Talking about public speaking at a time when conventional conferences and seminars have ground to a halt may seem strange. But I’ve sat through so many terrible online presentations in the past few months that I keep wondering: “Why are these people doing this so badly?” They’d never stand up in person to 10 or 100 people and deliver something as unengaging as they’re currently doing on screen. Yet they seem to think it’s somehow acceptable. So perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves of some of the accepted best practices in presentation.
Obviously the rules about ‘owning the stage’ don’t apply online, but we can do so much better than the standard ‘sitting-at-my-laptop pose’ with a ceiling light hanging down in the background. This makes it look as if we’ve just been contacted unexpectedly, rather than it being an important presentation. I do encourage experimenting with standing – it really does work – but if that’s uncomfortable, is it possible to move the camera back? A lot of people use hand gestures as a critical part of their communication, but cut these off on camera. But think of how the Queen does her Christmas broadcast, or the Prime Minister makes a statement from behind a desk. Remember, this is a presentation, not a surprise FaceTime call.
Where the normal rules do apply is in the use of slides. Even more than with in-person events, the audience will whizz through reading a new slide full of bullet points in seconds. If the next five minutes is spent going through these points, tediously, with little elaboration, they’ll soon be checking their emails or dozing off. Slides are visual aids! They should exist to help the audience understand what’s being said. At the very least, bullet points (if they must be used) should appear one at a time.
There are many tips for presenters when it comes to interacting with the audience, and engaging with them. I’ve been to more than one seminar where I got chatting to someone while sitting waiting for the event to begin, only to discover it was the presenter, cleverly breaking the ice with audience members. We may not be able to do this sort of thing online, but if we know our audience, we can refer to them by name (“Peter probably knows more about this than I do”, or “I imagine Jane will have some thoughts on this”). Comments like these can be prepared beforehand – why not?
In general though, it shouldn’t need to be said that an online presentation deserves as much preparation as an in-person one. The fact that so few of them do should be seen as an opportunity.