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How to make your online presentations suck less

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Our Director of User Experience, David de Léon, has had it. No more crappy presentations. He's angry, he's frustrated, he's mad. And he's teaching you a lesson on how to get your s#!!t together and make better online presentations.

I hate online presentations. I hate giving them and I hate watching them, especially yours. We can be pretty sure that even after the pandemic we will work online more than we used to. We'll travel less, we'll have more meetings online and we'll give more online presentations. Of course, the meetings suck too, but in this essay, I will focus on making your presentations less torturous to watch.

I will provide you with a bunch of suggestions for what to do. Follow just a handful of these recommendations and you will outperform 95 per cent of everyone else currently giving online presentations. Needless to say, your message will have more impact than it has ever had. More importantly, you will rock!

 So, here is my frustrated, off the top of my head, list of things you could attend to:

Know your tech

Make sure that the technology you will be using works before people arrive. Test it yourself, and test it together with someone online.

Do your best to upgrade the speed and stability of your internet connection. It might cost you but do it. A poor connection will have you stuttering and freezing like you’re having a seizure.

Make sure that you have as good sound and video as you can possibly get. This will basically come down to buying an external microphone and an external camera (or a stand for your mobile phone so that you can use your phone as your camera). I have no recommendations for kit; the internet is full of lifeless blog posts about this very thing.

It goes without saying that you should know the software that you use. The days of exclaiming “I can’t find the share button” are now officially over.

 Look your best

Don’t take it personally, but you're boring to look at. Also, I don’t want to see your poorly cropped head against a trite stock background photo. Imagine instead that you were a TV star. What would you expect to see? Get some proper lighting and light yourself from more than one angle. Never have the light behind you unless you want to be a dark anonymous outline and confess your sins. Go and earn proper lighting set up. Since you are not an anime character you probably don’t need a ring light.

Dress well and comb your hair. Just this once. And wear some pants, you never know what reflective surfaces might be behind you. Choose clothes that contrast well with your background. 

Choose your background intentionally. Don’t leave it to chance. One thing that works quite well, and provides visual interest, is to have a bit of space behind you, and things in the background that indicate depth. When you present you don’t have to sit in the very same spot you sit all day, you can move about and pick another spot.

Think about how you are framed. Do it how they do it on TV or YouTube. Make sure that your head and shoulders, all the way down to your nipple studs, are visible. Have a little space above your head, but not too much.

Think of it like this: you are designing a picture. The picture people will see consists of you, your style, your clothes, your background, props, colours, light, and shadow. Go ahead and design that picture. Experiment and take short videos and screenshots of yourself as you do so. Remember, most of the time people will be watching just a small stamp-sized image of you. For that reason, it pays to keep the image a simple one.

Work it

Damn it, we are still online! But now you're well lit and looking good, much better in fact than any of the other jerks on the call. We’ll assume that you know how to create a nice looking and relevant slide deck and how to craft a compelling message. You got that down pat before the pandemic. But things are not like they were when you were in the same room as other flesh and blood humans. You are now a tiny glitchy thumbnail. You'll need to act larger. You need to work it!

First of all, look into the camera. Not into space, not at the notifications coming in, and not down at the floor. Look into the camera and the people watching will feel more connected to you. Experiment with exactly where to look. Video yourself looking at, above, below, and to the side of where you believe the camera to be. You may want to adjust the distance between you and your camera. Watch the video and note when it feels as if you are making eye contact with yourself. While you’re at it, throw yourself a kiss.

Stand up when you present. You will have better posture, you will breathe better, you will feel calmer, and your voice will sound better.

If you stand up it will also be easier for you to move and to make gestures. This will make you appear more dynamic and you'll be more interesting to look at. When you’re at it, video yourself trying out a few moves and gestures. Go overboard, then pull it back just a little. Why don’t you actually script a couple of gestures into your presentation?

Be sure to vary the dynamics of your speech. You may feel uncomfortable doing so, but know this: the acceptable range (i.e. from your slowest to your fastest, and from your most quiet to your loudest) is much bigger than you think. In any case, if you get it wrong your audience can adjust the volume on their headsets.

Talk spontaneously if you can, rather than reading from your notes. If you choose to read from a script, practice doing so until you sound natural. Once again, practice and video yourself. If you just read the words you will not sound natural, make sure to also pay attention to the meaning of the words. This makes a world of difference! Meaning tends to slip away when we've read something too many times. One thing that really helps your delivery is to imagine that you're speaking to a single person, even though your audience will consist of many more.

If you use a script, remember that spoken language is different from written language. When people are hearing you, rather than reading you, they are taking your words in at the rate that you are speaking them. You need to write in a way that is not too informationally dense. You need to plan some pauses and repetitions so that people have moments when they can catch up mentally.

If you read your script from a teleprompter (which is not an expensive thing to acquire), you can seem to have eye contact with your audience. Again, you need to practice and video yourself doing this.

What is a good speaking tempo? I suggest that you time a few speakers that you like. Write your script and read it out loud whilst timing yourself. Keep working until you have the same rate of words per minute as the target that you set. Try a couple of different tempos before you decide. You will note that there are tempos that are more natural for you and when your voice will sound better. Many people suggest that 140–150 words per minute is about right. 

Don’t be boring

In the first days of television, presenters were filmed in profile. God knows why. Today that seems decidedly odd. But the medium was new and they were finding their way. Today, TV and other streaming programming have a myriad of tools at their disposal. You should watch more TV, especially talk shows and reality TV. See what you can borrow and adapt for use in your next presentation.

Here are ten quick ideas to start you thinking about ways in which you could bring more life and variation into your presentations:

1. Instead of having a digital slide deck, you could make up a bunch of physical signs, or draw on a sketch pad. Perhaps you could incorporate a stack of Polaroids or an old photo album into your talk? An advantage to eschewing the habitual slide deck is that you, rather than your deck, will be seen as a full-frame.

2. Use props. What have you got at home? What could you make? What would you like to buy? Now you have a perfect excuse for an indulgent shopping spree.

3. Present from multiple physical locations. Move from location to location during your presentation. If you are at home, set up a few landing spots and practice doing the rounds. Perhaps you could wrap up your presentation by coming full circle and returning to your starting location.

4. Bring someone else into your performance. Ask them questions or have them make a statement. Who do you have available? If no one’s around, call someone on the phone and have a conversation with them during your presentation. Do you have any pets and kids? How might they contribute?

5. Pick up a book or a newspaper and read a passage or short quote. You will finally get some leverage out of those inspirational mugs that you insist on collecting.

6. Is there an activity you can do at the same time as you talk? Cook, knit, or maybe build something? If you take a break from talking, what might you do? Juggle, perform a magic trick, run a physics demonstration?

7. Think about all how music is used in a television show. There's intro music, outro music, special music to mark moods and transitions. If you play an instrument how might you incorporate this skill? Do you own a record player? Put a record on. Ever sung during an online presentation? I thought not. That would surely be something that people remember. What non-musical sound effects could you use? Hate to break it to you but your jokes could really benefit from a laugh track.

8. Utilize technology. Get more gear. Always a good idea. Have more than one camera and switch between different angles and lenses. Make full use of the available software options, such as filters, effects, overlays, cutouts, titles, graphics, animations etc.

9. Do you do voices or impersonations? That’s a surefire way to bring some life into your performance. If you think that's going too far, what if you created an alter ego with a different point of view? You could take different positions, or simply point your head left or right to indicate two different points of view.

10. Have a package delivered ahead of time to everyone who will be attending your presentation. What’s in it? Could be anything. Something to eat, smell, touch, play with? Your budget and imagination are the only limits, and perhaps the laws of the realm. 

You are not alone

You are the one presenting, but you are not alone. There is an audience. Remember them? It is easy to forget them. Speaking online is like shouting into a black hole. As well as compelling and relevant content and your engrossing performance, a great way to get them engaged is to involve them.

 To get them engaged you might need to teach them how to be engaged. Ask them to do something during your talk. This can be as simple as having them pick one thing from the talk to try afterwards. You could start by having them write a personal note on a question they’d like answered.

Ask them questions, rhetorical and otherwise. What if you started your talk with a Q and A rather than ending with one? It can be a challenge to get people to respond during an online meeting. How do you do it? One way is to ask them direct questions. Since you can see their names, on most platforms, you can address them directly. Some people might find this uncomfortable. The good news is that discomfort is not dangerous. It is your job to make it as comfortable as possible. Ease them in with some easy questions.

You can also make use of the meagre means provided by the horrible online platform that you are stuck on. Have people put up digital hands instead of real ones. Have them post words, questions, comments, and emojis in the chat. Create breakout sessions, big or small. Having people chat with just one person for a minute substantially increases their willingness to ask questions in public.

Try something like Mentimeter.com to have your audience answer live polls and quizzes, and automatically create word clouds and other infographics.

A confession

Online presentations generally stink. You hate them too. So, you might wonder, do I do all of the things that I write about? Well… no I don’t. Any of them? Well, maybe a couple. Most of the time I suck just as much as you do.

From this day forth, however, I pledge to eat my own dog food. I will strive to make more of an effort to be less boring. I would like you to call me out when I slip into my old ways.

There are a lot of ideas presented here and many areas for us to work on. Don’t worry too much. If you just make a tiny effort you will instantly stand out against the background of mediocrity. What might be the first small, easy, thing for you to start doing? What little change can you make? Go and make it. Or don’t, and be boring. I can’t promise to start surfing for new shoes during your next online presentation.

Need inspiration? Have a look at our online-courses at inUse Academy!