the problem from their perspective, like hemorrhaging revenue or a suddenly crowded home, and then promise them a way out of that problem. Some simple ways you can incorporate this idea into your virtual content include:

  • START WITH THE PROBLEM: At the beginning, touch on the problem as your audience experiences it, much like I visited the problem of ensuring that people consume virtual content to the end, at the beginning of this article.
  • AGITATE THE PROBLEM WITH TYPICAL SOLUTIONS: Identify what most people might do using conventional wisdom so that your audience will want to fill that gap with something better. This is what I did when citing how people would use the same presentation and hope for the best.
  • EXPLICITLY POSE THE QUESTION OF HOW TO SOLVE THIS PROBLEM: Ask the audience how this problem can be solved, so as to both reinforce the problem in their mind and also create a curiosity gap around the mystery of what it will take. This is what I did when I asked about how we can ensure that people stay with us to the end.

It's absolutely clear that virtual presentations are the single most important asset for public speakers and experts in the coming weeks and even, possibly, months. And the most important factor that will keep people to the end of your virtual presentation is their belief that they will solve the problem they care about solving with your help.

When you actually do help them solve a problem in these uncertain times, they will stay with you in easier times, too.

Related: How Can You Better Engage Your Remote Workers? 6 Ways.

Neil Gordon

Speaking Coach and Communication Consultant

Neil Gordon is a communication consultant who focuses on helping entrepreneurs, speakers and other thought leaders deliver compelling messages. He formerly worked at Penguin Random House with New York Times bestselling authors. 

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