Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Professional speaker secrets: How to give world-class virtual presentations

Do you want to stand out when you present? Do you want to make a great impression, make your case, and sway your audience? Sure you do. We interviewed a world-class professional speaker. Here are his tips.

As the saying goes, the internet changes everything. And so has the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to the two of them, we now face a future where virtual events will play a much larger part in how we do business. On-site events will return eventually, but everyone from meeting planners to attendees has discovered that while online events aren't perfect, they can offer a lot of advantages over the traditional hotel ballroom or convention center gatherings.

This shift to virtual has meant that speakers have had to adapt to the new conditions. Whether you're a business executive speaking to a regional sales meeting, or an industry leader addressing an association conference, or a professional keynote speaker delivering a talk for a major corporation, the game has changed.

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Alfred Poor

Alfred Poor is helping these people adjust to those changes. I've known him for more than a decade. Long-time ZDNet readers may remember when I sat down with Alfred back in 2012 to discuss HDTV buying strategies. Alfred's got deep knowledge in a variety of subject disciplines (he's one of my go-to people when I have questions). That knowledge has made him an in-demand professional speaker and an expert on virtual events. He's on the Board of Advisors and is the Chief Technology Content Officer for VEG: The Virtual Events Group. And he's the host of the weekly Speaker Springboard Podcast.

I asked Alfred to share with the ZDNet audience some of his best tips for speakers who want to make the best impression with virtual presentations. Over the course of a few days, we had a very interesting back-and-forth conversation over email. My questions and his answers are below.

Let's start with the name we've become all too familiar with: Zoom. Is Zoom the way to go when doing presentations, or should businesses look at other tools like, say, ON24 or GoToWebinar?

This is an important question that is difficult to answer. It's like asking, "Which car should I buy?" If you need to haul plywood and drywall, then you should get a pickup truck. But if you need to take a carload of kids to soccer practice, you should get a minivan. Neither will work well for the other's tasks.

The key point is that you must start with the outcome; what do you hope to accomplish? This will help you pick the right tool for the job. I've helped them amass an online database of more than 400 virtual event platforms and related tools and services in my work with VEG. You don't have to search forever for the optimal choice, but do make sure that the platform you choose can handle all your needs, such as features, analytics, configuration requirements, and of course, budget.

Given the rapid changes in our pandemic era, what's the COVID-driven state of virtual, on-site, and hybrid events?

The current state of the events industry is different from what it was yesterday and different from what it will be tomorrow. Rapidly changing international travel restrictions, the vagaries of commercial air travel and the uncertainty about COVID vaccines and variants combine to create a highly unstable setting for on-site events. Not just B2B events -- such as the New York Auto Show -- but even consumer entertainment engagements are being curtailed or cancelled outright with little notice.

Meeting planners have learned that virtual events offer significant advantages, especially in these uncertain times. Costs are lower because you don't have to rent space, pay for catering, or hire technical services to support on-stage events. Exhibitors find that they don't have to design, ship, and assemble complex booths or pay for staff to be away from the office for a week at a time. And attendees can join from anywhere, often on their own schedule. This has resulted in some on-site events finding that registrations increase by five to ten times when they pivot to virtual.

Business executives and industry leaders have to present at both internal (such as sales meetings) and external (such as association conferences) events for their companies. For those with years of experience presenting on stage, how is online different?

One of the biggest challenges is that you can't just stroll onto a stage and start speaking. You don't have someone else to dress the stage, arrange the lighting, and manage the audio for you. You must provide your own equipment for all this and be able to set it up and make it work.

[For an example of this exact situation, read my story and watch the associated video: Building a YouTube studio: Upgrading to full broadcast-quality video for under $3,000 --DG]

If you work for a large enough company, they may be able to provide this support in-house or are willing to hire an outside service to help. Some meeting planners are even sending out "presenter kits" with cameras, lights, and microphones to make it easy.

How do you balance the intimate feeling of presenting from a spare bedroom and still make a splash and "bring it" in a strong and powerful way?

The key is to bring energy to your presentation. One important factor is to make "eye contact" with your audience, which means you must look directly at the camera lens while speaking. Many people find this difficult and awkward because you don't get the visible feedback that you'd get from an in-person audience. Many speakers -- including me -- also find that it helps to be standing when they deliver an online presentation as this injects more energy into your delivery.

What are some of the problems that people run into online, and how might they prevent those from happening?

Start with this premise; everything you have learned about speaking on a stage is wrong for a virtual presentation. You can't stride around the room, making large gestures. Even if you can remain on camera, the motion will be distracting. 

Instead, look at how newscasters deliver their content. Keep body movements smaller and controlled; use facial expressions to convey emotion and emphasis. And don't get so close to the camera that your head fills the screen. This can make the audience feel that you're too close to them and make them feel awkward.

What's the one best investment to improve your online presentations?

People will put up with almost anything in an online presentation except poor sound quality. If they have to strain to hear what you're saying, they will tune out and click away. You can get an excellent USB microphone for less than $100 that can deliver professional-quality sound. Get a good microphone and practice with it so that you're confident that you're providing great sound for your audience.

What's the best way to deliver an "over the top" presentation for an event?

Sadly, it does not take much to be better than most of the other speakers. You can stand out simply by having a well-thought-out background, good lighting, and smooth control of your slides or other materials. If you can use additional software to provide a quality virtual background and a seamless way to present slides without using the platform's screen-sharing feature, you're well on your way to a world-class presentation.

What is the number one mistake people make with online presentations (including speakers and event planners)?

How many times have you seen a presenter get up on stage and fumble with the remote control, trying to figure out how to advance their slides? This is one of the most common mistakes, and it is easily solved by having even the briefest of tech rehearsals. 

The same holds true in spades for virtual events. If your meeting organizer does not suggest a rehearsal, insist on having one anyway. The many combinations of platforms, hardware, software, and other components mean that there are endless ways that things can go dreadfully wrong.

Be sure that you know how to get into the platform and what it will look like while you wait your turn to speak. Some platforms don't have a "green room" for waiting speakers, and you might find yourself "on stage" while the other speaker is finishing up!

Know how to mute your mic and video and how to turn them back on. Make sure that your equipment works with the platform. And know what you're supposed to do when your presentation is over. Fifteen minutes spent checking everything out in advance can help prevent unpleasant surprises when the event goes live.

What do too many speakers fail to consider when preparing for a virtual presentation?

In a word: wardrobe. You may not think too much about what you wear on stage, or maybe you already have a "brand" image that you stick to. Not every outfit works for a virtual event.

For example, many webcams struggle with bright red; some may flash between magenta and crimson while speaking, distracting. Fine prints and plaids can result in interference patterns that can shimmer, so stick to solid colors where possible.

And avoid wearing white; cameras work best with lots of light, but pure white can overload the camera image. Pale blues are almost always a good choice.

Should you use slides with your virtual presentation, and if so, how should they be different from what you might use on stage?

Keep in mind that your audience will be seeing the slides filling their screen rather than viewing them from a distance. Make them evocative but use as little text as you can. Think back on some of Steve Jobs' presentations for Apple and how he often used one giant image with only one or two words. Use your slides to convey emotion and context, and deliver the content with your spoken words. This will help keep the audience's attention because they won't be able to "read ahead" and decide that they already know what you're going to say.

Wrapping up

It is clear that you can't sit out the pandemic in hopes of everything returning to the way it used to be. Virtual events are going to be a major part of the meeting industry, and this will provide new opportunities for those who are skilled at delivering effective online presentations. 

Big thanks to Alfred for taking the time with us. One final note: Alfred has helped many speakers through his free demonstrations. They are held on the fourth Tuesday of each month, and you can register at his Speaker Springboard website. Alfred's cool. It's definitely worth your time to give him a listen. I always learn something whenever I do.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.