As a speaker, I've taken on the new skill set of connecting with audiences entirely over video conferencing. And I'm not alone: Leaders throughout the world have had to adapt to this new way of communicating ideas and inspiring people.
Recently, I delivered a talk for a conference in Shanghai. The audience was hybrid--about 150 people gathered for the conference room in person, while hundreds more dialed in from around the world. It made me realize the gift that this new pivot has given us: When I spoke at this conference two years ago, I was able to reach only the people gathered in the conference room. Now I can reach thousands.
Using this gift effectively requires some adjustments and skills that might be new to us. Here are some of the best practices I've discovered for effective public speaking via video.
Speaking in front of a computer is different from speaking in front of a live audience. You lose out on the immediate feedback you get from a room full of people--the body language, smiles, applause, and silences that tell us whether an audience is connecting to our message. And "video call fatigue" is real and pervasive.
But confronting these challenges can bring unique opportunities for connection, if you're open to being creative. A colleague of mine surprises his audiences with laughter sound effects timed for delivery exactly after he says anything humorous. I've learned to rely more on dynamic storytelling and less on PowerPoint slides. And although in-person feedback is missing, there are other, rich avenues for engagement, such as the chat, participant reactions, breakout room, and polls, all of which allow one to engage with a live audience. These options are also more inclusive of people who are introverted, neurodivergent, or are native speakers of different languages.
Engage, Engage, Engage
Grabbing and maintaining the attention of an audience burned out by video calls requires more than just a monologue and PowerPoint slides. The key is to fight through the Zoom fatigue and engage your audience from the start. Break up your presentation with questions, invitations to speak, write, vote, interact with one another, or even draw. Use the functions of your platform creatively to keep your audience on its toes, connected, and engaged.
And about those slides--cut them in half. A common mistake for speakers is an over-reliance on PowerPoint, which can distract your audience and dilute your message. Retool your presentation so your audience is focusing on you and your message, not your slides.
Rehearse and have a plan B
When it comes to virtual speeches, 90 percent of your work is done before the presentation even starts.
For my Shanghai speech, I met with the conference tech team in advance. We focused on tech: I rehearsed my speech, making sure all the moving parts flowed seamlessly with their selected platform. I tried out several microphone options, the team assessing which sounded best on their end. I also connected with a co-facilitator on the ground who worked with the live audience. We aligned the timeline and defined the expectations of their role as co-facilitator.
The tech team and I also devised a plan B: I sent them my slides, so in the case of a lost connection, they could run the slides while I spoke via telephone. They also encouraged me to have a backup computer plugged in and ready to go, should my main computer freeze or lose power.
On the day of the event, the tech team and co-facilitator and I communicated via text and private message throughout the presentation, making adjustments on the fly as needed, passing the baton back and forth seamlessly.
Rehearse, iron out tech details, have a plan B, and communicate with your team. The preparation will pay off--and will help you feel more confident about your performance.
Like many of the adjustments we've made in the last year, virtual meetings and presentations are here to stay. Get creative, engage your audience, prepare, and rehearse, and you'll thrive as a speaker in this new world.