Susan Mason Shares Best Practices on Virtual Presentations

Published: Oct 12, 2020



Continuing its Ask the Experts Online Virtual Communication series, AMA hosted How to Effectively Present Virtually during its September 30 webcast. The subject is a highly relevant one now that more professionals than ever are working and conducting business virtually. In fact, the entire series is an in-depth look at different aspects of communicating virtually, each installment discussing a wide range of strategies and techniques from an expert’s point of view.

This segment’s guest expert was master trainer and coach, Susan Mason, and Dorothy Deming, AMA’s director of education, content and operations, moderated the web event.

After Ms. Deming began the conversation by noting that it’s fortunate we have the technology to allow us to connect virtually, Ms. Mason agreed, saying, “This isn’t just a ‘for now’—this is going to be our foreseeable future. I don’t see us rewinding and going back to less virtual presentations: just a whole lot more.”

“Virtually can mean so many different things,” Mason continued, saying that it once meant showing a slide deck with a voice over, but not actually seeing the presenter. “Now, it’s everything. It’s your deck; you’re interacting with other people, visible at all times. How do you adapt? What are the considerations you need to have right in the front of your head?”

Aside from inevitable technology challenges, from bandwidth to Internet reliability, Deming asked Mason to elaborate on the other obstacles one must overcome when presenting virtually.

“After hours and hours and hours of doing this, [technology] is not the thing that really makes a difference,” she replied. “Don’t waste your energy there. After being in front of audiences throughout my life, and now going virtual, the energy flow is different. But we have great control over that if we’re willing to ask everyone to turn on their camera. The most positive thing that can happen for any presenter is when we are looking out at our audience [and seeing] they want us to be successful. [Also important is] choosing the right environment—one that you’re going to be comfortable with. And there are two ways to think about environment: your physical environment, but there’s also what platform you use. If you can choose a platform based on the type of presentation you’re giving, you will find there will be differences that will help you be more effective. We don’t always get those choices, but you make it work.”

Mason also advised thinking about the ways that you can use a camera when presenting virtually: “Should it be an onboard camera, or should it be a webcam? And I recommend using headphones because they give you the best sound, and the microphone really makes a marvelous difference in the quality of your voice. One thing that will always be a constant, no matter what platform you’re using, is your ability to use the qualities of your voice.”

There’s also the challenge of creating effective visuals, Mason said, and since people are used to seeing things change very quickly, you can’t just stick with static visuals. There also have to be great, high-quality graphics.

“We also need to be thinking constantly, constantly about engagement,” Mason warned. “If all you have is your voice, and your slides, and this is scary, you’re going to have about 40% attention [from the audience].” But you can, Mason added, improve that with the quality of your voice and your presentation.

“Ask people to turn on their cameras,” Mason suggested. “Create some interactive points in your presentation where they need to use chat, where they need to pose a question to you, or even use their own microphone and talk to you.” Adding these elements can increase the audience’s attention up to 92%, Mason said, adding that turning on our cameras makes us more accountable during a presentation, and more likely to avoid the temptation to check our phones.

“We have much more control during presentations than we are giving ourselves credit for,” Mason observed, adding that we have to ask ourselves what we can do to make ourselves more successful in presentations.

Mason mentioned that “we at AMA have actually pulled together something that helps, called The Virtual Training Certificate Program.” She said that it offers participants ideas, important points for what they should be thinking about before presenting, things they should be practicing, as well as offering them feedback on how they present.

In addition, Mason said that one of the many advantages current technology offers us is the ability to record ourselves presenting, and then evaluate our own success.

Deming reiterated the importance of practicing in order to build confidence and be positioned for success.

Moving on to the steps needed to prepare for presenting virtually, Mason explained a graphic that Deming showed onscreen, titled “The Classic AMA 5Ps of Effective Presentations Goes Virtual,” which includes five key elements to consider for successful virtual presentations.

Mason began by elaborating on the first step, Probe: “With a face-to-face audience, that means, ‘I’m going to find out about my audience.’ What’s the environment, what they need, what’s the result that I’m looking for—and guess what? It all means the same things in a virtual presentation, but the answers are going to potentially look a little different. When I probe, I want to make sure that everybody in my audience is going to be able to access my presentation. We also want to find out what are people’s general attitudes about being in a virtual environment. We want to find out about those cameras, whether or not they can be on, so that people can interact with us, so they’re being there in some shape or form to interact.”

The next step, Plan, is a very different process, according to Mason.

“Our planning has to center on how to create engagement throughout the entire presentation,” said Mason. “What kind of visuals, what kind of rhetorical questions can I ask, what kind of voice animation can I bring to this presentation that’s going to enliven their experience and clearly get across the message? Keep track of those visuals, using your voice, and using slides much faster. Don’t be afraid of going to a blackout—or ‘sitting on’ a slide for a couple of minutes—but if you’re going to be doing a 30-minute presentation, I’m going to encourage you to have 30 slides. Remember, a visual can say, just by itself, what it might take you a minute to articulate in just words.”

“And then you’ve got to practice,” added Mason, moving on to the third Practice step in the model. “That means not practicing ‘in your head,’ but practicing in the platform environment that you’re going to be using. [And] record yourself.”

She also suggested working with colleagues, meeting with them virtually to ask for their feedback on the presentation, or even just sections of it. Then practice exactly the way you would if you were giving the presentation, and see how the technology is working, how the slides look, the pitch rate, pace, correctly using pauses, and intentionally building all of that into your presentation—and assessing how well you are engaging your “test” audience.

“At least 60% of an effective presentation is going to be taken up in the Probe, Plan, and Practice phases [of the model],” said Mason, with the remaining effort going to the actual presentation. “If you know what you’re talking about, you can always give a highly effective presentation—even if all the bells and whistles of your technology aren’t there for you that day. And remember, you now have these wonderful tools of chat and cameras and voice over internet.”

Mason continued, “During the presentation [the Present phase], you’re also going to do Q&A, and this is where, wow, having that camera becomes so wonderful. You’ve got them looking right at you, and you have the opportunity to really come across in an honest, credible, trustworthy way.”

The last step is Process, added Mason, where you step back and critically evaluate what happened [in the presentation]: what worked and what would you do differently next time?

Deming asked how we can make virtual presentations more effective than face-to-face presentations, and more beneficial to the audience as well as ourselves.

“There actually are some true advantages to virtual presentations,” responded Mason. “You have time and resources to really manage the presentation process. I find that a lot of people’s stress and speaking anxiety comes from the unknown.” She pointed out that with face-to-face presentations, we often walk into a room unsure of how the seating will be arranged, or how the projector will be set up. There are a lot of variables that can’t always be predicted.

Mason emphasized the positive, saying, “Guess what? When you’re in a virtual presentation, you know, because you’ve set things up to work in that environment. So a lot of the guesswork and a lot of the things that stress people out go away. The other piece is attention. There is a difference in how people respond if they’re sitting in a chair, versus on a camera and they’re ‘right here’ and they know they’re visible individually. Their attention really improves. That is a really big plus in that environment.”

She also stated that with chats and polls, it’s possible to know where everyone is in relation to the presentation, adding, “The engagement piece is so enhanced by the virtual environment. It’s lively and it’s interactive—if you approach it that way.”

Since many companies are embracing the virtual world of work, not just out of necessity but because of certain intrinsic advantages it offers, Mason concluded, “This is something we all have to get good at. All of us. Not just senior management. Not just sales. Everyone. I see it as a great opportunity.”

View the full program:

How to Effectively Present Virtually