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When the Stage Is Gone: Online Talk Tips

Michelle Ross

Public speaking is a whole new ballgame now that most talks have moved online. Conferences, summits, expos, trade shows, seminars, workshops, you name it, are all now located on your laptop. That means the speaker, the person inside the screen, the person that could be you, needs to also adapt.

There was a time not so long ago when large groups of people gathered close-together in public to hear talks. Speakers would just mic up and walk out on a stage. The “toolbox” of public speaking tips included eye-contact, enunciation, speaking slowly, standing up straight, gesticulating, purposeful pacing, or literally doing anything dynamic on stage to make things more interesting. That’s not the same toolbox for presenting online. You might as well scratch out half that list, because it’s not going to be applicable. No one will know who you’re making eye-contact with, and you could pace right off the screen, gesticulate so much the screen blurs, or talk so loud you blow your audience’s ears off. 

It’s time to create a new rulebook for presenting online. 

We recently attended our first online summit hosted by the Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Association (VRARA) where we learned a few best practices for online public speaking by watching others’ presentations. To not only help make online events successful, but to really drive home your own presentation’s message, it’s a good idea to change up that toolbox. In our guidelines, we drafted up some tips strictly about adapting public speaking to the screen. 

Command the Screen

How to give a dynamic talk in an online/virtual format:

  1. Stand up as if you’re presenting on a stage. Slouching bent over a computer is not a good look.
  2. No full body shots. We don’t want to see your shoes, we want to see your face so make sure the camera is close enough to you. Good rule of thumb is to keep the camera view above the waist.
  3. Make facial expressions. Since body gestures are restricted on screen, emotions need to be illustrated through appropriate facial expressions. Not exaggerated like an Opera singer, but animated like a commercial actor. 
  4. Don’t overly gesticulate. We’ve watched presentations that were actually just a strange performance of someone’s hands dancing across a camera. Since you have a small camera window to stay inside, you may feel forced to bring your hand gestures closer to your body and in front of your face so people can see them. That’s counter-intuitive. Due to the camera angle, your hands will triple in size and block everything.
  5. Don’t lean into the camera. No one needs to see you that close up.
  6. Speak towards the microphone, but don’t shout. We have volume controls on our end. 
  7. Set the stage. Clean up and arrange the space behind you that we will all see on camera. Dirty laundry can discredit your authority when speaking and nude artwork is kind of distracting. You can also use a virtual background to save yourself the hassle. 
  8. Get to a quiet place. We’ve also got family and pets so we know it’s tough. But try, try, try to keep the noise down or use a headset and microphone. 
  9. Screen share. Just because you aren’t in-person doesn’t mean you can’t use media like powerpoint presentations, infographics, photographs, websites, etc. Visuals are entertaining and help listeners retain information.
  10. Don’t go over the time limit. Yes, that’s always been a rule, because you’re just going to delay other speakers. However, now that it’s online, the automated conferencing system could literally just delete you off the screen mid-sentence. We’ve seen it happen several times. If you are allotted 30 minutes, stick to 29 minutes. The last part of your presentation like your conclusion or contact information is incredibly important, and you don’t want to be wiped out prematurely.
Can you spot this presenter's mistakes?

So that’s a run down of basic tips, but there are two other ways to give a talk online. One is to turn it into a podcast and the other is to use a virtual world. Here’s how we’ve seen it done:

Video Doesn’t Have to Kill the Radio Star

Disappear into podcast by pretending it’s voice only:

This was a great idea that we didn’t come up with ourselves. We watched Tom Ffiske, AR/VR researcher and writer, show off this method during his presentation at the VR/AR Global Summit. He set up the talk like a podcast by first saying that since we’ve been looking at screens all day, this talk was now our chance to not look at a screen. He explains that he’s just going to talk—no visuals—so go get coffee, take a walk around the house, or just listen while prodding around the screen doing something else.

The key to pulling this off is by speaking with a dynamic voice. Enunciate, project and speak enthusiastically with inflections in your voice. Not everyone can pull this off. Sometimes you’re born with a radio voice, and sometimes it takes years of practice to sound just mediocre. Make sure “talking” is your strength before you opt for this method.

...In a Virtual World. Life in Graphic, It's Fantastic.

Use an avatar in virtual reality:

Since this was a conference on immersive reality, a number of speakers used an avatar to give their presentation. We weren’t totally sold, but the idea is promising. The visual effects are still basic, and at times, it looked like we were watching a low-budget cartoon with minimal facial expressions and stilted body gestures. For the vast  majority of the world, this is not an option, but we wanted to add it to our list since we’ve noticed it as a rising trend and see enormous growth potential. It could* be fantastic.

And That’s the Way It Is

We’ve given you best practice tools for your next online speaking engagement and two alternative methods (doing it like a podcast or using VR). Just like any other talk, don’t forget to practice beforehand. Since you’re presenting from the comfort of your home, it’s tempting to wing it since you’re in your safe space. Bad idea. Now, go out there and knock their socks off. That’s if viewers are wearing any socks...because they’re at their homes, too.

For more tips, check out Rachel Willis, a public speaking guru, and her YouTube channel to watch multiple videos on presentation tips on and off the stage. The video below, specifically, reinforces several tips we've highlighted in this article and is a great example of what an online presentation should look like.

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