It wasn’t too long ago that we were all learning how to adapt our way of working from face to face to virtual. For many of us, virtual meetings were a new phenomenon which felt like a temporary fix for the global situation. However, even beyond the obvious public health benefits, advantages such as not having to travel to meet people and being much quicker and more convenient to set up make it clear that virtual meetings will be around long after lockdown is a distant memory.
Therefore, understanding how to present yourself well over your next Zoom presentation or meeting has become a crucial new skill. When talking through a screen, many things are lost. It’s harder to build a personal relationship with a client and you’re limited by the quality of your webcam, microphone and internet provider. It’s also much tougher to read someone’s body language when you can only see their head and shoulders.
We’ve written a lot about presentation skills on this blog before, and most of the rules remain the same for speaking to an audience, regardless of the medium. However, adapting to the technology does require some new thinking, and so we have updated the ‘3 Vs’ – your verbal, vocal and visual outputs – to help you be at your best in the virtual space.
The actual words you say shouldn’t need to drastically change to accommodate a virtual setting. Whether you’re face to face or online, you should always use relevant and appropriate language for the audience, the situation and the topic. Consider your audience and their level of knowledge, is it right to use technical jargon or should you keep it simpler and explain your terminology? Most importantly, keep focused on your key messages and what you want your audience to know by the end, and build your presentation around that.
One main difference is that people have shorter attention spans when sitting at their computer. It’s easier to zone out, and no one can see when they start playing on their phones or checking their email in a different window. So it’s important you actively keep people engaged. Asking questions or opening up for a discussion encourages people to stay involved. Also, don’t go off on too many tangents – you might get away with it in person, but in virtual meetings brevity is often rewarded.
Keep an eye on the details, especially if you’re using a script originally written for face to face events. For example, saying “It’s a pleasure to be here with you today,” could be deemed inappropriate compared to something like “It’s a pleasure to speak to you.” Similarly, don’t be afraid of showing your human side, such as using humour or discussing the trouble you had logging on. Virtual meetings remove some of the humanity from the encounter, so don’t be afraid to add some back in.
How you speak and deliver the words is just as important as the words themselves. You need to make sure you’re clear, loud enough and can be understood. In person, this comes with projection and enunciation, but online it also means checking your microphone quality and audio levels.
In Zoom, or any other system for video calls, there are ways to test your microphone and sound settings. This is important to do before going into a meeting or presentation. You don’t want to get caught out when no one can hear you! You should also check that your sound comes through clearly and doesn’t echo, thinking about where your microphone is – if you’ll be standing back from the computer, how loudly do you need to speak? And if you’re using the microphone on a pair of headphones, make sure they’re connected properly and won’t rustle on your clothes or hair.
You should also give some thought to the strength and stability of your internet connection. No one wants to sit through a talk when the speaker dips in and out with an unstable connection. If your usual spot for working doesn’t have strong enough internet, experiment by moving around other locations in preparation for the meeting.
Try to pre-emptively limit any background noise or distractions. Put your phone on silent, close the window to keep the sound of traffic out and shut the door to muffle your dog’s barks. If possible, try to schedule your meetings at a time when your environment will be its quietest, such as when your children are least likely to run in. Of course, we all now understand and recognise the challenges of working from home, so if something does interrupt you don’t get flustered. Simply apologise politely and keep going.
It’s always crucial to consider elements of your speech such as your pace, tone, emphasis and use of pauses. In person, this stops you becoming monotonous and boring, and even more so online. With less eye contact, movement and gestures to rely on, your voice has even more work to do to keep your audience listening. Use pauses for dramatic effect. Pick up the pace when something should be more exciting, and slow down when you want to make sure everyone really focuses on every word. If you make it sound like you’re interested, you’ve got a better chance of convincing your audience to be interested as well.
How your audience sees you is probably the biggest change when speaking virtually. Where once people had entire bodies, complete with heads, shoulders, knees and toes, now they just have heads and shoulders. Classic advice for presentation skills used to discuss how to stand, what to do with your hands and using body language effectively. Now that we’re framed in a video call window, the rules have been rewritten.
The most important piece of advice is to always have your webcam on when presenting. There’s a growing amount of ‘Zoom Fatigue,’ where people are tired of looking at and being on camera all day, but if you want to be able to present effectively, you need to be seen. We also don’t recommend virtual backgrounds. Unless you have a professional quality green screen, you risk fading in and out of frame. Everyone knows you’re working from home, there’s no need to pretend anymore.
You should aim to sit somewhere where your background is going to be tidy and not too distracting. Bookcases have become the standard, but you don’t want to have people spending the whole time trying to read what’s behind you. Just as you should check your sound quality ahead of time, so too should you check your camera and picture quality. Test different lighting and different angles. You don’t want to be too dark, but too much light behind you doesn’t look good either.
Frame yourself properly in the centre. Don’t have the camera focused on your forehead or up your nose. Sit with your head centred in the image and then remember to look at the camera and not at the screen. It’s often counter-intuitive, because you want to look at your audience’s faces, but to make virtual eye contact means looking at the webcam. This is especially important when using multiple computer screens.
When on camera, everyone can see everything you do from the moment you log on, and every facial expression and movement is magnified. And yet, also consider how you use your hands, because anything you do off screen is lost. If you want to make gestures, make sure they’re actually within view of your camera.
Finally, you should be mindful of what you wear. People are dressing more casually while working from home, but you want to dress appropriately for the situation. Don’t dress too casually if you’re trying to give the impression of authority and competence. On the other hand, dressing in a suit to present from your bedroom may also come across as a little misjudged. Use common sense and think about what your audience expects from you. Be careful that what you decide to wear looks good on camera. Some patterns and colours may not translate well to the screen or will make you blend into the background.
You may want to have a dress rehearsal before the meeting to make sure you look and sound right. With someone on the other end of a video call, they can tell you if there are any technical issues or any ways you could adapt your presentation style to be more effective.
In general, as long as you remember to be clear, be mindful of the audience and of the medium you’re talking through, there is nothing to fear from virtual presentations. And the upside is that at the end of the call, you’re already home and able to breath and relax.