THE INSTITUTE Many of us who are working remotely probably have made presentations during a virtual meeting on a videoconferencing service. It has been easy for some people, but for many others, videoconferencing has been a difficult medium to get used to. Some people read directly from text-heavy slides, cramming too much information into too little time and leaving their audience without an understanding of important takeaways.
Whether you love the ease of hopping on a video chat with colleagues or shudder at the thought of another Zoom invitation, the reality is such meetings are likely to stick around long after we return to the office. According to the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research and reports from the Harvard Business School, business leaders plan to continue to use virtual communication tools after the pandemic is over.
As I explain in my latest Wiley–IEEE Press book, Engineered to Speak: Helping You Create and Deliver Engaging Technical Presentations, the ability to present in a clear and compelling manner conveys expertise, enlists support, and makes favorable impressions.
The success of your projects this year could depend on how well you manage to communicate and present information during virtual meetings.
The good news is that despite the drastic change in medium, the fundamentals of presenting at a meeting remain the same. That said, there are things that can help make a presentation shine in a virtual environment. Here are some helpful tips.
KEEP THE GOAL IN MIND
As you prepare for an upcoming online meeting or presentation, start by asking yourself one question: When I’m done, what are the one or two things I want everyone to be able to do or know? Then work backward to ensure that your material is organized so that it drives home your point.
There are other important questions to ask. When and for how long should I speak? Who should I invite? Why should they care about my presentation? What is the desired outcome?
Once you consider those questions, you’ll know how to structure the virtual meeting to suit your needs. If, for example, you are not going to be able to address people’s concerns at the meeting, you might want to prerecord the message and use videoconferencing tools to discuss people’s reactions or discuss what was said.
No matter the purpose, allot extra time to account for the technical lags of virtual spaces. Muting, unmuting, and similar considerations can add up to 20 percent to whatever time frame you think you need for the agenda item.
SET UP HOW YOU’LL SHOW UP
Your appearance in a virtual meeting sends a lot of messages. Simple acts can make a big difference in reducing distractions and improving the quality of your presentation.
Consider how you frame the image that others will see. Make sure the camera on your computer or laptop is close to eye level. You might need to stack a few books underneath the machine or monitor. Situate yourself so that your head and shoulders take up about two-thirds of the frame, thus avoiding being too close or too far away.
Examine the room’s lighting. You want to be lit from the front; avoid having light behind you. Find a natural light source, such as a window, and position the camera so your face is well lit. If you don’t have access to a window, place a lamp behind your laptop so that it shines on your face.
Consider standing when making your presentation. You can appear more energized and display a larger presence that way—and would be less likely to slouch as you might in a chair. Standing can make you seem more active in the meeting.
Finally, think about when and how to use visual aids. Many of us have experienced wasted time while presenters share their screen only to find that the presentation’s text was too small to read. Share only slides that are inherently visual, and avoid sharing your screen for the first five minutes of the presentation. Also, ask yourself whether the audience really needs to see the slides to understand the topic at hand.
Take the lead
As presenters, we think we’re naturally leading the discussion, but the truth is the norms of in-person meetings don’t carry over to the virtual versions.
In-person meetings involve a lot of nonverbal communication. When a person leans forward, for example, you might recognize that the individual wants to speak. You also can tell people are disengaged because they cross their arms. Such visual cues are difficult to see during a videoconference.
Instead, people wait for others to finish their conversation, talk over each other, mute and unmute their microphone, or forget to unmute. Such blips in turn-taking slow down the presentation. This frustrating cycle of action and inaction contributes to mental exhaustion known as Zoom fatigue.
Establish norms at the beginning of the meeting, such as asking everyone to keep their camera on and microphone muted. You might request that people use the chat function to “raise their hand” to speak.
Make it clear that your role will be to guide the process. Leave yourself unmuted for the entire discussion. That way you can interrupt someone who is taking up too much time, as well as cut down on the lag time as you pivot to the next speaker.
When taken together, these suggestions can enable you to clearly and confidently express your ideas and better connect with others while working remotely.
Adam J. Brooks is an assistant professor in the University of Alabama’s Department of Communication Studies and director of its Speaking Studio.
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