3 ways to better connect with your virtual audiences

Written by

Lara Zuehlke Hollers

I’m not sure about you, but I miss the days of sitting around a conference room or in a hotel ballroom sipping lattes and nibbling on donuts. And oh, how I took for granted being live in front of the room as a presenter and facilitator.

What a luxury to be able to read the energy of the audience right in front of you, in the moment. Are they nodding off? Did the video fall flat? No worries, just switch gears by doing a quick pair and share with their neighbor or send them to the corners of the room to brainstorm on oversized Post-its.

As leaders, presenters, and facilitators in a virtual world, the onus is now more on us to hold an audiences’ attention. Over the past months, we’ve all had to become experts at reading our audiences through Brady Bunch-tiled computer screens—simultaneously presenting into a camera while trying to engage minds and hearts with our content.

And empathy is the place to begin.

Elevating Empathy, Virtually

According to Gartner, this approach to virtual meetings isn’t changing any time soon. In fact, by 2024, the research firm estimates only 25% of business meetings will happen face-to-face (compared to 60% pre-pandemic).

So that leaves a large majority of our most important presentations, meetings, and conference sessions to a virtual format. While you may be prepared for this in terms of technology, are you fully prepared for the potential business implications of permanently shifting your culture to this virtual approach? And are your employees and clients?

Just as no one wanted to listen to the presenter droning about themselves in a live audience, they certainly don’t want a self-centered presenter virtually. As Nancy Duarte shares in her book Resonate, “embrace a stance of humility and deference to your audiences’ needs. Begin the presentation from a shared place of understanding. Make it about the audience.”

Empathy is the heart of creating powerful stories that educate, engage, and move your audiences into action. It’s how you can ensure your audience remains the hero of the story, no matter the format by which you’re engaging them.

3 Keys to Winning Hearts and Minds Virtually

In her new book, Presenting Virtually: Communicate and Connect with Online Audiences, Duarte Chief Strategy Officer, Patti Sanchez, explores how organizations of all sizes can improve their ability to extend empathy to their audiences—whether direct reports, colleagues, leaders within their organization, or external stakeholders and clients.

Sanchez says taking the necessary time upfront in the planning stages to truly understand your audience and their needs is the first critical step to ensuring your message resonates. After all, your audiences are the ones who ultimately decide whether to pick up your message and act. As you’re building your next virtual presentation or meeting, I’d invite you to keep these keys in mind…

1. Consider the New Golden Rule

Many of us have been reciting that adage since we first learned to tie our shoes. Yet, in today’s world, it’s no longer enough to simply do unto others as we’d like. Rather, we say, “never deliver a presentation you wouldn’t want to sit through.”

Now, Sanchez explains that presenters and leaders must take it a step further: “Never deliver a presentation that is less engaging than it would have been in person.” And that means putting audiences needs and experiences at the center of every decision you make—from the key themes of your content all the way through presentation format and delivery.

2. Put Yourself in Their Heads and Hearts, Not Just Their Shoes

Adopting your audience’s perspective, Sanchez says, means going beyond merely thinking about who your audiences are or categorizing them. Rather, she encourages presenters to dig deeper to understand how the content might be received from their point of view.

How might your audience receive or resist your message? How will they feel? How will they behave? This level of insight will lead to mapping out how you can move them from where they are—to where you desire to take them in your presentation or meeting.

3. Their Environment Matters (A Lot)

Let’s face it, it’s both a blessing (you can change out that load of laundry) and a curse (the kids, mailman, and cable guy all need your attention) to work remotely. While we felt pressure to multi-task at the office, the stakes are even higher now. Whereas we may have had only one or two competitors (like reading email or working on a project) during an in-person at-the-office meeting, we now potentially have a dozen distractors (both personal and professional) vying for our audience’s attention in remote environments.

Sanchez says it is critical for presenters to consider the style of delivery needed as well as the depth and type of visuals. For example, will your presentation be viewed in the moment with slides? Will those watching the recorded version later grasp the content easily? Or will everyone be watching a pre-recorded presentation from wherever they are?

“All of these situations come with barriers that can make it hard for your audience to stay focused on you,” Sanchez writes in Presenting Virtually. “Being aware of that allows you to plan a presentation that’s easier for them to enjoy and worth their time and effort.”

The Step Beyond Empathy

As I’ve personally been navigating this time of remote work, I’ve also discovered another key component in connecting with my teams and clients: grace. Putting ourselves in the hearts and minds of those we’re seeking to communicate with, and ultimately, move into action requires of us, as leaders, to evolve as well.

Work and life are intertwined at a whole new level. This is perhaps the most profound lesson I’ve discovered in working from home—especially when my five-year-old child is around. By extending ourselves, and our clients and colleagues, more grace, we can all continue to show up authentically and do our best work while being compassionate about distractions and interruptions.

I’ve come to realize the irony in presenting and meeting virtually isn’t that we’re disconnected from one another because of the computer. In some ways, we are more intimately connected than ever. We get to interact with our clients and colleagues in their kitchens, bedrooms, and home offices. We have a front row seat into their lives, with glimpses of their kids, pets, and spouses. Even over great distances, these intimate interactions are an opportunity to be closer.

So, the more we can show up authentically as presenters and leaders, staying open and empathetic with our audiences, the more powerful and engaging our message ultimately will be.

We’ll just have to high-five virtually and supply our own snacks.

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