The subtle art of virtual presentations

The transition to remote work has dramatically increased the popularity of video conferences as a method of workplace communication. We are thus expected to present using our personal equipment in spaces that were not designed for producing this kind of content. Here are a few tips to provide the best possible experience to your audience.

First off, if your video conference application has a recording option, record a dry run of your presentation. This will give you a chance to experience it from the viewer’s perspective and will serve as a baseline for comparison after you make adjustments.

Audio

You don’t need to be a sound engineer in order to recognize obvious problems and to fix them. Is your volume at a comfortable level? Can you move around freely without causing noise or compromising the clarity of your voice? Is your microphone rubbing up against your clothing? Do you sound like you’re speaking from the bottom of a well?

There are a multitude of online guides on the purchase and configuration of various types of audio equipment depending on your needs and budget (or that of your employers). This is a worthwhile investment, especially if you spend a good amount of your time in meetings.

Whatever your setup, pay particular attention to background noise and try to eliminate those sources as much as possible. Many applications will apply noise reduction filters to try to mitigate these sounds, but might hide frequencies from your own voice in the process, making it muddier.

Video

If your camera will be active during your presentation, this will likely draw a viewer’s eye. So, it’s important to look at the conditions of your space to give the right impression and avoid distractions.

Pay attention to the angle of your camera relative to your face. I often attend presentations done from a laptop sitting on the presenter’s desk. What they don’t realize is that the low angle can make them look menacing or domineering and is often not especially flattering. It’s generally preferable to prop up the camera to be at eye level, to give an impression of equality.

Take a moment to also see about your distance and framing in the camera. You need to be close enough that your facial expressions are clearly readable, without being so close that parts of your face are outside the frame. If you’re presenting while standing (which I highly recommend for presentations), adjust the frame so your hand gestures are visible.

Now let’s talk about lighting. You will always get a good result if you can set yourself up facing a window with daylight shining in. Barring that, experiment with different light setups (ideally using diffused light with colder bulbs). Cameras often perform automatic color correction, but a few adjustments to lighting will avoid you looking sickly or like a film noir protagonist.

Avoid using virtual backgrounds if your space allows. The border artifacts that show up around your silhouette and the body parts fading in and out are a huge distraction.

On the other hand, you should choose your presentation space to minimize background distractions. Bright colors, picture frames or overflowing bookshelves will inevitably pique people’s curiosity.

Content

The biggest challenge with virtual presentations is the lack of body language cues from your audience, especially if people turn off their cameras.

All the more reason to frame your presentation with a thesis statement and an agenda. If you don’t know your audience, take the time to ask a few questions about relevant knowledge to gauge how much additional context they might need.

Practice restraint when filling in your presentation slides. People will thank you for sparing them a word-for-word reading of an overloaded slide deck.

Besides, not being able to look around for confused looks will require you to regularly check in for questions. So you might as well focus on high-level details in the presentation proper and get into details as a dialogue.

You can also punctuate the ends of the different sections of your presentation with questions for the audience. It’s a sure-fire proactive method to keep everyone engaged.

Taking the time to analyze the different aspects of the audio, video and content experience of your virtual presentations isn’t just a way to control your appearance. It’s a clear signal of the respect you have for their time and energy as well as a conviction that your presentation will bring them genuine value.

Adam Blahuta is a Development Manager for the Visual Scripting team at Unity Technologies, makers of the world-class Unity Real-Time 3D development engine. A graduate in Computer Science from McGill University, Adam has worked in the video game industry for the past 12 years, including running his own independent studio.

Adam Blahuta is a paid spokesperson of Sonnet Insurance.
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