Giving a presentation over Zoom or another video platform? It's much harder to keep people's attention when they're watching you on their laptops and smartphones instead of onstage at a conference. But there are simple things you can do to keep even the most Zoom-fatigued audience engaged.
"So many of your audience members may be struggling because their internet is not that stable and they're sitting in a tiny box all day every day, sometimes with a spouse or partner, or their kids. But the biggest struggle is that people are more exhausted and more stressed these days," says Wendy Capland, executive coach to such companies as IBM and Bank of America. Capland is the author of the best-selling book Your Next Bold Move, and she's also my coach. For the past few years, she's been coaching me and I've been writing about it.
Capland is a frequent presenter who was experienced at giving talks and workshops online even before this past year, and she shared some of her secrets for doing it effectively and keeping a videoconference audience engaged and attentive all the way through your presentation. Try them next time you give a virtual presentation.
1. Ask what they hope to get from you.
"Ask lots of questions," Capland says. This is great advice for every presenter, whether virtual or in-person. But for virtual presentations, Capland recommends a couple of specific questions: "What do you hope to get from this presentation? What would make it worthwhile for you to be here today?"
Give them a few moments to think about this question and write down their answers, and then invite them to share those answers in chat. "You, as the person running the meeting, get to decide whether you're going to address what they want from the meeting -- which might mean pivoting on the spot," Capland says. "Or, if you're not going to include it, answer the person saying something like, 'That's great, we don't have time for it today, but I'd love to do another meeting about that or have a conversation with you about it.' That way, people's expectations are set."
Capland loves giving her audience questions to think about, write down their answers, and share over chat. Another one she asked in a recent keynote presentation: "Tell me one thing your are currently doing to increase your well-being."
2. Ask how they're doing -- really.
"Especially if you have a small meeting, start by asking people how they are -- like, really," Capland says. "Because this period of time has got people feeling all sorts of feelings, most of them not happy ones. So take just five minutes to ask that question, or to ask, 'What's something that's going really well? What's something you've been struggling with?'"
This will help your audience feel connected to you throughout the rest of your talk, she says. "People like to be seen," she says. That may be even more true for people at a remote meeting who may be feeling isolated.
3. Use Zoom's meeting features.
Zoom and most other video chat software have a variety of built-in features that can help keep an audience engaged, and Capland recommends using them. "I do a lot of 'Raise your hand if ...' which works well, depending on your topic and content," Capland says.
She also uses breakout rooms, typically with six to nine participants, where they have something to work on or some topic to discuss for a few minutes. "I do these breakout rooms as much as I can, and when they come back we debrief them -- 'What did you think or feel about what you discussed?' We do a large group share so people get to see what they missed in other rooms. You can either set up breakout rooms ahead of time, or else just click the icon for breakout rooms, put in a number of participants per room, and it whisks people into groups."
Capland also makes frequent use of polls; she did seven different polls (all set up ahead of time) in a recent 90-minute presentation. "I think the secret is to use a variety, breakout rooms, chats, polls, raised hands," she says. "A variety helps keep people fresh and sharp."
3. Make sure you have help.
Most event organizers will assign someone to assist you during a virtual presentation, at least to watch out for technical glitches and help audience members who may be having technical trouble. But you should have more assistance than that, so either make sure the person assigned to you is willing and able to provide all the help you need, or bring along your own helper.
Capland works with a production manager who is the official meeting host at her Zoom presentations, with Capland as the co-host. This means the helper can do things like view and report on the results of a poll or raise-your-hand questions. The production manager is the one to share her screen to show a video, she mutes participants if there's background noise and unmutes them as needed, and she reads what participants post to chat, looking for patterns and themes. With a group of any size, Capland says, "there's no way one presenter can run the meeting look at people's answers, and integrate what they said."
4. Ask audience members to share their video.
Some people may be unwilling to do this. But, Capland says, it can make a big difference. So if the group isn't too huge, "I make a strong request that they turn their video on. I don't see them because I'm teaching, but they get to see each other."
In these isolated, socially distanced times, there's a lot of value in having members of your audience be able to see each other. It can make them feel just a little bet less alone. And that should be one big benefit of just about every virtual meeting.