Q&A: Master the skill of virtual presentations

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Written by

Patti Sanchez

In our recent webinar Master the Skill of Virtual Presentations we received many thoughtful questions. Here Patti Sanchez, our Chief Strategy Officer and author of the new book Presenting Virtually: Communicate and Connect With Online Audiences, answers the top questions collected so you can improve your own virtual communication.

What is the optimum amount of time that you can keep people engaged online?

If you’re giving a linear presentation that’s a one-way monologue with little or no interaction with the audience, then it should be no longer than 30 minutes. Based on our research, attendees prefer linear presentations—especially pre-recorded ones—to be shorter than a half hour. The optimal length is between 16 and 30 minutes.

Interactive presentations can be a bit longer because you’re involving the audience more, either through interactions during your session or at the end in a Q&A. Those presentations can be 30 to 45 minutes.

Collaborative presentations that incorporate a high degree of interaction with your audience—whether in discussions as a large group, breakout rooms, or other forms of co-creation—can be up to 60 minutes long. But it’s essential to provide lots of opportunities for participants to interact, as well as to shift modalities to keep it interesting.

For more research on preferred presentation lengths, see slides 36-37 of our new research report, The State of Communicating and Presenting Online.

What is the difference between online presentations and online facilitation?

One way to think about the difference between presenting and facilitating is that when you’re presenting you have control of the mic, whereas when you’re facilitating, you’re passing the mic.

When presenting, you’re delivering information in a formal way like showing slides, or sharing information in some other form besides slides, but essentially, you’re in control of the flow of information. With facilitation, you’re sharing the mic with other people—whether it’s facilitating a panel conversation with a couple of other co-presenters or leading a collaborative session with several participants like in a training workshop.

For this reason, facilitators need to be skilled in managing group dynamics and collaboration, which is more like improv than formal presenting. Facilitators must be able to read the room, sensing and responding to the energy that participants need—like when they’re ready for a break or a change in modality. A great facilitator will manage that energy so that there’s a good balance of types of interactions, while still making progress against the agenda and goals they’re driving toward.

Beyond those differences, online presenters and facilitators both need to start with a common foundation: Being empathetic to their audience. Putting their needs first is the best way to ensure the audience walks away feeling good about the experience.

What does a producer typically do in a virtual presentation?

Talented producers wear a few different hats at once. As a sidekick to the virtual presenter, the producer is equal parts tech wrangler, troubleshooter, and teacher’s aide.

For instance, at Duarte the producer is the one who sets up the virtual room, sends out the links for the session, launches breakouts, and guides participants on how to interact with the presenter or each other during the virtual presentation. They also put instructions for activities into the chat at key moments, monitor the chat for questions or technical issues that attendees are having, and answer questions on the fly or work one-on-one with participants who need help completing their activity. They’re truly indispensable!

How often do you ask questions of your audience and have them share their thoughts and emotions in a virtual presentation?

To decide how and when to ask a question depends on what your objective is for that question. Are you looking to just take a quick pulse? I might do that once in the beginning through a poll to get a sense of what topics are most interesting or what their biggest concern is. I’ll then use that insight to emphasize something of particular interest to the audience in my next section. Then in the middle, I might ask a question again to get their reaction to a topic I just shared. Then at the end, I’ll carve out more time for clarifying questions or further Q&A about all the topics that I’ve discussed.

Variety is the key to keeping engagement high. You want to use a variety of interaction types and asking questions is just one way to involve them. Sometimes you can ask participants just to simply share a quick reaction, like pushing a reaction or emoji button or giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to a statement.

Other good options for incorporating variety in your audience engagement tactics include slide annotations or sending participants into small-group discussions in breakout rooms. Just be sure you’re balancing the amount of effort you’re asking attendees to expend and not asking them to do too much too soon.

Should people using the chat be encouraged (to create interaction) or discouraged (to prevent distraction)?

Chat is a hot topic—and a very polarizing one—in both our research and our own experience hosting virtual events.

Some people really love a highly active chat, and some people really hate it. This probably correlates to the differences between extravert and introvert personality types. Some people process their thoughts out loud and enjoy being in the fray, while other people prefer to process their thoughts quietly and privately and find it overwhelming when other people intrude on their headspace. So, opinions are split on chat.

It’s your job as presenter or facilitator to steer the conversation and let people know at the beginning of your presentation how you want participants to interact with you and each other. Do you want them to post questions and comments in the chat as you go, or do you want them to hold those questions until the end of a section or the end of the presentation? If the virtual meeting platform you’re using gives you a different way to funnel their comments, like an actual Q&A feature, then instruct them to use that feature to post their questions (although, some people just won’t comply and will use the chat feature anyway).

Keep in mind that audiences these days are more vocal. They’re accustomed to being given lots of ways to share their feedback and make their voice heard. Vocal people will often open another channel to chat with each other—whether that’s on an internal Slack or Teams channel or external social media site, so you’re better off giving them a way to voice their input during your presentation rather than shutting it down entirely. This is where it helps to have a producer or a co-presenter with you to monitor that chat and feed common themes from the chat to you so you can respond to them during your presentation.

How many presenters should there be in a virtual presentation?

Let the length of your presentation be your guide. The shorter your presentation, the fewer presenters you should have.

If you’ve only got 15 minutes, there’s probably only enough time for one person to speak.

If you’ve got 30 minutes you might be able to tradeoff between two speakers. For instance, have one person do an introduction, another person do the next section, then hand back to the original speaker for another section, and then finally have them both answer questions at the end.

If you have 60 minutes perhaps you could squeeze in a third voice in a panel format—but you want to ensure smooth handoffs between speakers, and handoffs take time. If you have three presenters in 60 minutes, perhaps one presenter does the introduction and closing, while the other two presenters each present a short segment of 10 or 15 minutes each, followed by a Q&A led by the first presenter acting as a moderator.

If you’re going to have more than three speakers, you’ll need at least 90 minutes or more to allow them each to unpack their ideas—and that becomes more like multiple keynotes within a single keynote. It’s tricky to pull off unless you have a clear structure and storyline that weaves their talks together into a cohesive whole, but it can be done.

Is there consideration for the screen size your audience is using?  E.g., whether they are using phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, or even multiple monitors? Does your content need to be customized for each format?

Absolutely. The more you know about your audience and the environment in which they might be watching your presentation, the more you can design your slides to be most accessible on that type of device. But it can be hard to predict.

If you’re speaking to a mixed audience in different places, they might be using a wide range of devices from laptops to large screen TVs in conference rooms. If you’re presenting to an internal audience and you know that they’re all going to be sitting on site in a particular location like in the Town Hall for an all-hands meeting, it makes your job easier because you can just design for that one environment.

But in virtual presentations people are most likely watching on multiple kinds of devices. If your presentation is pre-recorded it’s even more likely that they could be watching it on a small device (like a phone or a tablet) after hours.

One way to deal with all those potential different formats is to design for the lowest common denominator: the smallest likely device and the slowest likely Internet speed. Your fonts also need to be large enough that they can be read on a small device (we’ve found font size 24-32 is accessible to most).

You’ll need to strip excess content off your slides to make the font that large, but you can put the additional information into a document like a Slidedoc™ that you send to your audience before or after your presentation. This way they don’t miss out on any of that awesome content you’ve worked so hard to create for them.

Can you recommend a camera, light, and microphone to have professional video quality when presenting online?

There are a lot of great cameras, lights, and microphones available for virtual presenters. But here are a few that presenters at Duarte use…

Though, it’s possible to still achieve a professional look without all the fancy tech supplies. Here are a few quick tips to keep in mind:

  • Camera: Grab a spare Amazon box or some books to prop up your laptop so its built-in camera is at eye-level.
  • Light: Be naturally front lit by positioning yourself in front of a window or desk lamp. Never sit with a window or other bright light behind you, or your face will be hard to see.
  • Microphone: Use your built-in computer microphone or a wired headset—avoid Bluetooth earbuds that are prone to cutting out.


We hope you’ve found these tips on presenting virtually helpful! Watch the complete webinar here for more.

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Illustrated by Alexis Macias