With a new year upon us, we propose a collective resolve to make 2022 the Year of the Empathetic Virtual Presenter. You can captivate your virtual audience by honing your verbal communication skills and body language.
Establishing quick rapport is important.
According to a 2017 psychological study published by the University of Toronto, most people need only five seconds to gauge the charisma and leadership of a speaker. This quick read has evolutionary advantages and is part of the multi-factor assessment known as the “first impression.”
Fair or unfair, first impressions set the bar for how we respond to and interact with a new person. While it is possible to shift those perceptions over time, virtual presenters don’t always get that chance. Moreso than in-person, virtual audiences are bombarded with digital notifications, environmental distractions, and the temptation to multitask.
Five seconds of flat tone and stiff delivery could sap your audience’s patience and turn their attention to their inbox. But five good seconds can establish your authority as the subject matter expert and build empathy with your audience. While competing with your audience’s inbox begins in the first five seconds of the call, your virtual presentation preparation can start well in advance.
In Spring 2021, Duarte surveyed business professionals to understand the most and least effective methods for presenting in virtual or hybrid environments. Our new Duarte guidebook, Presenting Virtually: Communicate and Connect With Online Audiences, captures the results of that survey and offers actionable steps for improvement.
Building your verbal and nonverbal virtual communication skills can not only help you establish a strong first impression, it will also ensure you deliver a strong virtual presentation from beginning to end.
Find Physical Comfort
Captivating your next virtual audience starts long before the cameras and microphones toggle on. To become a powerful presenter, you need to be a comfortable speaker who looks physically at ease and confident.
The path to conveying confidence requires you to think about how you physically show up on screen. While there are advantages and drawbacks to any choice, start by thinking about which option makes you feel most comfortable.
For example, should you sit or stand? Standing gives the audience a clear view of the speaker, encourages better posture, and produces a stronger, more energetic voice. But sitting is helpful for speakers who tend to sway or shift their movement. Sitting also helps establish direct angles between the speaker and the camera lens, encouraging appropriate eye contact with your audience. Your choice to sit or stand should come down to your own personal comfort. What helps you, the presenter, feel at ease?
What should you wear? Attire should always match the formality of the occasion. If the stakes are high, you might choose to dress in business attire, such as a suit jacket or blazer. If they’re lower, a button-down shirt or dress might suffice. Your video background might change the way your outfit is perceived on screen, so test your outfit on video before going live. Also remember that busy patterns can create what’s called the moiré effect, or a noisy visual distortion on screen. These visual effects, while unseen by the presenter, can serve as a major distraction for your audience.
Move with Intention
A powerful presenter uses dynamism to attract—and keep—the audience’s attention. To do so, a dynamic speaker uses gestures and movement.
In a traditional stage presentation, large movement can help you convey passion and contrast. But in a typical virtual presentation, your frame for visible movement is physically constrained. That means you need to adjust the way you move to be most effective.
For your audience: In general, aim to keep your motions open and inviting. Fidgeting, crossed arms, and closed off postures send the nonverbal cue that you are tentative, unsure, or unprepared. Talk with open gestures that welcome the audience into your space. Gesture with your palms showing, pointing outward at a 45-degree angle as if you say, “I’m handing this thought to you.”
Both gestures and facial expressions provide context and additional meaning to help your audience understand. For example, pounding the table as you enunciate key words cues your audience to the importance of your message. Or furrowing your brow might alert your audience that you’re concerned.
For you: Gestures and facial expressions not only help your audience understand, they can also cue you, the speaker, to deliver in a more engaging way. Using gestures can help increase your energy levels, which in turn can make your voice sound more animated. Even if your audience can’t see all your gestures, practicing these gestures and facial expressions can help you feel more energetic as a presenter.
Make the Most of Your Voice
Virtual presentations come with many advantages, including the ability to present to global audiences. With that flexibility comes the potential for audio quality issues on the audience’s side. Even if your presentation is captured and transmitted at the highest quality, inferior connection and equipment along the way can garble your message. Besides using gestures to maximize your voice, powerful presenters also need to speak with clarity. Pacing your rate of speech, enunciating your words, and speaking loudly to cut through any noise are critical.
One way to improve your voice is to correct your posture. Sit or stand upright with a straight spine and squared shoulders. Breathe deeply from your diaphragm for a stronger voice, and don’t be afraid to slightly over-articulate your words to ensure precision.
In addition, vocal variety helps your audience understand your message by adding emotion to your words. Grab their attention by fluctuating your volume, pace, and pitch. Here are a few examples:
- Punch a word or phrase by saying it louder: As you reach the key point of your presentation, play with the emphasis of the most important words using increased volume. For example, instead of saying, “We must do this,” try, “We MUST do this.”
- Use pauses to let a point land: White space, or the absence of material, is a very important design element and the same is true for speaking. Verbal white space, or the intentional pause between thoughts, gives your audience time to absorb your message.
- Talk faster to convey urgency or excitement: When you need to motivate your audience to take action, your voice can be an asset. Increasing your rate of speech will help your audience understand that your message is timely or critical.
- Talk slower to express gravity or calm: Decreasing your rate of speech can help reduce tension or anxiety among team members. Especially after a moment of urgency or excitement, talking slower can offer the contrast your audience needs to get back to calm.
- Use a higher pitch to sound more approachable: Especially when establishing rapport with an audience, don’t be afraid to increase the pitch of your voice to sound inviting and warm. Just be mindful of speaking in a pitch that’s too high—that might rob you of your authority. Balance is key.
- Use a lower pitch to sound authoritative and commanding: Using the lower register of your natural pitch range can help you convey power and importance. Especially when there’s no room for dissent, a more commanding voice can tell your audience, “This is the only way forward.”
Captivate Your Audience Through Any Channel
When it comes to presenting virtually, if you’re unsure of how to deliver, let the audience guide you. An empathetic speaker identifies the needs of their audience and delivers in a way that meets those needs.
With digital technologies transforming the future of work, virtual presentations are here to stay. No matter what your presentation seeks to achieve, these simple exercises will help you be a better virtual presenter.
Illustrated by Taylor Henry