Presenting online effectively: Experience-based tips for the technical professional


When COVID-19 tightened its grip on the world beginning early last year, the continued feasibility of face-to-face meetings evaporated almost immediately. For example, my “day job” organization (the Edge AI and Vision Alliance) had to pivot from a long-planned quarterly onsite private membership meeting to a virtual event in March 2020 with only a couple of weeks lead time. Our large yearly public event, the Embedded Vision Summit, originally scheduled two months further down the road and historically also a face-to-face conference, was also delayed to early fall that year while we transformed it into a virtual alternative.

Fortunately, we’d already been running webinars for several years so had at least some existing online event experience under our belts. But even now, more than 1.5 years down the road, we’re still conducting our private and public events 100% online, although we aspire to be able to return to full face-to-face (for the fully vaccinated) or, at minimum, “hybrid” events as soon as possible in 2022 (the next Embedded Vision Summit, for example, is scheduled for the Santa Clara, CA Convention Center next May). Closely following the science will continue to inform us as the future unfolds, of course.

You’re likely in similar straits, and even after the pandemic subsides, I suspect many of you will continue to work from home at least part-time. I’ve been a near-100% work-from-home employee since the beginning of 1997, when I left Intel and joined EDN full-time (at the time). Yes, your arithmetic is correct: that’s nearly a quarter century ago. You may have more recently joined me in the work-from-home ranks, in this case out of necessity, and you now have an appreciation of both its downsides (further blurring of personal and professional aspects of your life) and upsides (No commute! Work in your pajamas! No awkward water cooler conversations! Take a break by taking the dog for a fresh-air walk!).

The bottom line: your ability to communicate effectively in a virtual meeting environment, whether one-on-one with a coworker or in a presentation to a large group, will remain important in the future. Over the past 1.5+ years, I’ve experienced and figured out fixes for pretty much every (I think…) online presentation glitch, and in this kickoff post for a planned series, I aspire to share the fruits of those accumulated scars with all of you. Without further ado…

Serve Your Audience

Knowing your audience—their existing (if any) understanding of the topic you plan to discuss, their motivations in attending your presentation, etc.—and accordingly tailoring both your material and how you deliver it are key requirements to success that long predated the physical-to-virtual meeting transition. Don’t misunderstand my point: virtual meetings are in many respects much more challenging than face-to-face alternatives, for the presenter and audience alike: the environment is more “sterile,” the audience is much more easily able to (therefore tempted to) multitask and therefore not give the presentation adequate attention, etc. But at least in one respect—serving the audience—virtual presentations may be superior.

I’ve given a lot of presentations (and attended a lot more, but I digress…) so far in my professional career, and although I generally abide in the introverted end of the personality spectrum, I enjoy public speaking (particularly at times when I’m doing it frequently enough that I don’t get out of practice). That said, I often find such presentations frustrating, too. No matter how clearly you try to communicate that you’re giving a basics (i.e., fundamentals, or introductory, or…) talk, for example, people whose existing understanding overshoots this elementary level (whether out of delusion or in reality) will inevitably also show up and walk away disappointed because they “already knew all this stuff.”

In contrast, if you’re giving an advanced topics presentation, folks will attend who think they already know more than they actually do, and to their dismay you’ll end up “talking over their heads.” Then there are the folks who somehow expect you to shoehorn a day’s worth of content into an hour of time, and leave “wanting more”…

So how can presenting online address these issues? I’ll answer the question this way: how many of you have given (or at minimum attended) a face-to-face presentation that tacks a “for more information” slide on the end? And how frequently (or, more accurately, rarely) do you think any of this information ends up getting accessed?

Now consider the online presentation alternative. Your audience will de facto be on computers, too. Therefore, in addition to the inevitable “for more information” slide that you screen-share with them, you can also:

  • Live-chat them related web page links and the like (or have a colleague do this, so you’re not distracted)
  • Email them more info afterwards, and even
  • Set up a webpage with additional information for their ongoing reference

In doing so, you’re able to acknowledge and service those in the audience whose existent expertise both undershoots and overshoots the level-of-detail you’ve targeted for your talk, as well as those who “just want more.” And, stating the likely obvious, providing additional information in this manner is especially appealing for a technical audience who’s already adept with computers, web browsers, and the like. So…make the effort to do so!

Preparation

The most important thing you can do upfront to maximize the likelihood of success is to thoroughly practice. Fortunately, this aspiration is easier to accomplish with an online presentation versus in an alternative face-to-face scenario. In most cases, you’ll be using a virtual meeting service such as Zoom Meeting and Webinar, LogMeIn’s GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc…ahead of time, you can set up an online practice session (or few) with a colleague (or alternatively with yourself on a separate computer), and you can usually even record it and play it back later for additional self-critique.

Preparatory setup of the virtual meeting service you’ll be using is somewhat service-dependent, so not everything in the bullet list that follows may apply in your situation. That said (the exact terminology that follows is specific to Zoom, but other services use similar verbiage)…

  • If your presentation deck includes sound, make sure you select the “Share computer sound” option when activating screen sharing.
  • If your presentation includes embedded video, also select the “optimize for full-screen video clip” option if it exists, to maximize the captured quality of that embedded video.
  • Disable “Display participant name” in the video settings; having your name in the corner of the camera window throughout the presentation is unnecessary and distracting.
  • Make sure that “HD” resolution is enabled for your camera, if relevant.
  • Make sure that your correct audio input (ideally a headset…keep reading) and output devices are selected.

  • If you select “Place webcam window next to the shared screen” you’ll ensure that the camera footage won’t obscure important slide content, but the shared-screen footage won’t then fill the entirety of the audience’s display of the presentation, which may make it difficult to read small-font text (which you shouldn’t be using anyway, given the lossy compression that the footage will undergo during transmission) and fine graphical detail (ditto). Alternatively, if you choose to overlap the camera window and shared screen, create a blank “hole” for the camera window in the presentation template, so that important slide content isn’t blocked from view.

What about the broader presentation environment setup? Glad you asked:

  • Uniform, moderate (not too dim, but also not too intense…direct sunlight is frequently too harsh) front illumination of your face and shoulders is key; a ring light is ideal as long as you’re not wearing glasses (which would reflect the ring light image). Alternatively, try two ring lights or diffuse LED light sources, each ~30° off-axis from your face. If there is a light-colored wall behind the camera, pointing a directional-output lamp at the wall, thereby ‘bouncing” the light back at you in a diffuse manner, can also work well.
  • For video, use a high-quality 720p or (ideally) 1080p webcam, such as the FaceTime cameras built into modern Macs or a Logitech c920 or similar, positioned to allow the presenter’s head and shoulders to fill the frame. Alternatively, you may be able to use the high-resolution video output of a smartphone, a digital video camera or a video-capable digital still camera in combination with an adapter and software…just realize in doing so that you’re introducing additional potential “Achilles’ Heels” to the mix.

  • For audio, a headset is strongly recommended, rather than relying on the microphone and speakers built into a computer (which can result in tinny or echoey sound, or even worse, a perpetual feedback loop caused by computer speaker’s output audio leaking back into the microphone input). Ideally the headset will have a digital interface (e.g., USB) to the computer and it will be wired rather than wireless (e.g., Bluetooth, whose batteries will inevitably drain partway through your talk, and which is also prone to interference from microwave ovens and the like). Alternatively, consider a wired lavalier microphone clipped to your shirt or blouse lapel, sufficiently close to (and pointed toward) your mouth and plugged into the computer’s microphone input, in conjunction with a set of headphones (again, to eliminate the potential for egregious feedback).

  • All sources of background noise should be suppressed while delivering the presentation. Among other things, mute all phones and computers.
  • Your background should be neutral in color (off-white, light grey, tan, etc.) and free of distracting objects, patterns, etc. As an example of what not to do, how often have you tried to figure out what books are on the shelves behind a guest dialing into a news show, versus listening to what that guest is saying? The background should contrast with the clothing you’re wearing (e.g., no white shirt with white background). And no virtual backgrounds, please especially when not used in conjunction with a physical “green screen” behind you. Virtual backgrounds inevitably create distracting-to-audience artifacts…again, you want the audience to be paying attention to you, not watching for the next time part of your head disappears into the virtual background.
  • The connection from your computer to a network switch (and from there to the router, modem, and Internet) should be wired, not Wi-Fi, for both bandwidth/latency and reliability reasons (see earlier microwave oven comments). The upstream bandwidth supported by your broadband service should be a minimum of 5 Mbps. More is better, especially if you’ll be showing full-screen video…remember, while presenting you’re acting as a content creator, not consumer, so upstream versus usual downstream bandwidth is key. Other heavy users of network traffic at your LAN and WAN (computer backups, multimedia streaming, etc.) should be temporarily disabled while presenting, including other background-running applications on your own computer.
  • Speaking of which…if the computer has been running for a while, it may have accumulated lots of “cruft” (background-running programs and services, memory that didn’t get freed up when a program quit, etc.).  Reboot your computer before the presentation, and then test to make sure that the program(s) you plan to use are still working properly. More generally all non-essential background applications running on your computer should be shut down while presenting, both for the aforementioned network bandwidth reasons, because they might cause the most-essential presentation function to “freeze” and (at minimum) because they might generate distracting (and potentially embarrassing) on-screen popup messages.

Delivery

Locate your camera as close to eye-level as possible for maximum “naturalness” to viewers. Also, strive to look at the camera (versus the slides, speaker notes, etc.) as much as possible, in order to establish and maintain a connection with your virtual audience. Placing the slides and associated speaker notes directly above the camera, displayed on an external monitor (or a mini-script scrawled on sticky notes, or….), is one means of accomplishing this. And don’t forget to smile! These tips may seem intuitively obvious and/or simplistic, but from my experience they’re frequently forgotten. If you remember them, your presentation will notably benefit.

Respect the audience’s time. While you might think that whatever you’re talking about is the most important thing in the universe, far more vital than anything else the audience might be doing now or next, the speaker before you (who hopefully ended on time so that the audience could then join you) and after you probably have the same opinion about their presentations. There’s inevitably a clock displayed right on the computer you’re presenting from, and most presentation software packages also display a timer when you put the slides in “presenter view”…use them! Keep in mind that you’ll likely be getting a set of reports afterwards—registrants, attendees, Q&A, poll and survey feedback, etc.—which you can alternatively use to further interact with interested audience members. Specific suggestions follow:

  • Don’t simply “read the slides”.
  • Consider including an online poll (or few) mid-presentation, both to engage the audience and to give you live feedback on who they are and what they’re interested in…and tailor the remainder of your presentation accordingly!
  • End a few minutes early, out of respect for both the audience (which will inevitably appreciate a “bio break” opportunity) and the next speaker.
  • Allow adequate time for audience Q&A within the total session time
  • And speaking of which, come up with a few in-advance “seed” questions, for the moderator (if present) to ask you, or to ask yourself. Nobody wants to be the first person to ask a question; once the audience hears the first Q&A exchange (even if it’s “staged”, for which they’ll be none the wiser), it’ll inevitably stimulate submission of further “real” questions from them.

The Show Has Just Begun

Within further posts in this series, I plan to cover topics such as:

  • Pre-recording your presentation
  • Delivering both 100%-virtual and “hybrid” (both face-to-face and virtual audiences) presentations and multi-presentation events of various sizes, and
  • Hardware, software and services suggestions based on my personal experience

And of course, I’m happy to discuss additional topics based on your feedback. Let me know about that, as well as your thoughts on what I’ve covered here, in the comments!

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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