Mastering Virtual Presentations

By now many of us have had lots — AND LOTS — of practice communicating virtually. In the last year, many of us have had to give presentations through an online platform that we’d otherwise give in person.

But are we presenting well? In my experience, both delivering them and being on the receiving end of them, many of our virtual presentations are falling flat. The format is unforgiving and most of us aren’t doing what we need to create an emotional connection through the camera — to convey trust and relatability.

Anything that’s worth communicating is worth communicating because you want someone to know, to feel, or to do something. Especially in these presentation format, it matters less what you say, and more what people hear (and see) from you.

The good news: with a couple of tweaks to how you prepare in advance, you can make sure that you nail your online presentation and connect with your audience. Even the very best presenters I know spend time on this — no matter how seasoned we are, we can always get better.

Here’s how:

(1) YOUR CAMERA. Look THROUGH it, not AT it, and especially not NEXT TO it. Too often really thoughtful, accomplished leaders give presentations by reading their notes or looking at the slides they are presenting rather than the camera. What the audience experiences is someone looking off in the distance in some other direction, which is both boring to watch and seems like you are more engaged with your own words than with the people you’re speaking with.

So, locate your camera, and focus on looking THROUGH it as though there were an actual person (preferably one you like) on the other side of it. It may feel a little artificial at first, but a small tweak makes a huge difference.

One thoughtful expert I know, Rebecca Goldsmith, has a few specific suggestions that I love, like posting a photo of family right above the camera or minimizing your presentation window and putting it right by the camera. Check them out here.

(2) YOUR PREPARATION. Change how you prepare your presentation. Here, I’m talking less about rehearsing it, and more about actually creating it. What is the process you use to develop it?

Whether you’re writing it yourself or you have someone doing it for you, your goal should be your own mastery of the material you are presenting — to know it inside and out well enough that you can have a conversation about it. It’s not to create the perfect written document.

In other words, have a plan, not a script.

More good news: for most leaders giving most presentations today, it’s on material we are familiar with already, so it should be easy.

Being too scripted increases the perception of disconnection and formality, when we really need a more informal and more conversational approach when we can’t be in person. Often, especially when we perceive the stakes are high, many of us have a tendency to over-edit, pre-script and wordsmith the presentation in advance. This is especially dangerous on teams where we have lots of people giving feedback on it in advance.

Over-editing is a connection killer. The more imperfect you can be in a virtual format, the better the connection you’ll make. The more you can run a preparation process that allows you to internalize what you’re going to talk about in advance, the easier it will be for you to relate the material in a personal, personable, relatable way rather than strictly adhering to the wordsmithed script.

A few tactics that might work for you:

  • Rather than scripting, try outlining. What are the key points you want to jog your own memory to make, and in what order? What words or phrases are key to land, without having to write out the entire sentence? It might be something like:
  • WELCOME (Thanks, excited, theme for today)
  • CHALLENGES (hard, important, growth)
  • OPPORTUNITY A (growth, care, long-term)
  • OPPORTUNITY B (culture, business, leadership dev)
  • CLOSING (Call to action, theme, thanks)
  • Are there a couple of key dates, facts, or figures that you want to remember that just by seeing them can remind you to talk about the overall context? Put them on a sticky right next to your camera.
  • Is there any way you can make it interactive, rather than just a one-way talk track? It can be as simple as asking people at the beginning how they are feeling or what they want to get out of the session, or including some kind of call to action /rally point at the end. Some of my favorite ways to make online forums interactive are from the team at Play on Purpose. Check them out.
  • Practice. Don’t just read through your script or click through your slides. Spend the time to talk through your outline in advance so you know both what you want to convey, AND how you want to convey it. So that it’s well paced and well spaced, and not just a recitation of paragraphs of words.

(3) YOUR INTERRUPTIONS. What are the ways you can interrupt your own tendency to be robotic or disconnected? I don’t mean interrupting others, I mean your own habits. This is about making your own personality and charisma come through as the primary feature of the presentation, more than the content. People are tuning in — and stay tuned in — to see you!

Here’s how:

  • You can interrupt yourself with a quick aside, or a personal story. Insert it at the top, in the middle to break things up, or toward the end — as long as it’s connected to the main point you’re making.
  • If your child or your dog interrupts your meeting, run with it. It’s ok.
  • When you go off script, when you talk TO people, the audience responds.
  • Ground or center yourself before you give any presentation. Entire schools of executive coaching focus on body awareness and grounding. It can be as simple as closing your eyes for 10 seconds, taking three full breaths, and simply noting where you are and what you’re about to do, how you want to show up. Works wonders, I promise. I even practice this sometimes when I get in the car, before I turn it on.
  • Interrupt your own nervousness or desire for perfection with openness and warmth — that very lack of polish, lack of perfection is what will make you far come across as more relatable and trustworthy over time.

Lastly, be as personal as you can be. Use phrases like “you” rather than “you guys” or “everybody.” Cite examples of colleagues by name.

I hope you find these tips useful. I’d love to hear what you think. What’s working for you — and what do you want more help with?

Communications and culture leader, author, certified coach, lawyer, yoga teacher.

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