By David P. Otey, M.A., M.B.A.
Principal Speaking Coach, Speaking of Solutions, LLC
Certified Virtual Presenter
If you are like me, the past 12 months or so have brought significant changes in how you present information to audiences. You have most likely had to change your delivery mode from primarily in-person to primarily, if not exclusively, online. You may already have a good idea of what has been working well for you and where the challenges lie. The purpose of this article will be to look at some considerations you might not have thought of. By the end of it, you will have some ideas to help you forge a stronger audience connection so you can be more memorable, have more impact, and be recognized as the expert that you are.
What is unchanged?
The fundamentals of the presenter’s responsibilities are unchanged. It is still the speaker’s job to engage and serve the audience. This will come as news to some presenters, notably those who believe their job is to serve up information. An information-focused speaker risks leaving the audience behind. Surely, we have all experienced the dreaded “information dump.” This occurs because the speaker (and here I include myself, for I know I have done this) feels compelled to share information that he or she found compelling, without regard for the audience’s needs.
The result of an information dump is usually one of two conditions: an audience that is confused and overwhelmed, or an audience that is bored and tuned out. Neither result is what the presenter is looking for, so why do they allow this to happen? Usually, it is because they don’t know better. It is what they have seen modeled by other presenters.
The way to avoid this result is to focus on the audience first. Why are they present? What do they need? Specifically, what problem do they have for which the speaker can offer a solution?
The first step for audience engagement is to know one’s specific purpose. In contrast with the general purpose of “to inform” or “to educate,” the specific purpose is the answer to this question: “What do I want my audience to think, do, or feel differently when I am done?” Asking this question leads naturally to a higher degree of audience understanding, for answering it requires some awareness of the audience’s needs and their initial state of mind. How will you move your audience from their starting point to some new level of awareness or action?
Once you know the answer to the specific purpose question, that answer becomes the filter through which all your content must pass if it is to be allowed into the presentation. No matter how proud you are of this graph or that paragraph, if it does not support the desired change in the audience’s condition, it does not go in. Focus on the audience and on how you intend to change their condition for the better. You are there to serve the audience, not to serve your information.
What is different?
To put it simply, what you are trying to do for your audience is still the universal starting point. The differences for virtual presentations lie in how you will accomplish your purpose. If your job is to engage the audience so that you can make a difference to them, and your audience is remote from you, then we must consider the added challenge of engaging that remote, and potentially unseen, audience. What are the additional obstacles that you must overcome?
The first is lack of immediate feedback. This is especially true in a webinar format where you cannot see the attendees at all. But it also happens even in a virtual meeting with webcams being shared. Consider some of the cues you receive from an audience that is in the room with you: Are they sitting quietly and attentively, or are they fidgeting and looking down at their phones? Do they return your eye contact and nod occasionally to indicate “Yes, I get it”? Do their facial expressions change, especially when you slip in something humorous or surprising?
Few of those cues survive even in a Zoom or Teams meeting; and none, if webcams are not visible to you. Therefore, presenting virtually requires more confidence, intentionality, and energy on your part. If you use humor, you must have the presence of mind to wait for a laugh you cannot hear. If you ask a question, you need to make it clear whether it is rhetorical—in which case you must wait long enough for the listener to form an answer even if it is not shared—or whether you want them to go to the chat function and type in a response.
Speaking of chat, you need to make clear early on how you expect your audience to interact with you. Besides chat, you might use white boards, breakout rooms, polls, or other tools. Details of how to use these tools vary across platforms and so are beyond the scope of this article. Know what is available to you and practice ahead of time with a friendly, hand-picked audience until you are comfortable with your platform’s tools. Having a technical producer or facilitator to help you during the event is highly recommended, especially if the audience is large.
Aside from the lack of traditional feedback channels, another challenge is that your audience’s attention is diluted. You are a virtual presence on their computer screen, and their local distractions are real and present in the room with them. Therefore, every minute that you want their attention, you must remember that you are competing for it. And you are competing against an unseen and unknown foe.
Your only chance of winning that competition is to realize that being a talking head is not enough. We are surrounded by talking heads on screens, and we are accustomed to giving them only a portion of our attention. The way you capture their full attention is by offering compelling content with a clear, specific purpose, and by changing the pace and format of your delivery every few minutes.
What are some elements you can change?
One of the most powerful ways to change your delivery and recapture attention is to move in and out of sharing your screen (or slides). When presenting in person, I always make it a point to insert black slides in my slide deck when I want the audience’s attention to be fully on me. Many presenters do not seem to realize that this is an option. They may think, “There’s a screen next to me; therefore, I must fill it.” This is erroneous thinking. Your slides are not the presentation. You are. The slides are merely the visual aid.
Just as I will sometimes make the screen go blank when presenting in person, when giving a webinar or virtual training I will stop sharing my screen when I want to vary the pace and recapture attention.
You have likely seen other ways presenters vary the pace when presenting virtually. One popular technique is to pose questions in poll format. All too often, though, it seems to me that such polls are not really that interesting and do not add to my engagement as an audience member. So try to pose questions that cause your audience to reflect on your content and the experience they are having. Consider using a live-polling site like Mentimeter to expand the possibilities and capture a wider array of responses.
Be particularly careful not to overload your screen with too much detail in your tables or figures. Always go lighter in your screen content for a presentation—whether in person or virtual—than you would in print. The reader of your paper or article has the luxury of deciding how much time to spend poring over your figures. An audience member does not have that choice, because you decide when to go on to the next visual. How do you know your attendees have had time to peruse that slide to their satisfaction? You don’t, so make it something they can take in quickly while you are talking about it.
If you want them to have more detail available to them, put the full table or more detailed diagram in a handout. Have it ready to go in a PDF document and upload it to the presentation platform so that your attendees can download and keep it. Then hit the highlights in your presentation and move on.
By changing your pace and your visual elements, you can compete more effectively with the distractions that are in the same room as your audience members. And by focusing on your audience and what you are there to do for them, you are more likely to make a lasting difference and be remembered as an effective presenter. By both of these means, you will be better positioned to succeed on whatever platform you find yourself once the pandemic is past.
About the author: David P. Otey, M.A., M.B.A., a frequent speaker at AAPS meetings, hosts the podcast “The Power of Story and Science” on communication skills for scientists. His books include The Speaker’s Quick Guide to Technical Presentations and The Speaker’s Quick Guide to Presenting with Confidence (arriving May 2021). Check them out! He can be reached directly by email or through his website, He resides in Golden, Colorado.