by Theodore May

3 important things about online presentations

Mar 23, 2020
IT LeadershipVideoconferencing

Online presentations have unique requirements for success. Here are three important things to keep in mind as you prepare and deliver a presentation online.

videoconferencing stock image oct 2014
Credit: Thinkstock

Online presentations have been the exception rather than the rule for most business presentations. But as of last week, nearly every business professional in the US is now working remotely at least part of the time and will more likely to be called upon to create and deliver presentations via an online video conference. They may become the norm.

The primary virtue of an online presentation (“virtual presentation”) is the ability to reach a broader and more widely disbursed audience, including business audiences now sequestered in their homes. But it’s a common mistake is to think of the content and performance of a virtual presentations as:

  • Always an effective substitute for a classic, live and in-person presentation (“classic presentation”).
  • Essentially, the same presentation in either case.
  • Ultimately, just a somewhat truncated version of a classic presentation, or “presentation lite.”

virtual presentations are generally asynchronous in terms of space and are either synchronous or asynchronous in terms of time. They’re best suited to content focused on easily accessible ideas with straightforward implementation, like day-to-day operations and minor tactical changes. And the virtual aspects of the presentation affect performance in subtle but profound ways.

1. Welcome to the multiverse

A Classic Presentation is a shared event that happens in real-time and space. A virtual presentation happens in many spaces. It’s a patchwork of the unique spaces occupied by the presenter and each member of the audience.

People can only enter this virtual network of spaces if they have access to a common technology platform. But the devices, connectivity, and ambient environment of each member of the audience are not common. Each device, connection, and the environment will vary greatly in terms of the experience they offer and so, each member of the audience will have a unique experience of the presentation.

The presenter is, in effect, creating windows into the many different universes occupied by each member of the audience. The goal is reach beyond “Can everyone hear me? Does everyone see my desktop?” to capture the attention of each audience member and draw them in through that window. That is the obligation of the presenter.

The presenter must go beyond the logistics of access: launching an app, log-in, navigation, activating your mic (and/or camera), etc. to knowing how to use the technology as an effective communications medium. It’s how you apply the technology to break through the noise in all those remote spaces that is key. The presenter can’t assume peaceful and orderly environments (whose dog is that barking in the background?) where the attention of each audience member is focused exclusively on the presentation.

It‘s hard for the presenter to take ownership of spaces like this. But mastery of the technology is how we begin to take ownership of this space. It’s the skillful use of this technology that demonstrates our managerial competence.

2. It’s all about the voice

It may be counter-intuitive with all the mobile video-conferencing options now available, but the voice remains the most important communication medium in a virtual presentation.

It’s easy for the presenter to stare at the slides that appear on their desktop and forget that there/s an audience present. They may listen to themselves droning casually onward as if on the phone. But you have to remember that a) there is an audience present and b) that they’re not a captive audience.

Don’t take it for granted that the audience is giving you their undivided attention; that just because you begin speaking, they’re paying attention to you. You must attract and hold their attention. You can’t rely on static slides to do that or the low quality and information value of the images of all other attendees. 

Most business executives are not trained to use their voices effectively in broadcast environments to sustain audience interest. Pace, articulation, vocal variety and dynamics, and the strategic use of pauses become all-important. Listening is as important as speaking.

A virtual presentation is like a radio broadcast or a podcast. We want to imprint ideas in the minds of the audience. And we do that with the purposeful use of our voices.

3. Greater detail but fewer ideas

Most slides in a virtual presentation are a 2’ experience for the presenter and audience. That should allow for great detail on our slides, but all screens are not equal. Some audience members are following on a laptop or notebook computer.  Some are on tablets or their mobile phones that make spreadsheets almost indecipherable.

The flat 2-dimensional nature of the screen experience is less visually engaging than the large screen of a Classic Presentation, and without super high production values, sustained focus and attention on the part of the audience is more difficult.

The absence of behavior modeling on the part of both the presenter and participating audience members (who can’t easily observe each other outside of a thumbnail) even further suppress audience cohesion, engagement, and response.

The simple solution is, keep it short. It’s OK to have greater detail on each slide as long as you highlight what the audience should focus on, reduce the number and complexity of ideas that you are presenting, and focus on dynamic transitions from one slide to slide.  

Successful virtual presentations are typically those that:

  • Make effective use of the medium, cutting through the noise to capture the attention of a broad audience in far-flung spaces.
  • Feature a strong voice with a sense of urgency.
  • Are compact in focus and of short duration.

It’s hard to excite an audience’s sense of commitment and mobilize action with a virtual presentation, even in these urgent times: remoteness can lead to the perception of lower commitment on the part of the presenter. But creating and delivering successful online presentations is something we are all going to have to do and it will be easier on everyone if you begin by remembering these three things.