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As in-person events get canceled in the shadow of COVID-19, the shift to online meetings is happening literally everywhere right now, from the halls of business and educational institutions to the performance venues and public spaces of our cultural establishments.
At Duarte Inc., we have helped public companies flip their large in-person conferences to virtual events, and we have built our own workshops in virtual format. So we know that for organizations getting into virtual presentations for the first time, a few basics are critical. You can move your event to the small screen without coming across as small time.
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The great news is that attendees have super low expectations of what webinars and virtual conferences are like. If you can make your online presentation interesting, interactive, and clearly designed specifically for your audience and format, your audience will enjoy it and be grateful.
These seven tips will help you do that. We know they work. They will also help you run any virtual event better, whether it’s for hundreds of paid attendees or for a meeting of 10 staff members.
7 Strategies for Better Virtual Conferencing
The first three strategies are about how to engage your audience. This is always the most important aspect to consider when communicating in any medium. The next four strategies involve the production of your videoconference, which may depend on the technology and resources you have at your disposal.
1. Involve the audience quickly. Do you want your attendees to participate, interact, and/or ask questions during the presentation? Get them involved within two minutes of starting. Ask them a poll question, ask them to respond to something in a chat space, or have them submit nonverbal feedback such as a thumbs-up, for example. Everyone is conditioned to regard webinars as passive experiences, so do some work at the beginning to break the script.
If you get your audience to interact twice within the first five minutes, you reset their expectations. Now they will be on their toes and paying attention, knowing that you’re likely to involve them again.
2. Build in interaction that’s useful for attendees, rather than self-serving. Many of the polls and interactions in videoconferences I’ve attended seem to be built for the hosts to collect marketing insights about the audience. Not cool.
Instead, incorporate polls and interactions that demonstrate empathy and benefit your audience. Ask questions where the collective answers give your audience advantageous insights and perspective into their world. For example, in a recent virtual workshop we hosted, we asked attendees to tell us how much they enjoyed giving presentations by dropping an emoticon on a spectrum of answers. (See “Use Interactive Polling for Virtual Engagement.”) One attendee acknowledged in a chat window that was open during the poll that she’d worked hard to move from a 4 to an 8 and was very proud of herself. Making your interactions about your audience helps them realize insights about themselves.
3. Lure and re-lure your audience. Your audience will check out if they don’t find you interesting. Your biggest competitor for their attention is their email. Your job is to be so interesting that they won’t sneak into that in-box.
Remember that in a virtual situation, audio trumps visuals. Make your experience more like a radio show by having multiple presenters so that the sound of each new voice creates novelty and reengages the brains of your audience. As always, create slides worth looking at that amplify clarity, showcase frameworks, and create meaning.
4. Work the camera. When you’re presenting material to an audience virtually, you have to make each audience member feel like she or he has the best seat in the house. Communicating through videoconferencing requires you be disciplined in looking at the camera — and not at the content on your screen. It takes practice to gaze steadily at that tiny little circle where the camera lens is.
It also takes practice to feel your heart warm as if there were humans literally on the other side of the camera and to generate warmth through this medium. Always remember that eye contact is one of the primary ways trust is established. If you are looking at your screen, you are not looking your audience in the eye.
5. Use a producer and moderator. A producer is an expert in the technical platform. This person monitors chat windows for issues, chooses which screens are shared when with the audience, launches polls, moves groups into breakout rooms, and deals with technical problems and queries.
A moderator adds structure to the event by acting as the emcee, explaining housekeeping, introducing speakers, calling on people, moving questions along, making every call to action clear, and announcing breaks.
Having these two people in place means that the presenter can … (wait for it) … present. (See “Give the Video Presenter the Best Chance to Succeed.”)
6. Don’t forget you’re on camera. Whether you are a presenter or an audience member, don’t groom your hair, pick your teeth, pick your nose, roll your eyes, touch your face, talk to a neighbor, or leave the room thinking we can’t see you. We can see you! If you need to do any of the above, turn off your camera.
7. Plan your shots. A public company we work with moved a conference from a large venue to a small, private one. We created a dynamic experience for viewers by preplanning when the audience would see a close-up of the presenter, when they would see a wide view, and when they would see slides. (See “Plan Your Shots to Create a Dynamic Video Experience.”)
It’s incumbent on the meeting planner to think about producing an event that mixes things up. Planning for a variety of shots gives audience members an appealing array of elements to focus on visually and keeps them engaged.
Many of you won’t be presenting with the benefit of a fancy camera crew. But you should always take a moment to set up your own work-from-home “stage.” Take an objective look at what others will see when looking at you on camera. I didn’t hire a sales guy once because his filthy kitchen with dirty dishes was on the counter behind him. Tidy up, people! And make sure you are visible, which might mean adjusting where your lights are placed so you’re not poorly lit.
Creating an online experience for an audience requires you to rehearse content and technology. When you craft a valuable online experience for your audience, you will stand out from the many others who don’t take the time to be audience first.