Technology has made incredible things possible: humans on the moon, rovers on Mars and unlimited, on-demand reruns of the West Wing on Netflix. It’s also made it possible for people living in places far away from each other to work together. And that is an awesome thing—everyone wins when people can live where and how they want while working on great projects. Everyone wins, except perhaps you as you try to present or pitch to a group of people you can’t see and can’t see you.
Modern work realities have created a very difficult presenting situation. When you can’t see your audience, you have fewer tools to capture and keep your audience’s attention and you have very limited ways to get real-time feedback. Being relevant, clear, compelling and organized is that much more important because if you lose your audience when they’re not physically with you, they’re completely gone.
So what to do in this techno reality of absent audiences?
Here are some tips for keeping those body-less voices engaged...
1. Ask questions.
Audiences, present or virtual, have a hard time ignoring rhetorical questions. They may not always answer them immediately (see note about staying with silence below), but rhetorical questions snap your listener’s attention back into your presentation. Just be careful not to overuse them.
You can also ask questions that you know the audience has and then answer them. Before you hold your webinar or conference call, ask your client/host about the top 3-5 pressing questions the audience has. When you’re giving your presentation, reference back to this conversation and the questions as you respond to them.
You could also poll your audience, even when they’re remote. Ask questions like “how many people have encountered this problem?” or “How many of you see this as an opportunity?” It’s also a good remote presentation practice to let the audience know that a question is coming so they can collect their thoughts. That approach sounds might sound like this: “In a minute, I’m going to ask you about…, but before I do let me finish up my last point by saying…”. When you’re ready for the audience’s responses, you can invite them to share their thoughts over the conference line or ask them to share via the chat box on whatever webinar or virtual meeting platform you’re using.
2. Stay with silence.
When you’re presenting to a remote audience you will need to fight against the discomfort you may have with silence. You might worry that it’s a strange experience on the other side of the presentation too. But the reality is that your audience will appreciate a chance to absorb the concepts you’re sharing and being able to do so will increase their likelihood of staying engaged in your session.
And if all you get are crickets when you ask a question or request feedback, you can make a joke (“come on people throw me a bone!”) or call on specific people, friendly allies you know to be in the audience and open to participating.
3. Use visuals with more copy.
Since your audience won’t have the same visual cues from you to locate where you on in your talk track, it’s often helpful to use visuals with more copy so people are clear on where you are in the presentation and what you’re talking about. It’s also helpful to use directional language periodically (“Now, moving onto the third point…”) so people know where you are on the screen/slide.)
4. Incorporate more examples and stories.
When your audience can’t see you, storytelling and examples are more important than ever if you want to keep them engaged. Use short vignettes and crisp examples to keep things interesting.
5. Boost your voice.
A remote audience can’t see your eyes or your body language, elevating the importance of your voice. To add more impact, stand up when you deliver your presentation. This allows your diaphragm to expand so you can project more effectively.
And use your hands, even if your audience can’t see them. Your hands are connected to your voice. When your hands are animated your voice will be too and you and your content will be more engaging.
6. Be clear and colloquial.
Eliminate qualifying phrases and distracting sounds that make you sound uncertain and distract your easily-distracted listeners. Phrases like “sort of,” “kind of," “I guess,” “like,” “ok?,” “right?,” “you know?,” and “do you know what I mean?” All of this gets amplified when an audience can only hear your voice.
Do keep some of the conversational colloquialisms that make you sound natural. This could include some dialogue, snippets of important conversations you’ve had with clients, customers or member of the audience. It’s more engaging when you recount parts of conversations rather than report them, such as, “The client said, ‘You miss the deadline, and I’ll be pissed. Do it twice and you’re done with our business.’” This is more interesting than reporting about the conversation, as in, “The client emphasized the importance of meeting deadlines.”
7. Mix it up.
It’s always important to fight habituation when you present and it’s doubly so when you’re speaking to an audience you can’t see. Mix up the pace of your presentation, add pauses for effect, adjust the tone and volume of your voice when appropriate.
8. Rehearse with the technology.
Murphy’s Law about things going wrong seems to be particularly true when presenting with technology. When I saw Salim Ismail from Singularity University present, he joked, “AI (Artificial Intelligence) is easy. AV is difficult.” Rehearsing with the tech you plan to use will save you a mountain of stress on presentation day.
9. Be respectful of time.
This is always important and even more so when your audience is of the virtual variety. You have to start and stop on time.
10. Send what you promised.
If you've promise an agenda or slides in advance of the presentation or call, send them in advance. And make sure you budget for a few minutes of “document finding” at the beginning of your presentation so everyone has what they need in front of them before you begin. Remind them where to find the documents just before and during the beginning of your session.
11. Make behavioural requests.
It doesn’t hurt to lay out expectations and make behavioural requests at the beginning of the presentation or call. You might set up the call with a request like this: “Here’s what I’ve found will deliver the richest experience for everyone: shut off your other devices, shut down all other the apps, windows or tabs so you can be present, participate and contribute.”
Conference calls can be particularly painful. (And should you need a refresher on the absurdity of conference calls and other remote communication, check out this funny video.) To get the most out of a conference call situation, always circulate the agenda before hand, take attendance and ask people to announce and introduce themselves when they come on the call. Referencing back to people on the call and what they said earlier on the call or before it started helps keep people engaged. And be sure to announce yourself before you contribute if not everyone will recognize your dulcet tones.
So, if you’re not able to convince your tightfisted boss or budget sensitive client to pony up for a train or plane ticket so you can present in person, don’t panic. While it’s not always easy to be persuasive and engaging when you can’t see your audience, it is possible. Remember that they are with you, invite them to participate and be your best, most animated self to keep them engaged.