Being the executive vice president of a business speakers bureau, I get asked several times a day by keynote speakers and planners what makes a great online presentation. Over the past 16 months, we've all watched our fair share of online keynotes. Some left us disengaged and wondering why these talks couldn't be better.

The good news is they can be--if you take advantage of the benefits of using the online and virtual keynote format.

After booking thousands of online presentations during the pandemic and gathering feedback from our clients and our speakers, I've formed a pretty good idea of what makes a great presentation--and what doesn't. If you want to make your virtual keynote a success, do what the very best keynote professionals do. Get the audience involved, make it interactive and entertaining, and know the advantages of a prerecorded versus a live presentation. It also helps to experiment with that "one thing" that will capture the audience's attention every time. 

Get the audience more involved

One of the concerns of online presentations has been the lack of interaction. The keynote speaker can't "see" the audience and an audience member doesn't want to interrupt or stand out, so both feel disengaged, unable to connect. 

There are three techniques I have found to encourage engagement: Poll your audience, set up a member of the audience to start the Q&A, and ask the audience what their biggest takeaways are at the end of the session. Polls are great if done correctly, and the ability is built right into most software.

There are two smart, easy ways to do polling. First, start with an icebreaker. Get the audience's attention with fun or wacky questions, the wackier the better. Second, create short breaks in your talk about every five to seven minutes to ask a daring question related to that content. More frequent breaks and daring questions keep both the speaker and the audience engaged.

The other two methods to engage are pretty straightforward. Have an audience member--say, a friend or colleague--ask a prepared question to get the ball rolling. Most people are afraid to ask the first question. Once someone starts asking questions, more people participate. 

The final method is to open up the discussion at the end by asking the audience what their takeaways from the talk were. People love to share what they've learned, which often encourages more discussion.

Consider a prerecorded versus a live session

Prerecorded and live sessions can both be engaging if done correctly. The advantage of a prerecorded presentation is that it allows you complete control over your keynote through editing. You can get your message exactly right and time all the audiovisual materials to keep your audience focused.

On the other hand, if you tape a prerecorded session and don't edit your errors, your audience might become disengaged. So take the time to practice, edit, and get the details right. If you do film a prerecorded session, the sweet spot for engagement is around 15 minutes. After that, people's attention begins to dwindle.

Live sessions can also be very engaging if you break them into short chunks and ensure the technical side works. If you deliver your message in short, five-to-seven-minute chapters and then interact with polls and direct questions, the audience stays focused. On the other hand, if you just deliver the usual 45-minute keynote, you will start losing your audience.

Another problem with live sessions can be technical issues. Your internet connection could lead to poor sound and glitchy video, which can lose your audience. Remember to test your equipment and connection prior to going live.

Go off-script for extra drama

For in-person keynotes, audiences always perked up when the speaker tore up their notes and said they were going to do something different. The same thing could be done with your online presentation. Of course, I don't recommend you do this unless you really have something else prepared to talk about. Nothing will lose an audience faster than an unprepared speaker.

After a year of watching online presentations, I've found virtual talks can be just as engaging as an in-person talk if you organize and present them differently. You can get the audience involved with polls and questions, keep their attention by breaking your talks into short chapters, and shake it up by going off-script.