Presenting effectively online is the new presenting effectively to a roomful of people: something it’s worth learning how to do before you’re called upon to do it. In the same way as, before the pandemic, anyone in business might be required to make a presentation, nowadays anyone in business may be asked to address an audience via the internet.
The underlying principles for putting yourself across online are the same as for offline but there are a few differences and a few extra factors to consider.
Here are some guidelines to help you prepare and deliver a successful webinar. (In case you’re wondering, webinar is the generic term for a presentation, lecture, workshop or seminar that is transmitted using video-conferencing software.)
How to prepare an effective webinar
As with in-person presentations, how easy you find it to deliver your webinar depends on how you prepare your material. The central point here is that, even though your audience will not technically be in the room with you, you’re going to be talking to people. Particularly if you’re anxious, the tendency is to create slides and then think what to say about them, so what you create becomes more like a report than a conversation.
A good presentation – even online – feels like a conversation. If that’s not how it feels as you’re preparing, it will be hard to deliver when the time comes. Begin with the audience: who are they and what do they need to know? Keeping your focus constantly on the people who are going to be listening will make sure what you prepare is relevant and interesting – which will make the whole webinar experience a great deal more positive both for the audience and for you.
Sketch an outline of the main points, then start talking out loud, to test how it sounds. The reason you’re giving a presentation/webinar, as opposed to emailing out a report, is so you can bring the content to life. Put yourself in the audience’s position: would you listen to, understand and take in what you’re saying?
Less is more! People’s attention spans are shorter online than they are in person, so keep your presentation as brief as possible. Also, find the most concise way to express each point you want to make.
Again as with an in-person presentation, rehearsal is vital. Preparing the content is only half the process. The more you practise saying your material out loud, the easier and more effective it will be when you come to deliver it for real.
Although you won’t be standing at the front of a vast auditorium, you will still feel uncomfortable if during your webinar you grind to a halt as your mind goes blank. I strongly recommend you have notes to remind you of the points you want to cover – but fluency comes from having articulated your points out loud so often that you don’t have to think about finding the words.
Preparing the environment
An obvious difference between offline and online presenting is that in the virtual world there is no way to avoid being dependent on technology. Make sure your connection is reliable and you are thoroughly familiar with the platform you’re using (eg, Zoom).
Experiment beforehand to be sure you know how to look your best on the video – lighting, camera angle, suitable clothes, etc. Sound is equally important. Getting all this right is far more than cosmetic; it’s about showing yourself to be someone worth listening to.
If you’re concerned your internet or any other part of your kit might let you down, something I’ve done occasionally is to record the webinar in advance. You can send the link to the meeting organiser just before you start, offering this back-up in case of an insurmountable glitch in the live event.
Be wary of using virtual backgrounds. Yes, it’s an excellent idea to control what is visible behind you, but I’ve seen speakers look like sci-fi characters as the background struggles to keep up with their movements – and that’s even more distracting than assessing their bookcase credibility. The answer is some sort of backdrop, either a professional one or a suitable throw or blanket held up securely like a curtain. If all else fails, position yourself against a blank wall. It may be boring but it’s the talk that’s supposed to be riveting here, not what’s going on in the background.
Think about how to make it as easy as possible for you to deliver with energy and for the audience to tune in and stay tuned in. Depending on the situation, consider standing up. I feel more in control when I’m standing and I always prefer it for presenting. If you do, be sure to rehearse like this too, and check your camera is in the right position.
If you’re going to be speaking for a while, set the display to show only you. It’s a bit weird for audience members to see each other’s faces, even in small squares, and it’s distracting. Also, the bigger you appear, the more authority you have.
The three key elements that will support you in connecting with the audience and getting your message across are:
With all the additional potential distractions for the audience, as well as the possibly less than crystal-clear connection, it’s essential your voice conveys energy, enthusiasm and sincerity. Speak clearly, slightly more slowly than you normally do, and warmly.
Find the position that works best for you, then stay as still as possible, while also being animated. By all means gesture – that’s good; you don’t want to look like a statue – just don’t fidget. All movement and facial expressions need to be in the service of what you’re saying.
This is a tricky one online, yet it gives such a boost to drawing people in. Unfortunately, in virtual presentations eye contact can only be simulated. Look into the camera and have faith that you are thereby connecting with your audience. You know from experience on the other side of the camera that it works.
Particularly for online events, it’s important to stick to time. Have something interesting happening in the run-up to your start time, so people can join in early and be rewarded for doing so.
Make sure you finish at – or even slightly before – the appointed moment. If there’s a time for Q&A, have a strong line to deliver after that, so your session doesn’t just peter out but ends with a firm and deliberate message.