by Maryfran Johnson

Remote Public Speaking The Right Way

Sep 09, 2009

Hosting a Webinar presents unique demands when it comes to holding your audience's attention. Here are some tricks to conquering the Webcast format.n

As a card-carrying extrovert, there’s almost nothing I like better than being on stage, making sure a room full of people are being entertained and engaged. Years of piano recitals banished my stage fright (talking on stage is ten times easier than performing up there) and the rest fell naturally into place with preparation and practice.

So imagine my distress when I discovered how nerve-wracking a solo webinar performance can be. By the end of it, I was out of breath, twitchy with nerves and having trouble swallowing—like a 12-year-old getting halfway through Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” before freezing at the keyboard. (My mother never let me forget that one.)

The assignment had been deceptively easy. Talk for 30 minutes on a webcast about women and IT career paths. Show a few slides, take a few questions at the end. Never even leave my office chair. How could this not be a piece of cake, performancewise? What I hadn’t bargained for was the deadly quiet, the utter lack of audience interaction. No eye contact. No heads nodding. No “sense of the room”—that vital sixth sense experienced speakers hone to alert them to the audience drifting away.

Worse than the sound of one hand clapping, this was the sound of one voice yapping.

“I’ve had that same problem of no feedback,” says Zack Grossbart, author of an upcoming book on working remotely and a master of engaging Web presentations. “One trick is to have a friend in the audience, someone who can show up on your IM and tell you things like ‘That worked really well!’ or ‘You’re talking too fast!'”

This 31-year-old software engineer has been working with and coaching remote teams at companies like JP Morgan, 3M, Nortel and Hewlett-Packard since 2001. He’s currently a consulting engineer working for Novell (remotely from Cambridge, Mass.) and looking for a publisher for his book, The One Minute Commute. (Learn more at

The son of two psychologists, Zack comes naturally to his interest in how humans relate to one another. But it was his years of working remotely with a team of fellow engineers at Novell that sharpened his grasp of how to bond with an audience when you can’t look people in the eye.

He identifies three big mistakes we often make when presenting remotely:

1. Assuming you have everyone’s full attention even though you know perfectly well how much Web surfing and multitasking is, no doubt, going on.

2. Preparing for a remote Web presentation the same way you would an in-person appearance.

3. Failing to adjust your presentation to the technology available to your audience. What are they seeing in real-time as they listen to you?

So let’s start with number one: holding the attention of an invisible audience.

“You have to realize that whatever you present, there’s no way it’ll be more interesting than the entire Internet,” Zack points out. “You can’t fight it. You have to work with it and pull them back.”

You do that by “bursting” your content. He recommends you build in something that dramatically snatches back the wandering attention of your listeners every 8-10 minutes. That may be a visual flare of interest on a slide, a sudden jump in your voice level, or a command that everyone click on a link and follow you to a website. Having a friendly colleague planted in the audience, ready to share an anecdote doesn’t hurt, either.

“You’re saying: ‘Wait a minute! Keep looking!’ You’re channeling your inner Steve Ballmer,” says Zack, fondly remembering a clip of the famously hyper Microsoft CEO launching out of his chair to jump around on stage.

So don’t sit there slumped in your chair while presenting remotely. Stand up, move around, project greater energy levels into your voice. Have pictures of friends or family up on the wall so you’re talking to friendly faces, not the void.

On big mistake number two—preparing for a remote presentation the same way as an in-person one—Zack stresses the importance of thinking harder about the audience experience. How are you connecting to their interests?

“My presentations all start with a ‘Why do you care?’ slide,” he notes. “Many programs [for remote presenting] have a chat window. Can you have people pose questions during the presentation to answer immediately or afterwards?”

Finally, on the number three problem with the varying tech capabilities of your audience, this engineer-author uses a setup with three monitors and systems running Windows and Linux so he can see how his slides are displaying in different environments. As a result, he’s cut way back on animations, going for simplicity and Web links instead.

How I wish I’d found Zack before that fateful webinar. But once burned, twice prepared, right? No wonder I still play “Claire de Lune” with the sheet music in front of me.

As Editor in Chief of CIO magazine and events, Maryfran Johnson is always on the lookout for great speakers and good stories. She can be reached at

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