The right stage presence can make or break a performance, regardless of the words coming out of your mouth. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us online, new off-stage video conference rules apply.
Off-stage includes online meetings, webinars, interviews and recording podcasts.
We’re trained to live and work face to face, not in the virtual world. Professional speakers tend to train for a live stage. Managers prepare for boardroom meetings. Those looking for work typically prepare for face-to-face interviews.
Impactful online presentations require preparations of a different sort.
I started thinking about it after taking part in a somewhat disappointing webinar. The content was good but as a speaking professional, I pondered how much better the attendee experience could have been.
I wished the presenter had been more cognizant that his audience was sitting in front of screens, in the comfort of their own homes, possibly multi-tasking and likely faced with other distractions.
I came up with few areas that online presenters need to address:
Think about your audio
Start by thinking about the sound – not just what you’ll say but what people will hear. Find your microphone’s sweet spot, where the sound is optimal. Are you too close, too far? Are you speaking too loudly or too softly?
Being too close to the microphone or speaking too loudly can cause distortion. Volumes can be adjusted at the other end with hardware or software, but it’s difficult to repair distortion.
If you’re too far from the microphone, your voice may be inaudible and upping the volume may simply boost the noise.
Find a quiet place to present. Street noise may not be totally avoidable, but you can turn off ceiling fans, switch off the furnace or air conditioning and put your dog in the basement.
Using a headset rather than a built-in microphone and speakers – which can pick up stray sounds and create feedback – can reduce some noise.
Rustling papers and a squeaky chair also add to the distractions.
And maybe turn away when sipping water of coffee.
When delivering, remember to introduce some vocal variety – slight volume shifts, speed of delivery, pitch or tone. And don’t forget to pause to let people absorb what you just said.
People may forgive bad video but not bad audio.
Consider your video
The viewer’s experience depends on the lighting, what the camera sees and your positioning. If the light is too bright, you’ll appear washed out. In dim light, you’ll appear dark and the video will be grainy.
Test your lighting ahead of time – ideally at the same time of day you’ll be online. A naturally-lit room is best but it’s not always possible. If you have adjustable lighting, make sure it’s in front of you. I find that LED lighting pointing at me from about a 45-degree angle works best.
Know where the camera lens is. That’s where you should be looking, not at your screen. It should be at eye-level, right in front of you. Otherwise it may appear you’re looking down at your audience.
Consider your background. Is it neat and tidy or distracting? Is your audience watching the TV you have on behind you? Or, perish the thought, you suffer the agony of Filipino journalist Doris Bigornia as her two cats fight during a live news broadcast from her home.
Think about your positioning. How much of you do you want people to see?
I like to be nicely centered in the screen. I also like to leave a little viewing area so some of my gestures are visible.
Watch your body language
Body language is a balanced combination of facial expressions, gestures and other movements.
People often forget to use their body language when sitting. Smile, frowns, raising of the eyelids and slight body movements all matter. They help add impact to your message.
It may seem unnatural to present in a sitting position but it makes you more engaged, which is critical.
But when presenting virtually, people often go to the extremes.
Some people sit as still as statues, mouth poised on the mic and staring directly into the screen.
Some, like professional presenters, are trained to exaggerate gestures on stage in front of a large audience. So in video they may still flutter about like a cartoon character, waving their arms, swivelling, bouncing and rolling in their chairs. And those movements are amplified to a distracting level because of the closeness of the webcam.
And watch your posture. How serious will someone take you if you’re slouching?
Even subtle inflections of your voice can act as an amplifier for your body. Try it. Be yourself. It will help you come across as genuine and natural.
Take a trial run
Record yourself. You can use Zoom’s free plan that offers up to 40 minutes for a group presentation and unlimited time when you have two or less people, including yourself, on the call.
You’ll get video and audio files to review so you can refine your delivery.
The end result should be the right kind of virtual stage presence to make your delivery its most impactful.
Greg Gazin, also known as the Gadget Guy and Gadget Greg, is a syndicated veteran tech columnist, communication, leadership and technology speaker, facilitator, blogger, podcaster and author. Reach him @gadgetgreg or at GadgetGuy.ca.