Public speaking and giving presentations in the virtual era

A 1973 survey of 2,543 Americans found that 40.6% of people were afraid of public speaking but only 18% were afraid of death. The Sunday Times was the first to publish this story at the time and, even though the survey’s methodology has been debunked, the myth soon spread and became accepted as fact – a pre-internet example of something going viral.

Since then, surveys have revealed a range of phobias, everything from snakes to corruption. But public speaking still tends to rank highly across different cultures and countries, even if it doesn’t trump death anymore.

Thanks to the pandemic, events and meetings have migrated online. And even with social distancing restrictions being lifted in many countries, organisations recognise the convenience and environmental benefits of running events and meetings virtually. So, there is still a great need for knowing your onions when it comes to public speaking and presenting, particularly the special attention that needs to be paid when working in a virtual environment.

Here are a few top tips from Lisa Shaddick – Indaba’s MD - on avoiding the biggest pitfalls of virtual presentations:

  1. Distractions are your nemesis. One study by Intercall of people’s habits during professional online events showed that respondents ‘fessed up to going to the bathroom, texting, sending emails, doing other work, playing video games, checking social media, online shopping, exercising and even taking another call during virtual presentations. Engaging with your audience – and keeping them engaged – is vital.
  2. Reduce your messages. You’ll never win over anyone with a long, content-heavy presentation. Keep your content short and sweet - pick out three key points on which to focus.
  3. Use a mix of content. You’ll never win over anyone with a long, content-heavy presentation. Keep your content short and sweet – pick out three key points on which to focus.
  4. Your audience knows how to read! Don’t read out what is on the slides. Make sure your spoken words add value rather than just repeating what is on the slides.
  5. Use virtual break-out rooms. Improve audience engagement by utilising some platforms’ ability to offer online break-out rooms for discussions. These sessions can be short, before everyone returns to the main event to share thoughts and continue with the presentation.
  6. Be conversational. Always use inclusive language such as we and you so participants feels as if they are part of a group sitting together, rather than an isolated person.
  7. Use your voice. During a virtual presentation there is little room for any performance that may come into play in a real-life scenario. A speaker can’t use body language or make eye contact with audience members so they must rely on their voice. They should use pauses to great effect, vary the cadence and speed of their speech and not speak in a monotone voice (this is the kiss of death for engaging with your audience).
  8. Bring the passion and energy. This is so important when presenting virtually as you can’t read the energy in the room, so simply bring it; project energy when you speak and if you are passionate about the subject, show it!
  9. Be yourself. This is true of virtual and in-person presenting gigs! So, if appropriate, share a relevant, personal anecdote, and use humour if fitting. Bottom line? You don’t have to become some new persona to present successfully.

There are upsides to virtual presenting. Unlike physical presentations, there are no worries about whether to stand behind a podium or roam around the stage, TED talk-style, or wondering about what to do with your hands. And presenting virtually from home you may feel more relaxed – especially if you’re in something uber-casual on your unseen bottom half!

And remember, a few nerves before a presentation aren’t a bad thing – and are perfectly normal even for seasoned public speakers. A relaxed presenter is generally more confident, is better able to engage the audience, and not get flustered… even if the dog appears out of nowhere and steals the show.