Presentations And Presentation Skills In The Age Of Virtual Meetings

Since Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other similar virtual platforms have transformed corporate life — possibly forever — it’s time to get with the program.

Many lessons that we teach about how to construct and deliver an effective, memorable presentation are obsolete in the virtual meeting age; however, many of the techniques and tools that we’ve shared with clients for decades are even more important. Since Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other similar virtual platforms have transformed corporate life — possibly forever — and it’s time to get with the program. Here are a few pointers about what’s changed and some ideas for solutions.

Our clients and contacts are asking how best to make eye contact and use hand gestures virtually. Style and delivery are important, but just as we’ve always preached, good communication begins by asking “Who’s the audience?” and constructing an effective presentation. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, we recommended starting a presentation, particularly to internal audiences, with guideposts. Guideposts help set up a presenter’s material and let the listener know what’s going to be covered, but they are different from a traditional boring agenda.

I just worked with an engineer at one of the country’s largest technology companies. She had to deliver an update to senior management on almost two dozen projects. Guideposts transformed the initial agenda listing all of the projects into: “Today we have a lot going on — 22 projects actually. I’ll go over the familiar framework of reports in a moment, but let me start with a summary. Every single project except one is on time, on or under budget and we have a solution for the hurdles that have been encountered on the project that’s behind. While I know these reports can sound the same, our department’s mission is an important part of your overall responsibilities, and we hope you will have confidence in how we are functioning. There are two projects where we need specific comments or direction from you, and I’m going to start with those even though they are out of order for how we usually approach these reviews.”

Beginning like this gives the listeners an overview of the big picture and sounds conversational.

Now on to creating your presentation slides. If you Google “death by PowerPoint,” you’ll read that almost every company falls into the trap of using their slides as a presentation tool that does double duty as a read-ahead or a leave-behind, or to document every single metric about a topic in 10-point type. The slides in the presentation above had graphs, text and tables squeezed onto each slide. The trick was to realize that the color scheme was all that mattered. Green bars meant the initiative was progressing as planned.

One solution is actually adding more slides. Follow each crowded slide with one that pulls out the key point, or where the takeaway point is enlarged, bolded or highlighted and all the rest of the material is grayed out — that is, reduced to a light gray color so the layout looks the same, but the viewers’ eyes focus on the key point.

Additionally, make sure that all slides have a good headline — a short, catchy summary that makes a claim.

Now, let’s turn to the issues of style, starting with eye contact. Normally, we recommend making eye contact with one person until you come to the end of a phrase or sentence, and then moving to the next person. That doesn’t work remotely. In a relatively small group, one technique is to increase interaction with the participants. “Bob, I see you shaking your head. You predicted this issue would take more attention.” Work your way through at least half a dozen participants by name.

Hand gestures and arm movements are also constrained. You’re stuck in front of the screen and stationary camera. While some companies are experimenting with avatars that let their human form move around the room, we don’t expect this to become widespread soon. It’s better to start with another traditional enhancement: a prop, anything you can hold up. Even if you are displaying a slide presentation on the screen, try to find something like an email you can print out, hold up and read. “Is the automated customer service option working? Let me read you an email the department received.” You could display it on the screen but hold it up and read it instead. This creates a reason for hand and arm movement.

Virtual meeting software allows participants to, well, participate. Build interactive components into your presentation by making comments such as, “I know the tech team isn’t here, but let’s give them a hand.” Or say, “I’m curious how many of you have actually looked at the new customer contact section,” and then poll meeting participants using the polling function. These functions introduce pacing and pauses into the presentation. Use them strategically to reinforce a point.

Finally, very short video clips are a great addition to an electronic platform. We are working with a professional services company to tell its founding story. The group leader used a few seconds from similar videos by other big brands to illustrate what others are doing and to validate that telling your story is important in creating a corporate culture.

Remember to practice these components in advance, and that they will add time to the presentation.

Your facial expression is something else to pay particular attention to when participating in virtual presentations. What you look like when you’re listening is actually an important communication skill. Your “listening face” is now on display full-time. There are no masks on Zoom. It is critical to learn to lift your cheeks while listening. It’s not a smile; it’s an expression signaling that you’re listening or engaged. Try looking in a mirror and have a colleague tell you, “You like this person (in the audience)” or “You want to be here.” See what expression it triggers. Can’t do this for more than five minutes? Me either. I take written notes during others’ presentations. Even if they don’t see the light of day, it gives me a reason to look up and then back down.

There are many more tips for how to be an effective presenter in the age of virtual meetings. Start with these, and you’ll set the standard in your organization.

By Merrie Spaeth is President of Spaeth Communications, Director, Media Relations, Reagan White House. First published on November 25, 2020