Although traditional face-to-face public speaking has a 2,500-year history and thousands of research articles to support it, speaking online is a relatively new practice.
All online speaking is not created equal. You might take an online class that requires you to send a video of yourself giving a speech for a grade. You might be participating in a webinar or leading a Zoom meeting for work. These have become very common in the educational and business world because they save huge amounts of money and time.
With this growth in popularity, we have a growth in the number of problems and common behaviours (or misbehaviours) in webconferencing and, thus, online public speaking. Much of the advice on webconference public speaking comes as antidotes to the worst practices that have developed in them:
- the audience’s multitasking (and thus not fully attending to the webinar)
- the audience’s being bored to death and tuning out (or even falling asleep)
Both of these conditions come from the fact that the communication is mediated and that, in many cases, the speaker and audience don’t see each other. Even when the participants use their web cameras (which doesn’t always happen), the screen is often covered with a slide and the speaker is invisible. Therefore, the speaker has to depend on something else to address the temptation to multitask or nod off.
16.1 — Preparation for Online Speaking
First, recognize that this is a different type of venue. You have three main tools: your voice, your image, and your visual aids (usually slides, documents, or websites, but also videos).
If monotone and monorate speaking is horrible for face-to-face speaking, it is truly the “kiss of death” for web speaking. The key word is “energy”; an energetic voice has tonal variation and emphasis, variation in pace and meter, planned pauses, and sometimes word play (which can be subtle or overt, but shouldn’t be overdone—this isn’t Dr. Seuss). Since we tend to have a lower energy level when we sit, some experts suggest that web conference speakers stand to approximate the real speaking experience.
Second, you need good visual aids or no visual aids—nothing in between. Most of us are tempted to put far too much text and too many graphics on slides and, since the slides are the primary image the audience will see (rather than your full body), the temptation is even stronger. As one expert on web speaking suggested, if your presentation in the workforce is likely to be heavy on graphs, data, and information because it’s all information the audience must know, send the information in a report ahead of time. We’ve mentioned before that speeches are not good for dumping a great deal of information on audiences.
Therefore, keep your visuals simple. One rule business speakers like to use is the “10-20-30: rule: No more than 10 slides, no more than 20 words on the slides, and no font smaller than 30 point.” Using 30 point font will definitely minimize the amount of text. Inserting short videos and planning interactivity (such as polls, which the software supports) are also helpful.
Also in the realm of preparation, avoid two other problems that are common in webinars. Since some of your presentation might be visible, be sure your background is “right.” Many people perform webinars in their offices and, let’s be honest, some offices provide backgrounds that are less than optimal. They are either messy and disorganized or have distracting decorations. In other cases, you could be sitting in a neutral place with a blank wall behind you, but that setting can have its own issues. A speaker who wears a white shirt against a white background can almost “disappear.”
The web speaker must be master of the technology, not mastered by it. Technology messes up. That is a fact of life. One of the sources for this appendix was an archived video of a webinar about web speaking by an expert; during the webinar, his Internet connection was lost. Even if the connection is strong, the speaker must know what buttons to push on the software. For this reason, have an “assistant” who handles the technology and makes sure it works so that you can focus on the communication.
Experts give a few other preparation tips:
- Make sure you will not be interrupted during the webconference. This can be extremely embarrassing as well as ineffective. You have probably seen the priceless video from the BBC of an interview with an expert on Korea. His children photobomb the interview and then the mother tries to clean up the damage. It is hilarious, but the same situation won’t be for you. Lock the door, put a big sign on the door not to be disturbed, and turn off the phones.
- Have notes and anything else you need right at hand. Be mindful, though, that you still don’t want to read from a script, even if you think you appear to be looking at the camera.
- If you can be seen, be seen; use the technology to your advantage so that you are not an entirely disembodied voice talking over slides.
Finally, in preparing, think of humour. Cartoons, short videos, funny anecdotes, and visual humour can help you work against the audience’s temptations to multitask or daydream in a webinar. There is a limit and it should be tasteful and relevant, but humour might be one of your best allies. Plus, it might increase your own energy level and fun with the webinar.
16.2 — During the Web Speech
As with any speech, start on time. This might seem obvious, but if you have ever been in an online meeting or webinar, it’s harder said than done, mainly because participants log on at the start of the meeting, rather than early, and the technology takes time to kick in. Therefore, have a “soft” introduction for the punctual and a “hard” opening for the late-comers. The soft intro could be the fun, attention-getting one (video, interactivity) and the hard one the “this is why the topic matters let’s get down to business” opening.
As the speaker, you should be online well before the beginning of the meeting and ready with your technology and presentation.
Web speaking is often scheduled for a longer period of time than a face-to-face speech, which does not add to the audience’s attention level. For this reason, your presentation should include time for questions and input from the audience. However, this should be planned at intervals, perhaps between main sections of the speech, so that the speaker isn’t interrupting at inconvenient times. A skilled speaker may wish to make the presentation almost conversational, handling questions and comments as they arise. This, however, takes tremendous awareness of the time and skill with handling the audience. Getting side-tracked for five minutes might mean you need to cut from your speech in ways you didn’t want to.
Consider the following tactics, as well:
- Along with standing up for your presentation, smile. People can hear a smile even when they don’t see you.
- In your use of questions, be specific. The typical “Any questions?—pause—let’s go on” is really pretty ineffective. First, it’s not directed or specific and, second, people need time to formulate their questions and articulate them. Even saying, “What questions do you have?” is better, but even better is to ask specific questions about what you’ve been addressing. Many times you can forecast possible questions and use those.
- The issue of a question-and-answer period brings up a logistical question. Some participants will question orally through the web cam set-up. Others, with limited technology, will use the chat feature. It takes time to type in the chat feature. Be prepared for pauses.
- Remember the power of transitions. Many people think that slides don’t need transitions because, well, they change, isn’t that enough? No, it’s not. The speaker needs to tie the messages of the slides together.
- Verbal pauses can be helpful. Since one of the delivery faux-pas that put audiences to sleep is a continual, non-stop flow of words, a pause can get attention.
- Look at the camera, not the screen. You will appear more professional in those cases where the audience can see you.
- Do tech walk-throughs and make sure your camera is working well and picking up your voice.
- Wear appropriate clothing. Not being in person may tempt you to wear something too informal. This might be an opportunity to go a step beyond in your clothing. Make sure, also, that it looks good on camera in terms of colour and lighting in your setting. Some patterns do not look good on camera.
- Along that line, since you probably won’t have professional lighting, get the room as bright as you possibly can, but do not point the camera in the direction of a bright light. The light should be coming from behind the camera.
16.3 — Ending
As mentioned before, webconferences and webinars can go long; don’t let that happen. End on time. Allow participants to email you questions if needed, but don’t take advantage of people’s time by entertaining questions longer than the scheduled time. Software allows for recording and archiving, so the audience should know how to access the recording.
As mentioned before, this subject is an evolving one. These tips and tactics should help not just avoid the major problems but also cross the finish line into an effective presentation.
Links that might help with this topic:
This chapter was adapted from Exploring Public Speaking, 4th Edition by Barbara Tucker and Matthew LeHew, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.