Founder & Principal of SmartMouth Communications, a consulting, coaching and training firm that creates better messages and messengers.
Pre-pandemic public speaking challenges now seem so quaint. How to be engaging in front of a live audience, what to do with your hands, where to stand or move about, how to have an impact … Boy, those were the days!
As client companies gear up for sales kickoffs and annual marketing summits, thoughts of being engaging and having impact are causing a bit of paralysis among some. These events are about to be virtual. It’s a new frontier — and a difficult one for all involved.
For starters, attendance is the first hurdle. Without the boondoggle travel, food and entertainment that in-person events offer, rustling up attendees will require that your organization promises and gives your attendees something they need — new, useful, beneficial information and insights. A gussied-up series of state-of-the-company addresses and a round of golf won’t work online.
Sessions need to be extremely relevant, meaty and brief (or briefer than they used to be). I say this from experience. I signed up to attend an industry conference in Chicago in June, which the organizers scrambled to put online at the last minute, and I can tell you that I lost track and lost interest over the three-day conference (works great in person, not so much online). I didn’t choose to attend the filler sessions — the less compelling ones that I end up attending in person because I’m there. For sure, I attended fewer sessions online than I would have in person. I also ditched more sessions online than I would have in person. In other words, I logged on to attend, but when the speaker lost me (e.g., in the weeds or with a dull delivery), I left.
So the next hurdle — after event planners have thought through how to schedule and coordinate a compelling online audience experience — is how to capture and hold attention in each session. In other words, the heavy lifting shifts from the conference planners to the speakers.
Oh, speakers, this is not easy. I feel for you. But I am also here to try to help you. Here are five tips for your virtual success as a speaker (note: They resemble general public speaking tips but on steroids):
1. Audience-centricity: Put yourself in your audience’s shoes (or in their flip-flops) to make decisions about how you will choreograph your content and delivery. You are an expert audience member (in addition to being a subject matter expert), so tap into that expertise as it relates to what you find engaging online. It’s not enough to simply deliver online the same way you were going to do it in person and then hope for the best. You’ll want to give thought to how you carve up your time, how you engage your audience, and how you keep it moving and interesting. There’s no better expert than you to figure that out!
2. Brevity: Honestly, there’s no leeway for fluff or meandering in virtual presentations. When it’s virtual, it has to be succinct and to the point. It has to move, and the points need to be relevant and tight. Think of creating a presentation like it’s a present — content that is a gift of value to your audience. Yes, the platform and floor are yours, but you are there for them and their benefit. When it’s virtual, audience members aren’t inhibited about leaving. There’s no need to skulk out of the “room” hoping to avoid notice — they can simply click and leave anonymously. I know; I’ve done it.
3. Entertainment: Use visuals like PowerPoint or video. Tell stories. Be transparent or self-deprecating. I hate to say it, but it’s true: Your audience is basically watching television, and you’re the lead character. Think about ways that are comfortable for you to offer and add entertainment value.
4. Eye contact: Find the camera lens (or little green light on your laptop), and talk to it. Talk into it. Stare at it. Look at it as if it’s your best friend because it is. Looking straight at the camera will result in you looking straight at your audience, which will make for a far more engaging experience for them.
5. Energy: Energy is so important because you will need to ratchet yours up big time. Regardless of your set (home office, studio, stage in an empty room), your performance will be viewed on a small screen. Think about how tedious your Zoom, Webex and Teams meetings are right now. Your audiences have screen fatigue. We are spending way too much time watching and listening to people talk on computer screens. Take that into consideration, and bring your biggest and best energy to your presentation. Use your voice and your posture, and bring it! Bottom line: Think theatrical. If you feel like you’re being overly theatrical, that’s good. To your audience, it will simply come off as great energy.
We don’t know when we’ll be gathering in large venues again; it could be a while. Yet the show must go on. There are product launches and industry news that need to be shared and conveyed. I am fairly confident that the art of public speaking online will evolve the longer we meet virtually. For now, though, these five tips will hopefully move you from dreading the need to present remotely to embracing it as an opportunity to up your game as a public speaker overall.
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Author: Beth Noymer Levine, Forbes Councils Member