SUMMARY: What is it about virtual presenting that can feel so unnerving? The lack of audience response, the inability to “read the room,” and the lack of direct eye contact all increase our anxiety. Recreating the back and forth of a conversation — even in a webinar — can help you feel more connected to your audience, which will make you sound less remote and more connected. It is easy to forget that, though you cannot see your virtual audience, they really are still there. They are listening and, now more than ever, they need your attention. While virtual presentations will never be the same as in-person interactions, it is possible to create meaningful back and forth communication that will help you feel less anxious and more connected to your audience.
Recently, I worked with a CEO who told me that she dreads giving virtual presentations. “I used to enjoy getting up in front of an audience,” she explained. “I loved working the room. Now, I feel like I’m speaking into a black hole.”
What is it about virtual presenting that can feel so unnerving? Surprisingly, one answer to this question can be found right outside our windows by listening to how birds communicate. Birds call out to each other primarily for survival — to signal danger and to attract a mate. Imagine how scary it must be for a bird to call out and receive no response? This is how we often feel when we present on Zoom — like the bird who calls out and hears only silence.
Pre-Covid, when we presented in person, we could rely on the audience response to confirm that our message was being received. In virtual presentations, however, we lack audience feedback. We no longer see body language. We often don’t see people nodding their heads (or nodding off if they are bored) and it is much harder to make eye contact. As a result, we feel like no one is listening. Unfortunately, this makes us even more anxious about speaking. And even worse, because we feel as if no one is listening, we speak as if no one is listening. We sound less connected to the audience. We speak in more of a monotone. We ramble and have trouble finishing a thought. This only makes the problem worse — it both reinforces our anxiety and makes for a poor presentation. After all, the more disconnected we sound, the harder it is for the audience to listen.
How can we solve this problem? How can we relieve our own anxiety that nobody’s listening to our virtual presentations? And more importantly, how can we help the virtual audience feel our presence and hear our message?
The answer is to virtually simulate the call and response function we experience during in-person presentations. Like a bird, a virtual speaker must deliberately and compellingly issue a call and elicit a response.
Fortunately, virtual platforms offer effective ways to do this. While virtual presentations will never be the same as in-person interactions, it is possible to create meaningful back and forth communication that will help you feel less anxious and more connected to your audience.
Here are three ways to elicit greater audience response and connection in your virtual presentations:
Use the chat, especially when you start. The hardest part of a virtual presentation is the beginning, when it feels most like nobody is listening. “Uh…is this working?” or “Can everyone hear me?” gets the presentation off to a weak start and reinforces the distance. Instead, begin with something that brings everyone in. The chat function is a great way to get immediate audience response. You could begin with a relevant question and ask people to type the answer in the chat. For example, you might ask everyone to write one thing they hope to learn from the presentation. The chat is especially helpful to introverts who may not want to speak up. Make sure to read aloud at least some of the answers (and use first names if you can). When you engage the audience immediately, you feel as though people are listening, which raises your confidence for the rest of the presentation.
Even when the audience can’t respond, keep it conversational. Webinars, with their lack of audience response, can make a speaker particularly nervous. One way to simulate the back and forth nature of a conversation is to ask rhetorical questions throughout your presentation. For example, when you introduce a new idea, you might say, “Are you ready to try something new?” Or, if you want people to notice something, you might say, “Do you see the shift from low to high on the chart?” For the audience, rhetorical questions create open loops in the brain which we then want to close by answering them in our heads. This helps the audience stay active and connected to your content, even when they can’t talk to you. By continuously asking questions, you’ll feel more as though you were having a conversation, which eases some of the anxiety.
Empathise. One of the reasons why giving a virtual presentation can feel so unsettling is that we find it hard to emotionally connect with the audience. By taking a few moments before a presentation to put yourself in the shoes of the listener, you will feel more emotionally connected to them when you speak. Keep in mind that it is difficult and draining to listen to a virtual presentation. What can you do to make it easier? By empathising with your virtual audience, you shift the focus away from yourself (and what others think of you), which relieves speaking anxiety. Empathising also helps you design a presentation that best helps your audience and serves their needs.
Virtual presentations are inherently awkward. The lack of audience response, the inability to “read the room,” and the lack of direct eye contact all increases our anxiety. Recreating the back and forth of a conversation — even in a webinar — can help you feel more connected to your audience, which will make you sound less remote and more connected. It is easy to forget that, though you cannot see your virtual audience, they really are still there. They are listening, and now more than ever, they need your attention.
This article was originally written by Sarah Gershman, the President of Green Room Speakers, a communications firm based in Washington DC. She is a professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, where she teaches public speaking to students from around the globe. Full credit goes to HBR, who published this article earlier this year. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.