Presenting in a virtual environment can be inherently awkward for speakers and an equally awkward experience for participants. Only when speakers connect with their online audiences will they and their listeners feel more at ease, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Yes, Virtual Presenting Is Weird.”
Author Sarah Gershman, president of communications firm Green Room Speakers and a professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, wrote that during in-person presentations, speakers receive audience feedback through verbal reactions, eye contact, and body language. When that feedback is taken away, like it often is in a virtual environment, speakers can get anxious wondering if anyone is listening.
“And even worse,” Gershman wrote, “because we feel as if no one is listening, we speak as if no one is listening. We sound less connected to the audience. We speak in more of a monotone. We ramble and have trouble finishing a thought. This only makes the problem worse — it both reinforces our anxiety and makes for a poor presentation. After all, the more disconnected we sound, the harder it is for the audience to listen.”
The problem can be solved by virtually recreating that audience feedback, Gershman noted. She offered three ways that speakers can inspire larger audience response and connection — and reduce their own anxiety about presenting virtually.
Use the Chat
“The hardest part of a virtual presentation is the beginning, when it feels most like nobody is listening,” Gershman wrote. Use the chat function to begin with something that brings everyone into the conversation, she suggested. Ask a relevant question — maybe what they hope to learn from the presentation — and audience members can answer in the chat. Like speakers, audience members want to know they are being heard, so make sure to read some of the comments and reveal who wrote them.
Keep it Conversational
Even when the audience can’t respond, trust that they are reacting at home to a friendly chat. Ask rhetorical questions throughout your presentation, Gershman suggested. For example, you might ask, “How does this issue resonate with you?” or “We’re all experiencing anxiety, aren’t we?” By conversing this way, speakers keep audience members actively listening and thinking — and staying connected to the content. And when a speaker continuously asks questions, Gershman wrote, they will feel like they are having a conversation, which will ease some anxiety.
Creating an emotional connection with a virtual audience can be daunting. Gershman suggested speakers can relieve that anxiety by taking time before their presentation to put themselves in the shoes of their listeners. For the speaker, this practice shifts the focus away from themselves and worrying what others think of them to being of service to their audience — which will result in more engaging presentations.