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Perfect Your Virtual Presentations

Roger Courville is author of The Virtual Presenter’s Handbook and an authority on electronic presentations. Recently, Courville was interviewed by AMA’s podcast program “Edgewise” on how the preparation process for an electronic presentation differs from traditional presentations.

How does preparation differ from that of a traditional live presentation?
Actually, in presentations in a virtual environment, preparation is similar to that of traditional live presentations. We still need to understand who our audience is and exactly what we want their takeaways to be—that is, what the outcome of the presentation is. This is no different from traditional presentations. Execution is where the difference lies.

In what way are virtual presentations different?
A big way is in the attention spans of members of your audience. They tend to be shorter online than off line. So, to avoid losing the interest of your audience, you need to create and arrange your content to sustain your viewers’ attention. For instance, consider the slides you will be using. They are the primary visual experience your audience will have, and consequently you need to develop them so they can support your ability to teach a subject or tell a story effectively to your virtual audience.

So we have to be alert to the issue of attention span and provide an effective visual experience to deal with it. How, then, do you put these together?
If you are kicking off a virtual presentation, one of the things that I would do would be to keep my initial greeting short. Second, I wouldn’t forget that people can read four to seven times faster what’s on a slide than what I can say. Keeping this in mind, I would organize the content on the slides in a manner that aligns with your welcome and subsequent discussion. Remember that if you don’t maintain your audience’s attention it is easy for your listeners to go back to writing that e-mail or reading the other 17 e-mails that have since come in since the beginning of the webinar, thereby missing a learning opportunity.

Another important point: learn to talk with your audience, not talk at them. Plan a communication exchange. Ask questions. Get feedback by a virtual show of hands or a poll. After all, your goal is effective communication. So incorporate these elements into your virtual presentation.

Don’t forget, either, to rehearse for your online presentation. It is amazing how infrequently speakers do this. In fact, I found in a survey that speakers spend more time preparing for presentations offline. But if you are relatively new at virtual presentations—and most of us are—your delivery may suffer if you have not taken the time to prepare for an online presentation.

What advice can you give about the various online programs, like staff addresses by senior management, Webcasts and Webinars, a product memo or a training session, or a team meeting?
Most of those communication models are discussions with people in some context. In each case, it’s critical to talk with the people online in a natural way. It’s a missed opportunity that comes from unfamiliarity with the tools. Done wrong, you can actually make friends into enemies.

So it’s important to tie in the technology with the purpose. It’s not so important what you label the online presentation you have in mind, your focus should be on the outcome you want.

Last year, I was brought in to numerous companies to work with people in need of help with virtual presentations, and I found a common problem the majority encountered was that they were using the wrong tools for the jobs they were trying to do. Very commonly tools get chosen by an organization, and then those within the company find their use is like trying to squeeze square pegs into round holes to make them work instead of finding the right technology. And with several hundred vendors of various flavors, there are technologies that will accomplish just about anything you want to accomplish if you find the right thing for your business model.

To perfect your use of the technology, invite a friend in and ask him or her to watch the screen and provide you feedback. Ask, “What do you think?” “Hey, when I push this button, what do you see?” or, “When I ask a question, what should I see?” or, “If you raise your hand, how would I know?” What you are doing is no different from a meeting planner getting familiar with the room in which he will be speaking and where to put the signs and when to put the coffee thermos and water carafe on the table. It’s kind of like getting familiar with your virtual room.

Check how you sound as well. I’ve done more than one study about behavior in the world of presenting virtually, and voice ranked very highly. Now, we can’t change what we were born with, but we can change how well we use what we were born with. So if you can improve how well you use your voice, you can deliver more effectively by how you use your voice.

Now, some individuals use humor for their offline presentations. Does humor have a place in electronic presentations?
Maybe yes, but it is best to err on the side of caution. If you’ve delivered the same training course for the last two years off line and you know there’s this one joke or line that gets you a chuckle every time and you know it’s safe, then I would probably do that. The less you know about your audience, probably the more careful I would be.

You mentioned questions. How do you manage them in virtual presentations?
I handle Q&A online the same way I do in person, which is to say I don't wait to take questions. I answer questions throughout, provided they’re on topic. If they are not on topic, I ask the individual with the question to wait until the end of the presentation and e-mail me with contact information. However, if the question is relevant, there’s no better time to take the question or than right there on the spot.

Roger, I know that we have only done a superficial job of helping our readers with virtual presentations, however, you are working on a special program on virtual presentations for American Management Association. When will this program become available?
It should launch in August. Even if they have already taken courses on traditional presentation giving, I think they should take this new AMA course. Increasingly executives and managers will be asked to use the new technology and deliver virtual presentations. And they will need to perfect the skills this will demand.

Some companies are ahead of the curve with use of virtual presentations, and they are making it a strategic advantage. Some are behind the curve and they’re leaders and managers are being dragged kicking and screaming to use it. However, the reality is, whether one loves it to hates it, it is here to stay. The question you need to ask yourself and your colleagues is this: If it isn’t your competitive advantage, how are you going to compete with people who are making it their competitive advantage?

Learn more about AMA's seminar How to Present Online: A Skills-Based Workshop.

About the Author(s)

Florence M. Stone is editorial director for American Management Association.