How to be effective when you’re presenting remotely

March 15, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

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As COVID-19 officially became a global pandemic this week, millions of American workers are turning to remote work. Over the next few weeks, you can expect a lot of in-person meetings and presentations will move to Zoom and other video conferencing formats. 

How to remain effective when presenting remotely will become a key question for much of the workforce, which still relies upon in-person connection even in this immensely digital era. The answer involves adjusting for changed environmental factors that may prevent you from getting your point across.

“Your exact presence in that moment can feel very different [while remote],” says Amy Landino, author and host of AmyTV, who also recently led the lesson on digital presentations in Knowable’s Speaking with Confidence course. 

Landino says she’s seen a lot of conference calls veer wildly off-track, so recognize when it’s your moment to step up. “No matter where you are communicating, you’re being looked at as a leader,” she says. “When you are behind the safety of a laptop or a webcam, this is the moment you need to take it even more seriously.” 

It’s all too easy to forget the seriousness of work while you’re at home. “When we are at home, we have an advantage of feeling like we are not going to work,” says Jeanny Chai, a leadership authority coach and founder of BambooMyth.com. “You need to get into work mode. Put on a pair of shoes; do your hair and makeup. Don’t think you can just jump out of shower and walk into your meeting. That vibe will come through.” 

Here’s how experts say you can get comfortable–without getting too comfortable.

Adjust your environment

When you walk into a conference room for a meeting, it’s probably minimalistic—designed to avoid distractions that might take away from your presentation. You want to create a similar effect in your office space for remote work, says Carla Bevins, assistant teaching professor of business communications at Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business. “You want to have the right lighting, a good camera, and a good setting,” she says. “Adjust the camera so you are not looking down into it. Elevate so it is at eye level.”

Make sure the background is professional, clean, and organized, says Bevins. Though you might be working with others at home, try to get into a silent area where you will not be interrupted. Climb out of those sweatpants and into clothes that match your work’s dress code. “Think about the contrast with clothing,” she says. “A lot of time, darker or solid colors have better contrast, where a top with stripes might zigzag across the screen and look strange onscreen.” 

Communication expert Celeste Headlee says lighting is critical. “Keep the focus on you and make sure you don’t have distracting items, pictures, or windows behind you,” says Headlee, host of Knowable’s Speak with Confidence course and author of Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving.

“Purchase a nice LED light for your camera or smartphone and place it at eye level. Never use fluorescent lights, which are unflattering, or overhead lights, which can create unfortunate shadows.” 

Prepare your slide deck

If you’re giving a short presentation or an update on progress, you may not need to provide materials to your remote audience in advance. But if it’s longer, please do. “If you’re having a more formal meeting, it’s very important to have a structured agenda set up,” says Bevins. “See if you can connect with your audience ahead of time to see if there’s things they need, like a slide deck or executive summary. Maybe they want to think through it and have questions ready to go.” 

If the presentation involves complex ideas or numbers, get the slide deck out. “I definitely think if something is going to get too far into the weeds, where looking at your face isn’t going to get the point across, slides are important,” says Landino. “You don’t want to overload them, but this is a resource you can walk them through.” 

Bevins says to make sure slides are clear with one idea per slide, so it is easy for your audience to stick with you. 

“But remember your visual aide is just that: an aide,” she says. “Your audience still wants to learn from you. What happens a lot of time in these mediums and in online presentations is that you become a voiceover for the slides.” 

Of course, know the vibe of your company. If your colleagues would find a slide deck totally weird, pass on this step, and focus on how you get your ideas across in the meeting. 

Stay commanding

Speaking of not becoming a voiceover, addressing your audience the right way is critical. 

“I think it’s important to make them feel like they’re in the room,” says Landino. “The major resonating factor, which makes them feel like they’re in the room, is really knowing your audience. If you don’t understand who you are talking to, even if you are with them everyday, you won’t get your point across.” She says aim to make each listener feel like you are talking directly to them.

To accomplish this, Bevins has a trick. “I put a smiley face sticker right behind the camera so I have someone to talk to,” she says. “If there’s a key phrase, I will put it on there, too. It is absolutely the lowest-level technology, but it works.” She also says to slow down while you are speaking. “Sometimes the internet connections are good, sometimes they are not.” Aim for clear articulation, steady pace, at a lower volume near the microphone, Bevins suggests. 

There’s also a tendency to be stilted instead of natural when you are looking at a computer, says Bevins, who recommends to continue gesturing like a normal conversation. “Make sure you still know your audience, and you are talking with, not at, your audience,” she says. “Ask them to participate… A lot of times when there is an online meeting, it’s easier for the loud voices to get louder and soft voices to get softer.”

Let’s say everyone is trying to talk over others and get a word in. “When there is too much interruption happening, the first break in the conversation is the best moment for the leader of the call to suggest that people refrain from speaking up when someone is talking and to write their thoughts down so they can remember to bring them up when it is their time to speak,” says Landino.

If it seems like the call is going in a different direction than an in-person presentation might have, don’t let it rattle you. “Remember that how you present yourself is the most important,” Landino says. “Be confident and smile. If you can put on the attitude you’d like to see in return, that’s your best chance of not letting it rattle you.”

In lieu of being able to read body language and understand how you’re being received, Bevins says you can solicit feedback in chat via the Zoom app, divide into video breakout rooms, or even have a colleague capture organic ideas with Google Docs.

Keep it concise

People need to stay productive. Some longer meetings are a necessity, but not all meetings should be long; many people in the workforce today complain about the quantity and length of meetings. Landino says that if you’re asking people to join a live call, make sure there’s an important reason. You don’t want people to be asking, ‘Why isn’t this a memo?’ she says.

Headlee says it’s critical to keep meetings as short as possible, and that people have a tendency to talk too long rather than “carefully focusing and distilling” the message down to its main points. “While an audience can stay engaged for up to an hour during an in-person presentation, it’s incredibly rare to keep their attention that long in a video,” she says. “It’s often best to focus on one or two important points that you want to convey.” 

Learn and improve

You want to notice your nervous ticks. Pacing around is a common one in-person, but virtually “pacing might become fidgeting or touching your face” a lot, Landino says. “Nervous tendencies convert in different capacities.”

A simple fix might be the most cringeworthy for a lot of people. “I would recommend recording one of the meetings to watch yourself,” says Chai. “You may see a lot of ‘um’s… I used to click my tongue all the time, which I didn’t know about.” Catching yourself in the act might be the easiest way to improve for the next remote call.  

Or, if it’s an important presentation and you’re concerned about the new medium, ask a colleague to do a dry run with you and give feedback, says Bevins. They can tell you how you’re coming off on camera, if it’s hard to understand you, or if you’re doing anything distracting.

Bevins says don’t be afraid to make mistakes; presenting remotely is new or underutilized for a lot of people. 

“Especially right now with what we’re dealing with, socially isolating, working from home and minimizing spread of COVID-19, we need a little bit of flexibility and some extra patience,” she says. “If something doesn’t go right the first time, it’s okay. There are people out there who can help us out.” 

So, she says, try to see it as an opportunity to learn something new.

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