The outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 made presenting to an audience that is present in the same physical space as you a rarity. With that the reality of presenting changed drastically. Knowing how to present online has become an important skill. Here I share some of my tips and tricks.
Beginning this year our anticipated schedules were brutely disturbed. Mine usually peaks around April – June when I train the candidates for the NWO Veni grants. They are usually interviewed at the end of the academic year. The outbreak of the new corona virus spoiled the party. Interviews were first cancelled, then postponed till September – October. At first the idea was that the interviews would be conducted in the old-fashioned form (which is called offline now). Just before the interviews NWO let many of the candidates I trained know that they would present online.
It was no real surprise. We had it coming this summer. During my training sessions in August I also payed attention to the demands the online environment puts on presenters. It then felt as an adaptation to a situation that was inconvenient, but temporary. Now it feels like the new normal. It means we have to update our online presenting skills. Although we are all in the midst of adaptation to our new environment, the following basic ideas might help you.
Design for online
Probably it sounds obvious, but presenting online is not equal to presenting offline. In the classic offline presentation the key word is connection. Connection with your audience and connection with the content. Now we are forced to interact online we start to extra appreciate the unique aspects of offline interaction. Offline you can apply all the tools evolution has equipped our species with to understand, like and trust each other. You can look the listener in the eye, you can use body language and facial expressions, you can walk around and adapt to what’s happening in the room. Most of these things are close to impossible online. While you talk to a tiny camara above your screen, your audience watches very dull television. We are not built for online communication.
Recognition of this far from ideal nature of online communication is a first step. The next one is to create a presentation that takes the pitfalls, but also the advantages into account. So, go back to the drawing board and start designing for online.
What to buy
Having the right gear is a necessity. Think about:
- Fast internet. Make sure you can rely on your wifi, or even better: use an internet cable. Purchase an extra fast subscription.
- Headset. With a headset you sound better, you filter noise from your surroundings and prevent echoing.
- Webcam. If your laptop does not have a high-quality webcam, buy an external one.
- Standing desk. Stand up for a more dynamic experience. A standing desk, or a bar table is useful for that. A pile of books or boxes on your desk might do the same, but is less stable.
- Pointer. If you can click through your slides with a remote control, it will help you to present more vividly.
- Monitor. Without a second monitor, on a lot of online platforms, you only see your slides. You talk into the void without knowing if your audience is still there. When having an extra screen, you can use one for your slides and one for your audience. It really helps if you can see the persons you are talking to.
Tip: test the online platform beforehand. Know how to join a meeting, how to unmute your microphone, how to share your slides and how to end sharing them. If you prepare for an online grant interview, buy a subscribtion to the platform used by the funding agency and organise all your training sessions on this platform.
If you have the right equipment, it is time to look at your background. Realize that your surroundings do tell something about you. It might be a good idea to create a studio in your (home) office. A place you can easily step into when giving a presentation. Ideally it has a spot for presenting (where you can stand) and a spot for meeting (where you can sit). Both should have a background that is not too distracting (a living room with playing toddlers in the background), but also not too boring (a white wall). A plant, an abstract painting, a bookcase usually do fine. When you are trained by me, you will see my book case. Sometimes I take a book from there to underline a point I try to get across.
From the perspective of the audience you are just a tiny head next to or above your slides. Make sure that this thumbnail looks professional. This might help:
- Position your laptop in such a manner that you have natural light in front of you. Daylight is the best light there is. Never position your webcam in such a manner that it aims at a window: you will become a dark incognito silhouette. When presenting in the dark of the evening, place a lamp behind your laptop aiming at your face. Lightning form above and from below will make you look spooky.
- Position your webcam at eye level and an arm’s length. It looks odd when your webcam is placed too high or too low. So, place your laptop on portable laptop table, a pile of books, or a box.
- Place your eyes at the upper one third of the screen. The top of your head might touch the upper edge.
- Put a sticker on your laptop with an arrow pointing at your webcam. This reminds you to look in the camera while presenting. A thing easily forgotten in the heat of the moment.
- Experiment with clothing. Your computer adjusts the light balance automatically. If you stand in front of a white wall, you will look darker then when standing in front of a black wall. The same is true for the colour of your clothes. Avoid diamond patterns, stripes and glossy fabrics. These will interfere with the camera. The best way to discover what makes you look great, is trying different options. Make screenshots/photos of different sets of clothing and compare them.
Make sure your audience experiences the added value of attending your online presentation instead of watching a pre-recorded video or reading a text. You can apply the ideas as presented in prior posts on this blog. A clear beginning-middle-end structure is extra important. Segment longer presentations with distinct chapters with each an own beginning-middle-end structure. Honour the situation of your viewer (sitting at home, staring at talking heads for hours). Break the ice. A bit of small talk (about for instance this silly online environment) can help to connect. And, keep it short.
In a lot of situations it is appropriate to apply alternatives to the talking head with slides. Then you can build in interactive elements and make your viewers participate actively. This helps to overcome the feeling of isolation and can create a group vibe. A whole variety of solutions is available, from basic to wild and creative. I often use polls (most platforms have them built in, or you can use e.g. Menti) to harvest some ideas from the group and use the answers as a conversation starter. “Can you explain why you answered x?” Recently a computer scientist told me he uses a drawing pad and drawing software to visualize his line of thought while talking. This can be an alternative to the drawing on a chalk board.
In the online environment you are reduced to a thumbnail (so small your audience ignores it) and a voice. As a consequence, your slides become more dominant. The visual channel always wins. Online this is even more so. Badly designed slides, slides with too much information, or slides that do not match the presentation are killing. Thus, pay extra attention to slide design. Leave out the redundant, strive for clarity, and put in elements that engage your audience (such as videos and images). Use animations to build up slides step-by-step while telling your story. Tip: start talking about the next element/slide before clicking. It creates a bit of suspense. Design explicit transitions between segments in longer presentations.
In my online presentations I use red slides with thick, white letters (e.g. Arial Black) to highlight the start of a new segment. At the end of a segment I add a ‘Questions?’ slide. It allows for another moment of interaction.
As said, online you are almost reduced to a voice-over accompanying your slides. When speaking with a monotone voice, you do your audience no favour. From the perspective of the audience, the possibility to turn off the camera and do other things (e.g. read emails, go to the toilet) can be a blessing of the new normal. Remember, your voice is not only an information channel. Online it is also your main channel for transmitting emotion. By playing with intonation, speed, and silence, you can create focus on the crucial sentences and words and keep your audience engaged. When giving an important presentation (e.g. when defending your grant proposal), it is wise to develop a script from a-z, including clicks and silences. Learn this by heard.
Although your body is at thumbnail size, it is visible. Especially while answering questions, try to look in the camera. It gives the viewers the impression you look them in the eyes. Also, keep your silhouette intact. Small gestures and micro-expressions, that play an important role in real-live interactions, are lost in online communication. Large body movements are much more eye-catching. They alter the residual space. So, avoid too much movement from left to right with your shoulders and try to keep your head straight. Hand movement is fine, but make sure that you do not put them too close to the camera (they will look oddly large) and that functional gestures are inside the frame.
How to be a good listener
One last thing. Given the above mentioned challenges of presenting online, when in the audience, you could also try to promote a friendly atmosphere. A few considerations:
- Be in time. Most people have the tendency to enter the online room just in time. Given that always a few participants struggle with entering the room and making things work, valuable minutes are lost.
- Use your webcam. Show that you are present and listening. Apply the ideas in the image section above, so the presenter can see your face and expression.
- Mute your microphone to block background noise or prevent echoing. Do not forget to unmute when asking a question. In larger groups, do not start to talk out of the blue (if more people do that, chaos is the result), but wait till you are invited to do so.
- Participate actively in interactive elements of the presentation. It is tempting to stay anonymous and invisible in the crowd, but the webinar, event or meeting is more effective and fun when you ask questions in the chat, fill in polls, participate in discussion, etc.
- Be patient. Technical issues are part of the deal. Most hosts of online meetings are new to it and still in the process of discovering how to do it. When logging in to the platform fails, try it again. Or try another browser. Do not blame the presenter/host when he struggles with sharing their slides, starting video’s, etc. Hakuna matata…