Virtual presentations are a whole new world.
Not only must you have great content and dynamic delivery. You have to squeeze it all through a hair’s-breadth glass fiber. After 30 years as a professional speaker, and more than a decade as an executive speech coach, here are some lessons I’ve learned the hard way, and simple tips to look and sound your professional best online.
Appearing on Camera
Presenting on ZOOM (or other virtual platforms) is less like a speech, and more like a TV show. You can’t just plop down in front of your laptop, log in, and expect anyone to pay attention. Pick up the pace. The small screen is short-attention-span theater. People WILL multi-task, so you have to work even harder to keep them engaged.
This is THE biggest bugaboo. Video conferencing pushes a LOT of data. Watching a webinar on your phone in a Starbucks might work, but not for a presenter (and for lots of other reasons as well, including security, privacy, and professionalism). Trying to deliver a webinar over a cellular connection or wifi hot-spot is even more risky. ZOOM recommends a minimum of 2 mb/second for a single screen, 4 mbs if you screen-share. Verizon claims 4G download speeds between 5 and 12 mbs, and upload speeds between 2 and 5 mbs, which is sufficient, depending, of course, on your cell signal. Five bars? Maybe. Two bars and you’re offline.
Faster is better. A reasonably dependable connection is 5 mb/second. If you have one of the newer 5G wifi routers, you might just get by. The older 2.4G just isn’t fast enough. And if you’re using a range extender, or one of the mesh networks like Eero, Google Nest or Orbi, they cut your effective connection speed in half. If possible, connect your computer directly to the router with a CAT-6 cable.
Use www.SpeedTest.net to check it. If you don’t have a fast connection at home, arrange to present from a location that does.
Even cheap earbuds work fine for this. Without them, the sound from the computer’s speakers gets picked up by the computer’s microphone, and feeds back in a loop. Because of the lag inherent in the Internet, this delay will add an echo that you won’t hear, but will annoy the hell out of everyone else.
Use a good mic
You’ll only sound as good as the mic, and the one built into your laptop is crap. Get the mic as close to your face as possible. A $10 pair of USB earbuds is an upgrade. If you want to narrate video as you shoot, the white corded earbuds that came with your phone will help a lot. Even cheap USB headsets (see below) have better built-in mics. The Rode NT-USB at $99, or the Blue Yeti at $129, is a good start and connects directly to a USB port.
If you’re going to record video narration, podcasts, or host a lot of meetings, invest in a professional setup like the AKG P220 cardioid condenser microphone and boom-arm bundle. And position it outside the shot where it won’t distract. You’ll also need a digital pre-amp to connect to the computer. Several clients use the Focusrite Scarlet Solo to create broadcast-quality presentations and videos.
One of the professional speakers I coach repurposed the professional tech he uses on stage, connecting his Countryman E6 mic and Sennheiser wireless system through the Focusrite. He also uses the same clicker, the Logitech R800 Presenter Remote ($49) to advance his slides. He can now stand and speak, hands free.
Use a headset
The Logitech H390 is a great value ($25 on Amazon). Go Bluetooth wireless with a pair of Apple Airpods; at $139 they look cool and actually sound really good. Or go sportscaster pro with the Plantronics PLT Focus at $229.00.
Avoid sitting in front of a window; you just cast a scary silhouette. If you’re lucky enough to have lots of natural light, sit facing the window against a darker background. If not, place a diffuse light source above, behind, and off to one side of the camera, so your face is brighter than the background, and slightly brighter on one side than the other. If you wear glasses, adjust the light so it doesn’t glint in the lenses.
Position the webcam at eye level, or slightly higher. No one wants to watch your ceiling fan, and I’ve spent too many meetings counting nose hairs. Rule of thirds: if you divide the screen into thirds, top to bottom, your eyes should line up between the top and middle third. Maintain eye contact with your audience. Sit up straight and look into the camera, not at your screen. One client taped a picture of his wife just above the lens, and imagines he’s talking to her. They should see your hands in the shot when you gesture.
Upgrade your webcam
The camera built into your laptop was made in China and cost 40 cents. Even the new MacBook Pro only comes with a 1.2-megapixel (1,280 x 720 resolution) webcam. By comparison, one of the most popular USB webcams, the Logitech Brio Ultra HD Pro, gives you ultra hi-def 4K HD. For $199. Free shipping. It even has AI that airbrushes out the wrinkles. No, I’m not kidding.
Clean up the clutter. Skip the virtual backgrounds and green-screen effects. They take up a lot of processor power and hog bandwidth. Video-conferencing apps only push the pixels that change frame-to-frame, so a static background is way more stable.
Control the acoustics
Even a good mic will sound crappy in a cave. Avoid big open spaces, bare hardwood floors, and untreated windows. Sit in front of an irregular, sound-absorbing background, like a bookshelf or fireplace. Avoid sitting in a corner; it focuses your voice right back into the mic. An Amish quilt makes a nice backdrop, and damps reflected sound.
To avoid distortion, in ZOOM go to Preferences -> Audio, and under Microphone, UNcheck the box for “Automatically adjust microphone volume.” Set the Input Level slider to about 70%.
Dress for Success
OK, you haven’t had a haircut since February, but that’s no reason to show up in a black hoodie and boxers. Dress professionally, just as you would for an important meeting, including hair and makeup, even for men. A little foundation or powder kills the shine. Avoid the dangly trout-lure earrings and massive Stonehenge necklace that may distract. Your eyes should be the focus of attention.
Close ALL your other apps. Please put the dog in the kennel, in the garage, next door. Turn off the ringers. Kill notifications. Hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign. Consign kids to the basement (or grandma’s if you don’t have a basement.) Ask your neighbor when he plans to mow, then borrow his chainsaw.
Avoid sitting with your back to a big room where others may walk through the shot. Naked.
Coordinate with your host and moderator to join the meeting at least 30 minutes early to make sure everything works. If not, you’ll have time (and help) to sort it out. Once participants start arriving, your hosts will have their hands full.
The Waiting Room feature is essential. Keep prying eyes out until everything’s go, then the moderator can Admit All with one click. And once the meeting opens, PLEASE don’t ask, “Can you hear me NOW?”
Get the Audience POV
Once you’re logged in from your computer, log in again from another device as a participant. An iPad works great, or even a cell phone. Turn the sound all the way off and set it off to the side. Now you can see what the audience sees. This is especially helpful when switching screens, or compensating for the lag when advancing slides. If I hear a speaker ask, “Can you see my slides?” one more time, that vein in my neck is gonna’ burst.
Slides and Video
Build your slides from a 16×9, wide-screen template (4×3 is so last millennium). Large images with minimum text work best. Never use downloaded or stock images unless you’ve bought the license (yes, Getty will sue). Use the highest-resolution photos you can find; we’ll compress them later. Plan to advance the slide every 30 seconds or so. That’s 120 slides (or builds within a slide) in an hour. To keep attention, keep it moving.
If you have multiple bullet points on a slide, limit them to 5 lines per slide. Animate them to Wipe -> Left-to-Right -> on click (that’s how we read). Add Transitions -> Fade -> Apply to All for a smooth, professional look. Ignore all of the other animation effects. Spinning boxes and flying pigs gobble bandwidth.
The same applies to embedded video. Shoot with your phone in horizontal (letterbox) format. Use a tripod to keep the picture steady. Start with a wide establishing shot, then move in for closeups. If you narrate on the fly, connect the earbuds that came with the phone for better sound and reduced noise. Better still, add narration later at your desk. Before imbedding the video in the presentation render it as an MP4, which is about one-fifth the file size of an MOV.
Before saving your final deck, apply the File -> Compress Pictures -> (On-Screen 150 ppi) option to reduce the file size. Check the box to Discard cropped areas. Images will load faster and advance more smoothly.
Keep it simple. Combine all of the elements of your program into one slide deck, with video clips imbedded, so you don’t have to switch between shared screens. Better still, use a virtual video switcher like vmix to switch directly from your camera to your slides, video, or on-line demo.
Rehearse with your moderator
Schedule a dress rehearsal with your host and moderator well in advance. You do have a host and a moderator, right? You’re the guest speaker; the host emcees the meeting, while the moderator manages the mute, runs the tech, and watches the chat. Put ALL your attention on your performance. Amateurs practice ’til they get it right. Professionals practice ’til they can’t get it wrong.
Plan for disaster
With the whole world watching webinars, YouTube, and Netflix, the global Internet is now over-subscribed by as much as 15%, so overload is inevitable. Even with adequate upload speeds, you’ll experience occasional distorted sound, dropouts, and skipped frames from bandwidth squeeze. You may even find yourself kicked out through no fault of your own. New algorithms detect hi-priority traffic, and are programmed to fail just as your presentation starts.
Upload a copy of your slides to the moderator. Put the call-in number on speed-dial. If you get kicked out, you can still phone in the audio (from a land line if you’re a Luddite like me, and still has and the moderator can share and advance the slides. Your host should be prepared to cover the gap with an exercise or a break. Also upload a copy of the slides and handouts to a Dropbox, Google Drive, or landing page on your website. Ask to be made a co-host. If all else fails, you can announce the URL, and the audience can access the slides directly.
Model the pros
Watch the late-night comics, especially Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, and John Oliver. Notice how they’ve adapted their big-theater shows to the small screen. You too can look good online without a Hollywood budget.