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Adapting to Virtual Presentations

Throughout the scientific world, conferences, classes, and even small group meetings have moved exclusively online due to COVID-19. Virtual presentations are now the norm, and there's speculation that this trend will continue even after the pandemic subsides.

Although an online format offers some advantages, it also introduces many novel challenges for you as the presenter. In a virtual presentation, it's much harder to engage the audience and keep their attention. There's no way to "read the room" to gauge understanding, and the lack of interaction can leave both you and the audience feeling disconnected.

So what can you do to communicate more effectively given these challenges? Here are some tips for adapting your presentations for a virtual environment:

Get Organized

True fact: it's harder to digest information in a video presentation than in person. It's therefore EXTREMELY important for you to tell a compelling, well-organized story that the audience can easily follow. Two excellent organizational techniques are the hourglass structure and the pyramid principle. You can read more about these ideas here, but the basic implications for virtual presentations are the following:

  • Organize your talk in a way that clearly guides the audience from the big picture context to the details of your research. They need to understand why they should care, otherwise they'll tune out.
  • Explicitly communicate the organization of your talk. Consider including an outline at the beginning and visually indicating when you're moving from one section to the next.
  • Ensure that your talk has only ONE central message. And only include content that directly supports the central message. If you try to go in multiple directions, the audience will get confused and none of your messages will be conveyed effectively.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

The inherent difficulty of digesting information in a virtual format also means you need to make your slides exceptionally clear and concise.

  • Make only one main point per slide. If a slide makes >1 point, try splitting it up into multiple slides instead. And consider which of those details are really necessary to support your overall central message.
  • Keep text as minimal as possible. Use short phrases or key words instead of complete sentences, and consider converting some content to other types of visuals (e.g., simple diagram or flowchart instead of a bulleted list).
  • Only include what you'll actually talk about. This is not a full research manuscript -- you don't need to show every detail. You can always move peripheral details to an appendix section in case questions come up.

Guide attention

A big component missing from virtual presentations is the ability to direct attention through simple visual cues like pointing and eye movements. This can make your talk much harder to follow. So you need to find other ways to guide the audience's attention as you walk them through the details of your slides.

  • My preferred method is to use visual techniques like builds and highlights in my slides. This clearly shows the audience what they should be paying attention to at any given moment. Read more about these techniques here.
  • Some recording software allows you to use the mouse as a laser pointer. I personally don't like to rely on this during a live presentation, but if tested in advance and used judiciously, it can be a very helpful tool.
  • Again, simplify! It's extremely difficult for the audience to follow along with a slide that's too busy. A clear, concise slide with one main point can be easy to follow even without any other visual cues to guide attention.

Try to build a personal connection

The lack of face-to-face connection is probably the biggest drawback of virtual vs. in-person presentations. Still, you should try to establish some kind of personal connection to help the audience feel drawn in and stay engaged.

  • Show your face. It may feel awkward to see that little thumbnail video of yourself while giving your presentation, but it really makes a big difference to the audience. You might consider asking them to turn on their video as well so that you can better gauge their reactions. Also, avoid bright backlighting (e.g. from a window) that turns you into a silhouette.
  • Look like you care. If your body language conveys that you don't care about this presentation, the audience won't care either. Sit up straight (or stand), use a non-swiveling chair to reduce distracting movement, be mindful of your facial expression, and perhaps dress up if it's a more formal talk.
  • Mimic eye contact as much as possible. Some people recommend looking directly into the camera. I find that to be quite difficult, especially when I'm using my slides as a reference, but I make sure to arrange my equipment so that my gaze is centered just below the camera. Having your webcam off to the side looks weird and distracting.
  • Build a connection with the content of your talk. Consider what this specific audience cares about and tap into that. You should actually do this for every presentation, but it's even more critical in virtual presentations where there's no opportunity to build in-person rapport.

Be heard, clearly

Decent audio quality is absolutely essential. If the audience can't hear you, they will tune you out completely. A test recording is key. Use the equipment and software you plan to use for the actual presentation, and listen to the clarity of your voice. Your goal is to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio.

  • If you're being drowned out by background noise, try moving closer to the mic and shutting out as much noise as possible (e.g., turn off AC, close windows, etc).
  • If you sound garbled, choppy, or metallic, check the settings in your recording software. The recording quality may be too low, or there might be some automatic audio processing distorting your voice (read more about AV troubleshooting in Zoom here).
  • Consider investing in an external microphone or headset. It doesn't have to be super fancy -- you can find decent USB mics on Amazon for $20-$50. External mics tend to get better quality than the built-in mic on your computer, and you can adjust the location to maximize pickup of your voice.

Get extra dynamic

Because it's harder to keep an audience's attention online, you may need to step up the dynamics in your vocal delivery. Record a practice talk and listen critically. Do you sound bored? Uncertain? Is the pace too fast / too slow? When the classes I teach moved online, I found that my usual mellow delivery style wasn't translating well to a video format. So I deliberately increased the energy and variation of my vocals. The goal is to convey genuine enthusiasm so that the audience cares too.

Lastly, for the love of all that is good in this world, DO NOT READ YOUR SLIDES. Reading word-for-word from your slides is bad enough in person -- and it can completely kill a virtual presentation. Your slides should complement your spoken voiceover, not say everything for you. Remember, keep your text minimal and your slides simple.

Make it here and you'll make it anywhere

Some day, normal life will resume and you'll be back to doing in-person presentations. But the current challenges can also lead you to emerge as a much better presenter, because virtual presentations are inherently more difficult. So take this time to really hone your abilities. The skills you build now can be carried forward to make your future in-person presentations even clearer and more effective.

CC-BY license

This article by Dr. Robyn Javier is licensed under CC BY 4.0