As society gradually shifts back to “normal” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic—with some segments of the population resuming in-office work—there’s still no question that remote work is going to be more prevalent than it was pre-pandemic, perhaps for many years to come.
With that in mind, you still may not always be in the same room as folks you’re having meetings with—which makes virtual presentations something you’ll really want to master. Whether it’s a recurring work meeting, a sales pitch, a webinar, or any other kind of online session, there are specific things to consider that don’t apply to in-person events. At the same time, there are also upsides to virtual events—if you know how to take advantage of them.
Let’s dive into some of the challenges—and opportunities—when it comes to virtual presentations, along with concrete, expert-sourced advice on how to prepare for your presentation, how to lead it successfully, and what to do afterward.
As with anything, there are positive aspects as well as downsides when comparing virtual presentations to in-person ones.
Pros of Virtual Presentations
- They’re less intimidating. People who don’t feel comfortable presenting in person might be less daunted doing so remotely. Plus, on the other side of things, attendees can keep their cameras off and still participate in meaningful ways more easily.
- They’re accessible to people across geographical areas, which means you can address coworkers from different offices or bring in a diverse audience for a webinar.
- They give you an opportunity to dive deeper with the chat feature to read comments or answer questions that participants may not have felt comfortable asking in person—making them more inclusive.
- Features like polls and surveys are easy to administer during a virtual presentation, providing the opportunity for real-time feedback.
Cons of Virtual Presentations
- The lack of body language cues can make it hard to “read the room” or gauge people’s interest, engagement, confusion, and other reactions during your presentation.
- Quiet participants may be more easily overlooked or talked over, so you may not get all the input you’re looking for.
- It can be harder to generate organic conversations or connections.
- There’s always the risk of technical issues affecting the presentation.
With these pros and cons in mind, how do you successfully pull off a virtual presentation? Read on for 14 tips to help you before, during, and after your next virtual offering.
Before the Presentation
Clarity is always key, says Stacey Edelstein, Cofounder and Design Director at the creative studio Raygun. She spends most of her current workdays running or supporting virtual presentations, from in-house presentations for her agency clients to group meetings she’s facilitating for local organizations.
Virtual events usually require you to work a little harder to maintain folks’ attention; if you’re disorganized or veer off track, people’s minds will wander and it will be harder to reengage them.
“Zoom fatigue is real, so it’s important to be intentional around the purpose of the presentation first. What is the ‘why’ behind what you’re doing? Build your outline or script from there,” Edelstein says. “As a friend once told me, ‘Start with the headline.’” Edelstein keeps her talk centered on what she wants people to remember when they walk away. Anything beyond that can be included in a handout or perhaps a follow-up communication.
For webinars and other online events, Femily, a gender and inclusion advisor in Silicon Valley, likes to use the sign-up or registration page as a chance to get some insight into who is attending. You can ask a question or two as they register to learn if they have pressing questions about the topic, what they’re hoping to gain from the event, and more. You can even use the information you get from these questions to prepare your talk.
If you’re presenting to colleagues at work, you can take a similar approach by sending an email ahead of your presentation and asking folks to send you questions in advance.
Lean more on visuals and go easy on the text if you’re using a slide deck to accompany your talk, Edelstein says. A wall of text will take people away from what you’re saying. “At our San Diego Design Week event last year, we used a simple slide deck with big, bold type to complement the conversation without distracting from what was being said.”
But don’t be scared to get creative and try new things here. For instance, you can use relevant images like GIFs, memes, and other photos to connect with your audience and visually communicate your points, says Chris Zullo, Practice Director of Marketing at the cloud solutions provider AllCloud, who has extensive experience presenting both at work and at virtual conferences like London’s Calling and Virtual Dreamin.
Whether or not memes and GIFs feel like the right fit for your audience, you can still make your presentation visually enticing. Marcia Dickerson, a management consultant and college professor who’s been teaching online classes and workshops to all different sizes and types of groups, likes to use color, graphics, and art to spruce up her slides, which she designs via Canva.
Ideally, you’ll gather your content and then start practicing with time to spare. “Before a virtual presentation, just like any other, you need to practice, practice, practice,” Dickerson says. In some ways, it’s even more important to do ahead of a virtual presentation. “If you’ve got your content down cold, you can pay more attention to the cues you get. I will often watch the chat function during webinars to see if a question comes in, and that’s not easy to do if you don’t know your content.”
You should also be sure to test any equipment you might be using or any features you aren’t familiar with—just as you would for an in-person event. “Many presentations are derailed due to avoidable technology issues,” Edelstein says. “Make sure to practice on your preferred platform to find your flow and get comfortable using tools like screen share, breakout rooms, etc.”
If you’re able to, it may be beneficial to enlist someone to help run your presentation. That way, if you have technical issues during your talk, you’ll have backup. “I had an experience in which my computer shut down right in the middle of a webinar,” Dickerson says. “I was able to log in on my phone and assign a friend to be the new host, and she told the group I’d be back. Now, I always get someone to attend as a cohost in case that happens again.”
You can also ask the cohost to monitor the chat or Q&A features while you speak, so you can stay focused. Edelstein says that at her company, they call their tech support attendees “chat cheerleaders” and ask them to cue slide decks and videos, manage breakout rooms, and, as the nickname suggests, help engage people in the chat while the speaker talks.
During the Presentation
Proper setup really helps you come across clearly and professionally. Here are some tips to help you get it right:
- Make sure your lighting sources are coming from in front of you (not from behind). It prevents you from appearing as a shadowy silhouette and just plain looks better.
- If you can, invest in webcams and microphones to up your presentation quality; there’s no need to spend a ton of money, but do some research to see what options are available at your price point.
- Look around your space and try to anticipate any possible sound distractions and how you can minimize those.
- If possible, try to present in an area with limited hard surfaces—like a room with carpet—to boost your sound quality. Dickerson knows people who actually stuff comforters behind their computers in order to create a better sound experience while presenting.
Make a great first impression on the group by starting things off in a fun way. “Ask them something about themselves or the topic. Play a video,” Femily says. “The first minute of people logging on is the most important to set the energetic tone for the session.”
Edelstein agrees; her preferred way to start a session is by playing music as people enter, right before the meeting starts. “It really helps with those awkward silences!”
Of course, you’ll need to adapt your kickoff to the situation. If you’re presenting to senior leadership at your company and you know this crowd tends to be buttoned up, you might opt for a serious question related to the topic at hand over loud dance music.
You might have to be a bit larger than life when you’re presenting remotely—whether that means standing instead of sitting to keep yourself engaged; wearing a fun, bright color to pep yourself up; or using body language more than usual to show attendees you’re listening.
Dickerson likes to keep the self-view option on in a larger group. “It’s a check to be sure that my gestures and facial expressions are big,” she says. “I feel it helps me to try to be just as big and exuberant on a virtual presentation as I would in a large lecture hall.”
While there are times when it may be appropriate to keep self-view on, as Dickerson does with larger groups, in other cases, it may be best to turn it off. You don’t look into a mirror the whole time you have a conversation or teach a class, so why would you want to during an online presentation? Hiding self-view can make you feel less awkward, Dickerson says. Experiment to see what feels right for you in different scenarios.
If you’re doing any kind of event, meeting, or workshop where you aren’t speaking for a while, remember to use the mute button to cut down on background noise that could be distracting for attendees. For example, if you’ve delivered a prompt and are giving people 10 minutes to write their answers, this would be a perfect moment to use mute. Over time, toggling it on and off will become more natural, but it’s definitely something to be aware of if you’re newer to virtual presentations.
Because of the lack of body language and real-time input, you may have to take action to get feedback, Zullo says. Consider prompting the group with questions or polls if that works for your session. If you don’t have someone helping you out, you’ll also likely want to keep an eye on the chat yourself. You may decide to take a pause every so many minutes to read through any comments or questions that have come in, or you might keep an eye on it as you talk; whatever works for you is fine.
Outside of the chat window, you may need to give people more time than usual to speak up. “I’ve learned to pause a little longer for questions,” Dickerson says. “It takes people longer to unmute or be sure they aren’t talking over someone else. When someone does talk, I like to reply to them by name to make it more personal.”
If the platform you’re using has a breakout rooms feature, this can be a good way to get people into smaller groups and generate discussion. You can also have everyone go into breakout rooms and then come back to the main room to reconvene and discuss insights or discoveries together.
Dickerson also pairs her presentation with a worksheet that she emails out ahead of time when appropriate. Having a place to take notes or write down answers to questions you ask can help attendees remain engaged.
At the end of the day, you may still be nervous even though the event isn’t in person. That’s OK! Femily encourages everyone to show up as they are, no matter who you are: “It’s vibrancy and bold statements that magnetize people. Be imperfect, wacky you!”
After the Presentation
After the presentation, you might need to email people for a number of reasons: to send out materials you mentioned during your talk, to recap takeaways and action items, to send them the recorded event, or to ask people to fill out a survey so you can get an idea of how the presentation went and what you could do better in the future.
If you’re speaking to a group of strangers, consider letting attendees know how they can get in touch with you. You might even have your last slide in the presentation display your contact info, so people have it in case they have questions or thoughts afterward. If you’re speaking to your coworkers, you can still encourage them to reach out to you (via email, on Slack, etc.) with additional questions and thoughts they may not have had time to share or may not have realized they had until later.
Watch the recorded presentation and evaluate yourself, Edelstein says. This can help you get an idea of when people were most engaged during your talk and improve for your next presentation.
Brainstorm other ways you can get feedback to assess your performance. For example, if you did a webinar, the platform you used may have a way to track interactions and participation level. If you presented something at work, perhaps you can ask a colleague you trust for some insight on their experience as an attendee.
If for some reason you feel you fell short, don’t beat yourself up. Virtual presentations have the potential to create more distractions than usual, and that can affect your results, Zullo says. “You can put together an amazing presentation with all of the engagement, bells, and whistles, and still not see the quantifiable results,” he says. “Things can come up at home. People might have multiple screens and be multitasking. They may not be ‘present’ for whatever reason.”
Virtual presentations are likely here to stay. So you can always come back to this expert insight on how to prepare for, facilitate, and follow up after your presentation to help you become more comfortable leading and connecting online.