Virtual Presentations, Meetings Require New Approaches for Success

By Dave Zielinski March 30, 2020
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man in video meeting

​As more people work from home, many are being asked to take on tasks and use technologies with which they have only a passing familiarity, such as leading team meetings and presenting online rather than in person.

SHRM Online spoke with experts about the different strategies required to succeed in those scenarios, as well as how to use the features embedded in videoconferencing and Web conferencing platforms.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Organizational Communication]

Presenting Online

Giving presentations online rather than in person requires thinking about how to design PowerPoint slides, keep remote audiences engaged when they're facing more distractions and troubleshoot technology snafus that arise in these situations.

Pick up the pace. Attention spans dwindle during virtual presentations. "That doesn't mean you need to cut the amount of your presentation content, but rather that you spread it over more slides so there is more frequent on-screen change for audiences," said Roger Courville, a Portland, Ore.-based speaker and trainer who teaches people how to communicate online and is the author of The Virtual Presenter's Handbook (CreateSpace, 2009).

Be proactive in guiding audience attention. Presenters should assume that some people are multitasking during an online presentation, Courville said. "You have to ask what the audience is taking away if at times they only glance at what you're presenting," he said. "One thing you can do is make sure the titles on your slides are more descriptive and capture the main point of the slide."

Virtual presenters also should use their voices to guide viewer attention, Courville said.

Don't rely only on slide pointers or annotation tools provided on Web conferencing platforms.

"What happens if some people aren't looking at their screens for a while?" he said. "A presenter might say something like 'What do you see below the picture of the woman on this slide?' or 'Look at the data on the right-hand portion of your slide.' "

Courville said presenters should monitor audience attention levels by checking whether people are actively participating on chat features or submitting questions during a moderated Q&A. Some Web conferencing platforms also have a feature called an attention indicator that detects the active application on audience members' screens. If a conference participant has switched to checking e-mail, for example, that tool would register the change. Courville said that while the tool shouldn't be used punitively, it can help presenters get a read on when attendees may be drifting away so they can switch tactics, such as by introducing an audience poll or a short Q&A.

Unnecessary flair can cause technical problems. The use of animation and complex transitions on slides might work well in person, but they can cause problems online, said Bethany Auck, founder and creative director of SlideRabbit, a presentation design and production company in Denver.

Web conferencing platforms handle slide upload and display differently, and experts say it's best to go simple when designing slides, keep file sizes low, and avoid the use of animations or complicated transition techniques between slides.

Consider slide contrast issues and viewer screen size. Assume that many will be viewing your online presentation from smaller laptop screens or even on mobile devices, said Ken Molay, president of Webinar Success, a Web conferencing training and consulting company in Cary, N.C. "Design your slides as if you're creating them for viewers in the back of a large auditorium," Molay said. "Use larger fonts and plenty of white space, and don't put things near the edges of your slides."

Keep in mind that you won't be able to see how your slides display on your audience's screens, and your viewers' computer settings for contrast, brightness and color may vary widely. "Remember that light colors can easily wash out online. Stick with high-contrast color designs, and avoid using subtle tone variations that can be difficult for virtual audiences to see," Molay said.

Leading Small-Group Virtual Meetings

Many of us have been conditioned to hold hourlong meetings, but experts say that standard should be reconsidered with today's new reality.

"One of the most powerful tools built into videoconferencing solutions is the instant meeting," Courville said. "You can easily set up virtual meetings and collaboration sessions in short blocks of time as needed. There are product development teams I know who hold 15-minute videoconferences every morning. The medium can be used as flexibly as a phone call."

Leaders, mute yourself when others are speaking. "Many of us use words like 'OK' or 'uh-huh' as confirmation that we're listening when others are speaking," Molay said. "But in an online meeting, especially if you're the leader or a person of higher authority, others often hear that and they stop talking, wondering if you wanted to interrupt to say something or even that they might have said something wrong. If you stay completely silent, it lets people complete their thoughts."

Not all technology platforms are created alike. If you haven't yet purchased a videoconferencing or Web conferencing platform (most major providers are offering discounts or free trial versions of products during the coronavirus outbreak), Molay said it's important to understand the differences between systems.

For example, the videoconferencing platform Zoom is among those that Molay said have a useful "push to talk" feature that is handy for small-group virtual meetings.

"Everyone enters the meeting in a default mute mode, but when they hold down the space bar, it opens up their microphone," he said. "It only stays open while it's pressed and people are speaking, like the old walkie-talkie."

Molay said the feature is good for group discussions in which everyone wants a chance to participate but a leader doesn't want all microphones open at once, since they're likely to pick up background noise when participants work from home.

You also may want to compare audience polling tools in different systems, Molay said. "Some only allow for a few response choices, while others offer more," he said. Many users will also likely want a polling feature that allows participants to select the best answer rather than all that apply, he said.

Question management tools—a helpful feature for more-structured and moderated Web conferences—also can vary by platform. These tools give session leaders a way to prioritize audience questions.

"If you have 100 people in a Web conference, you'll want a way to mark that certain questions might be a high priority to address on air versus a lower priority that you can follow up on later," Molay said. "Some platforms are better than others in how they allow you to reorder and organize questions."

He added that other key system features to evaluate are the number of participants allowed on video calls, ability to automatically record Web conferences for later viewing, and tools that allow you to easily edit recordings or create transcripts of online meetings.

Watch how you position yourself on webcam. Don't position yourself in front of bright windows, which will place you in shadows. Raise your laptop so the camera is at eye level or higher.

"Laptop webcams are sitting lower and often shoot straight up into your nostrils," Molay said. "That's not the best look for most people."

Troubleshooting Technical Problems

People will inevitably experience problems with video, audio transmission or other functions in virtual settings. "The first thing to do is isolate whether it's just that person having the issue or everyone," Courville said. "In most cases it's just one person, but you usually don't want to stop the whole meeting or presentation just because one person is having a problem."

Molay said leaders can afford to spend only a limited amount of time trying to fix an individual's issues. "It's easy to focus on squeaky wheels in online settings, but you don't want to slow down 30 people to satisfy one person."

Meeting leaders also can mute and unmute participants on most platforms if people are having technical issues and bothering others, Courville said.

Auck, SlideRabbit's founder, said one tactic she uses when leading virtual presentations or workshops is to keep a second computer in view and log in as an attendee. "It won't account for all of the variables of people logging in remotely, but you'll have a tighter view of any lag in how your slides are advancing for viewers," she said.

Mike Fasciani, senior research director at research and advisory firm Gartner, said employees who reside in bandwidth-challenged areas can take steps such as turning off video and joining meetings using dial-in audio options while still seeing the content that's being shared through a browser.

Remote workers also can use their 4G-enabled smartphones rather than laptops or desktops in virtual meetings, he said. "Many video-meeting and workstream collaboration applications were built with a mobile-first design intent and so work as well as, if not better than, the desktop and Web client access," he said.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.


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