Give a better online presentation

Although virtual conferences and webinars are the new norm for sharing scientific discovery, most people report that these virtual events are less engaging and more difficult to watch than in-person talks. These tips can help you keep your audience engaged next time you give a presentation online.
01 November 2020
By Gwen Weerts

Due to travel restrictions surrounding COVID-19, virtual conferences and webinars have become a new norm for sharing scientific discovery. First the good news: Online meetings do not require expensive travel, and registration is often cheap or free. The barrier for entry is very low, which creates an environment full of opportunity for sharing discovery and knowledge. Now for the bad news: Most people report that these virtual events are less engaging and more difficult to watch than in-person technical talks.

Wonder why? It could have to do with the surrounding distractions of home and family, which are noticeably absent at on-site conferences. But it also has to do with the quality of virtual presentations. Audio, video, room setup, and lighting are taken care of by conference organizers, but when the presentation takes place in your own living room or home office, those details require thought and deliberate planning.

Here are a few tips to help your next webinar or recorded talk go off without a digital hiccup.

1. Set up your space

If you're giving a live talk for a webinar or a presentation that uses slides, you'll likely need some combination of screenshare and your computer's webcam.

Consider the angle of that webcam: If it's sitting on your lap or a desk, it's probably pointed slightly up your nose. No one wants that. Prop it up so that the camera is at eye level, or even slightly higher and angled down.

Look at how your head is framed in the shot, and practice the rule of thirds: your head should be in the top third of the screen, not centered in the middle. The camera should be close enough that only your shoulders and head are in the frame. If you can see your waistband or belt, the camera is too far away.

And remember what your mother taught you: slouching is sloppy. Stand or sit on a stool to keep your back straight and your posture upright.

2. Practice your speech

Because you're giving a presentation virtually, it might be tempting to stash notes just offscreen of your camera, like a teleprompter. But every time you glance to the side to consult your notes, the audience's attention will be drawn away.

Rehearse your speech every bit as much as you would if you were delivering it in person. You can't use body language to help you communicate, so you must rely on a confident voice and a well-rehearsed message to convey your ideas.

3. Help your audience focus

Your audience will have a lot of things competing for their attention—don't add to the noise. Find a neutral background, ideally a blank wall, and if you don't have one, hang a plain-colored sheet behind you. Photographs, bookcases, and artwork might convey your personality, but they won't help deliver your content.

If you don't have a neutral background option, it might be tempting to use a virtual backdrop. Don't. Unless you have a green screen behind you, the camera algorithms will be constantly looking for the outline of your hair, your hands, or the lamp that's too close behind you, and ghost objects will constantly pop in and out of frame. That's creepy, and also distracting.

When giving a talk in person, a good speaker makes eye contact with people in the room. You can't do that when giving a virtual presentation, but you can make eye contact with your camera, which is the next best thing. Avoid watching the thumbnail image of yourself on your screen. Your hair looks great, no need to check again.

Wear neutral and professional clothing. While a Hawaiian shirt might be your trademark at conferences, it's hard for your audience to look at anything else when it's on screen.

Close windows, turn off fans, put your dog outside. Mics pick up everything.

4. Mind your bandwidth

If you're prerecording your talk, then bandwidth won't be an issue. But if you're giving a live presentation, your internet speed can make or break it. Your presentation is being sent over the internet as small packets of data. When you have a poor connection, some of those packets don't reach their intended destination, resulting in lagging video and failed screenshares. How to prevent it:Ask your family members to stay off the Wi-Fi for the duration of your presentation.

  • Connect directly to the router with a cable, if possible.
  • Restart your computer to clear your cache.
  • Only open browser windows and apps essential to your presentation.
  • Join the webinar or live session from a private browser, which will limit some of the processes running in the background.

The future for virtual conferences will soon be revealed. Will they become the new norm in a post-COVID world, or a thing we're glad to leave in 2020, along with toilet paper shortages and travel bans? Most likely, conference organizers will find a way to integrate remote presentations with in-person conferences, allowing everyone to keep the good and say goodbye to the bad. In the meantime, an investment in planning and setup can help your virtual presentation cut through the noise.

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