Illustration by Fanny Luor

Work Culture

Our BBC reporter returns: How to present in a video conference

By

Published on October 05, 2020

Illustration by Fanny Luor

Giving a presentation on camera is very different from presenting in the room with your audience. A few tips—and a few rehearsals—will make you a video star.

Six months into our work-from-home world, you’ve probably realized that sitting through someone else’s presentation on a video call is a challenge to your attention span. Your coworker Dylan was easy to follow when sitting across a table or standing before a projector screen, but on Zoom? Dylan doesn’t know you’re emptying the dishwasher because you lost interest during the fifth slide.

BBC correspondent Richard Taylor runs SuperRichMedia, a boutique video consulting and training company in San Francisco. His guide for us in May on how to videoconference like a rock star was such a hit that we asked him to come back and tell us how to deliver a videoconference presentation that will keep viewers engaged so you can drive home your message.

Preparation and practice 

“I can’t over-emphasize the importance of preparation,” says Richard. “Everything from structuring the presentation, the cold opening and close, personalizing it to yourself, and memorizing what you're going to say, by giving yourself bullet points and key talking points.” 

  • Develop an audience persona. To whom will you be presenting? What does this person want? Who do they want?
  • Write a script before you start. Rehearse and record it. Ad-libbing through information you’ve never communicated before works in the movies, but in real life tests your audience’s patience and can fail to get your point across. Write yourself a script. It can be a block outline or a detailed speech. Then practice delivering it on camera to a friendly test audience, or by yourself. Either way, record your rehearsals.

The Basics

Richard says, “The problem most people have is their brain is constantly trying to catch up with their mouth.” Being a standalone speaker is different from engaging in a coffeehouse conversation.

  • Speak slowly. You should probably make this a Post-It near your camera lens until it’s become habit.
  • Get over your fear of silence. An audience that sits in silence at the end of your sentences is listening. They aren’t waiting for you to shut up, they’re waiting for you to continue.
  • Manage your nerves through practice. We’ll be telling you to practice a lot. Not only will your delivery improve, but your fears will subside.

Tech Essentials

Beneath your performance, there are several technical details that affect how well you come across.

Good audio–the #1 absolute must

If they can’t hear you, it doesn’t matter how great everything else is. Viewers will forgive janky video, but not garbled audio. Richard drives this home with his trainees as the one technical aspect they can’t blow off.

  • You don’t need expensive equipment. You do need to put in the effort so that your voice comes through clearly for everyone listening.
  • Get a decent microphone. Blue’s USB desktop microphones are affordable, easy to plug in via USB (PowerBook users will need Apple’s adapter), and require little fiddling.
  • Read the instructions. Even tech-savvy software developers are sometimes seen on video calls speaking into the top of a side address microphone.
  • Set adjustable mics to cardoid mode. Many mics have a switch or knob to adjust their listening pattern. Cardoid is the one you want, where the mic is set to listen straight ahead at your mouth, with as little sound as possible from the rest of the room.
  • Use a clip-on mic if you move around while presenting. Lavalier mics, as used by TV talk show guests, keep your voice up-close and consistent as you move.
  • Minimize echo and reverb from the room. Sound bouncing off walls, windows and floors can make a singer sound awesome, but they’ll render a calm speaker unintelligible by blurring your syllables. You may need to find a different spot in the room, or a different room at home from which to present. You can buy sound baffles, but it’s often more effective to relocate.

Frame your video shot

  • Turn off your custom Zoom backdrop image. Just no.
  • Don’t wear big headphones. Do you have a videogamer headset? Set it aside for a less intrusive TED-talk type of rig. Better yet, use a desktop or clip-on mic and out-of-sight speakers so there’s nothing on your head. Richard warns that Apple AirPods are known for iffy microphone quality, as are most Bluetooth earpieces.
  • Stand up! Richard and other reporters stand before the camera when they deliver the news not because they don’t have a chair handy, but because it gives them more presence, energy and authority. It’s why teachers, lecturers, and probably your company’s star sales person also stand to deliver.
  • Lens at eye level. Always. Many videoconference users have their camera to the side, or below their chin. The former says “I’m not engaging with you.” The latter says, “I’m a movie villain who despises you. Hate me.”
  • Make sure your eyes are well lit. That’s where viewers pick up most of your emotion.
  • Step back from the camera. There are two reasons. First, most computer and phone cameras have wide-angle lenses which will distort your image up close, giving you balloon head. Second, besides your eyes people pick up emotions and emphasis from your torso. 
  • Watch some TV news. There are conventions for framing stand-up reporters and sit-down anchors. That’s because they work. Copy them!
  •  Do you move around? Consider a tracking camera. People who pace, or who need to hold and show real objects onscreen, look better if the camera follows their motion rather than letting them drift in and out of center frame.

Your delivery

“Lack of practice is the number one reason most people don’t present well,” Richard says. A test audience who give feedback are invaluable. If you don’t have one, you can record and watch yourself.

Practice! 

We’re saying this over and over because it’s the work that most people avoid, yet the work that would most improve their presentations.

Dress rehearsal

Will your audience make critical decisions based on your presentation? It’s worth the time to do what the cast of Saturday Night Live does with every skit before the weekend.

Richard’s formula for dress rehearsal:

  • Present from the same location you will use for the real presentation.
  • Wear the same clothes or a nearly identical wardrobe.
  • Present at the same time of day.
  • Present at the same energy level. Don’t do a dry table read.
  • Record your rehearsals.
  • Watch your recorded rehearsal with the sound off.
  • Listen to your rehearsal with your eyes closed.

You will spot ways to revise your audio, camera, script and most important, your performance.

  • Do you seem natural?
  • Are you compelling—or boring?
  • Which parts don’t you articulate well?
  • How is the energy level overall? Does it vary, as a comfortable, authentic presentation should? 

Tricks for your script

  • Be professional but human. No one wants to watch a humanoid robot read slides. 
  • Open with a short mention about yourself. A nice safe joke or anecdote about yourself that lets others relate to you as human. Acknowledge that some or all attendees are reluctantly working from home. It’s also a great time to let them know they’re in for a well-prepared presentation. Here are some safe-for-work templates from a professional comedy writer:
  • “Without the [name of local sports team] to distract me, I had extra time to prepare this report.”
  • “Thank you all for attending yet another Zoom meeting. I’ll keep this short and to the point–OK, three points that I hope you’ll take away.”
  • “My [dog/cat/adorable toddler] has agreed not to co-host this session, so we can focus. Here we go!”
  • Shorten your sentences. Pause after each one. Breathe. You’re the designated speaker. You don’t need to keep talking nonstop to hold the floor. Nor do you need to tie multiple things into one long sentence to show that they are connected. Your audience will connect the dots themselves. Or, add connector words to the start of shorter sentences: “We needed to reduce response times for customers. [Pause.] And that’s why we decided to replace our existing cloud infrastructure. [Pause.] But it had to be done with no downtime.”
  • Edit your language to fit your audience. Usually this means removing professional jargon, technical terms and acronyms. In the rare case your presentation is a deep dive for like minds, then keep your introduction short and get to the data and insights they came for.
  • Stop to explain insider terms and concepts. Joe Biden mentioned the Hatch Act on TV, then paused to explain what it is for viewers who don’t work on Capitol Hill. Presentation audiences usually won’t admit that they don’t know what, for example, CI/CD is when it’s on a slide.
  • “X is Y for Z” analogies are familiar and work well: “ThingMakr is Photoshop for 3D models.” Or, “Continuous Integration is like Amazon Prime for software deployment.” (An iffy comparison, but you get the idea.)
  • Change the presentation’s energy level as you go. Like a conversation, calm versus excited should vary from one part to the next, rather then being one straight mood on which people will tune out.

On-camera behavior

These are so obvious that they need little explanation.

  • Maintain eye contact with camera nearly always.
  • Place anything you need to read adjacent to the camera lens, so you needn’t look away.
  • Post-Its next to the camera lens can keep you on track: “SPEAK SLOWLY,” or key words or concepts that you must remember to mention. 
  • Keep slides visual and minimal on words, rather than flooding them with text.
  • Don’t look away at slides - a very common audience-loser. Keep info near the camera lens.
  • It’s OK to read stats or specific details as opposed to reading your entire slide deck. Richard says, “What you lose in fluency by reading notes when you need to convey precise information, you’ll gain in credibility.” 
  • Otherwise, reading verbatim is never good. Paraphrase onscreen info. Paraphrase your own notes and script so that it’s conversational and sounds like you mean it. Everyone knows when you’re reading.
  • Develop the confidence to stop. “Watch Tony Blair’s resignation speech,” Richard suggests. “He pauses confidently several times. It lets his points sink in far more than if he’d kept talking.”

Dial up your energy one level

“Some of your energy will be lost in transmission through the medium,” Richard says. “Kick it up a notch, as people on TV do.” It will seen natural at the other end, whereas your normal energy level might seem somnambulant.

Vary your energy level as you go

A speaker with one constant energy level can seem insincere, and detached from the human audience. Constant low energy says “I don’t really believe in this,” or “I don’t really understand what I’m saying.” Constant high energy says, “I may be crazy.”

Try a teleprompter

If you regularly give long talks, Richard recommends at least trying a teleprompter. Don’t read from it verbatim, but use it as an outline from which to paraphrase as you go. It doesn’t work for everyone, but for some it works wonders–you’d never know they were looking at words on a screen.

Handling a Q&A

Many people are great from their own script, but fumble at answering unplanned questions.

  • Practice thinking on your feet. If you can get a friendly test audience to throw you questions, you’ll be more ready for the real thing.
  • “That’s a good questionis a bad answer. Everyone knows it means, “I’m stalling. Help!”
  • Don’t panic. Pause. Don’t be afraid to stop. Your audience will wait if you seem to be thinking before you answer. It will go over better than filler words like “And um …” or “Well, soooo …”
  • Look thoughtful. Take a few seconds. Look to the side and narrow your eyes in thought. Then turn back to camera with your answer.
  • Neutralize trick or off-topic questions. Turn your session back to what you want to talk about.

Canned answers to deflect trick Q&A questions

Richard teaches his clients to use these familiar, successful phrases when thrown a curve ball:

  • “That speaks to a bigger point…” which you can talk about afterwards or at another time.
  • The real question here is … “ the question you want people to think about instead.
  • “I’m here to talk about ...” the thing you’re here to talk about, not the thing they want to drag in.
  • "What I can tell you, Paul, is …” shows everyone that you know you’re being trolled.

Prepare. Practice. Record.

“I cannot over-emphasize the importance of preparation,” Richard says yet again. He can give clients tips, tricks, and guidance, but those who succeed are those who’ve put in the time and trial of preparing, the slogging work of rehearsals, and the embarrassment of watching and hearing themselves on-screen. 

You, too, can shine onscreen. Just take to heart an old joke from the golden age of movies: 

Q: Excuse me, sir. How can I get to Hollywood? 

A: Practice!