Let’s face it: we’ve all attended a lot of meh formerly live now virtual-only events over the past 18 months. But we mostly cut everyone some slack, because, after all, the world was catapulted into the world of digital-only experiences in 2020 with very little warning.
But thanks to inventive event professionals and the rise of new virtual event technologies, online and hybrid event experiences have significantly improved this year and can now easily replicate—or even improve upon—many of the most beloved aspects of in-person events. Combined with the notable benefits of virtual events and continued uncertainties around the future of work, experts agree that virtual and hybrid events will remain popular throughout 2022 and beyond.
While many event planners have focused on enhancing the virtual event attendee experience, one area that could use some work is the quality of support they provide to their event speakers. Even the most seasoned in-person conference speakers will encounter new challenges with virtual or hybrid presentations. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to get ahead of these obstacles and deliver an outstanding online presentation.
In this blog post, let’s explore how virtual event speakers should prepare for their sessions, including our tips for success based on expertise from the #ContentChat community and my recent virtual event speaking engagements for MarketingProfs, CMSwire, and more.
The Key Differences Between Virtual and Live Event Audiences
While no two event audiences are alike, it’s crucial to remember that all virtual audiences are often more distracted than in-person attendees. This means online event speakers need to take extra steps to actively engage their virtual attendees throughout their session.
In my most recent online and hybrid speaking engagements, I’ve noticed three main differences between virtual attendees and in-person attendees:
- Low crowd energy: An in-person audience has a natural energy and excitement that the speaker and attendees alike feed on. Virtual audiences, however, are harder to read. At best, as a virtual speaker you are looking at a sea of webcam streams without audio or the ability to readily parse any non-verbal reactions from those attendees. But more often than not, you are literally talking to an image of yourself and your slides on your screen.
- More distractions: Online attendees are more responsive to digital interruptions on their phones or laptops during your session. At a live event, attendees still have these devices in-hand, but they are more likely to just use these devices to take notes and share Tweetable moments during your session.
- Less patience: Virtual attendees are a little bit more impatient than in-person attendees. After all, they haven’t re-arranged their schedules and hopped on an airplane to focus on their professional development for a few days. They are in their usual work environment with many competing priorities. These attendees are more likely to click out of a session than an in-person attendee is likely to walk out of an in-person presentation.
Our friend and marketer Maureen Jann, co-founder of NeoLuxe Marketing, says that speaking to a virtual audience can feel a lot like talking to yourself, so “you need to be super comfortable with telling an invisible person a great story, and that’s tough.”
A1: Speaking to a virtual audience feels a lot like talking to yourself. You need to be super comfortable with telling an invisible person a great story and that’s tough. #contentchat
— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) October 18, 2021
Don’t view these audience differences as a major hurdle in delivering an engaging online presentation, though. They are simply elements that you should be aware of—and we explain how to overcome these challenges next.
6 Details To Confirm Ahead of Your Online Speaking Slot
Thorough preparation is key for a successful virtual event speaking session. The virtual event technology landscape is diverse, and each event platform or setup will carry different considerations for speakers.
Your goal will be to use the features and functionality at your disposal to engage your audience throughout your session. It’s important, as you draft your script and presentation deck, to design each element of your presentation to maximize its value, accessibility, and enable attendees to engage with the content.
To do so, ask each of these questions as you start to work on your presentation, so you maximize the engagement tools at your disposal:
Are sessions live or pre-recorded?
Will you present live-streamed to an audience, or will you pre-record your session? If you are presenting live, you will need to thoroughly practice your presentation to avoid potential day-of issues with your slides and to make sure you leave enough time for audience Q&A. If your session is pre-recorded, you can plan to spend your session slot engaging directly with your session attendees through the event platform’s chat capabilities as your recording plays.
What is scheduled before your session?
Does your session follow a short break, a long networking lunch, or a prolonged set of back-to-back break out sessions? This context can help you understand what mindset your attendees enter your session with. If your audience has been sitting for a while, you will have to work harder to get their attention, so it’s great to start off with audience participation like a poll or short activity. If they’ve been in social mode before your session, start off with a startling piece of data or other Tweetable insight, to seamlessly meld into their social activities while shifting their focus to your session.
Is there dedicated audience Q&A time?
How much time from your session is designed to be saved for answering questions from attendees? This will help you effectively time your presentation. When you have an engaging session, and introduce numerous new ideas to your audience, it’s only natural they will want to ask follow-up questions. If the schedule doesn’t allow time for live Q&A, offer up your preferred social handle or method of content as a way to keep the conversation flowing.
What are the participant-to-speaker chat capabilities?
How can session attendees engage with you and session attendees? Does the event platform have a built-in direct messaging feature? These details can help you understand how you can directly engage with session attendees during the flow of the presentation.
Is there a moderator?
Will a moderator from the event team join your session to help coordinate audience Q&A? Or, are you expected to keep an eye on text chat and answer questions throughout the session? It’s also important to know if attendees are able to ask questions live via voice, which usually works best at the end of the session.
Will the session be available for replay, and when?
Will session replays be available for all attendees? If so, when will they be available and where are they posted? This can help you set attendee expectations for when they can review the content, and give you a timeline for your post-event promotion strategy.
Once you know the answer to each of the above questions and have reviewed any speaker prep resources from the event hosts, you are ready to start building your presentation.
How to Engage a Virtual Presentation Audience
Once you confirm the core details for your session, you can begin to build a presentation that fits within those time requirements and within the event platform’s technical capabilities. While there’s no denying the innate challenges of presenting to a virtual audience, the #ContentChat community has shared a number of ways to effectively engage virtual audiences. Here are a few of the most-mentioned activities designed to drive engagement during your virtual presentation:
- Add polls and audience questions. Include polls and questions in your presentation. If presenting live, wait for answers in your live chat before moving on. If your session is pre-recorded, schedule a Tweet with poll functionality to go live roughly when you will get to that part of your presentation.
- Be available for live Q&A. If your session is pre-recorded, be available for live chat questions on the event platform or via social media to engage with questions both during and after your session. If you are presenting live, time your session to leave 10 minutes at the end for Q&A, and provide alternative methods of continuing the conversation with you after the event. For example, I always share my Twitter handle, and invite attendees to join a future #ContentChat Twitter chat.
- Create a collaborative doc. If your event platform provides basic capabilities for messaging and attendee collaboration, consider creating a shared document that everyone can access and brainstorm on. If it doesn’t have those capabilities, create a Google doc and share the link in your presentation deck.
- Offer post-session meetings. Maureen Jann recommends you offer a 30-minute meeting with attendees to answer any questions they have. Share a Calendly link for attendees to easily schedule time to meet with you.
- Use personal or “fun” images and examples. We do not recommend you include gratuitous pictures of puppies and kittens to keep your attendees engaged, but strategic and relevant use of cute or fun images or pop culture examples can keep your audience engaged. For example, when I talk about working-from-home, I often share a photo of my home office mates—who just happen to be adorable bulldogs.
— Erika Heald | Content Marketing Consultant (@SFerika) October 18, 2021
- Provide a session roadmap. As simple as it may sound, you want to tell your audience what they will learn right up front, including what resources you plan to share. Then, provide waypoints as you go so they know you will deliver on your promise. This can help alleviate attendee anxiety and enable them to fully focus on the presentation. Otherwise, you may have a flurry of questions throughout the session about things you haven’t gotten to quite yet in your presentation flow.
- Use unique visuals or props. Most virtual presentations are just the speaker talking to their webcam with an accompanying slide deck, which is perfectly OK. However, anything that deviates from this standard will naturally grab your audience’s attention. Consider using custom visuals for your slides, or use props that complement your session content. I still remember the surprise and joy of seeing Ann Handley present virtually using a set of hand-drawn slides.
The above are just a few key ways to engage your virtual audience, but there are so many other ideas you can explore. What engages you as an online event attendee? Do you have examples you can share? Let us know in the comments or Tweet us @ErikaHeald.
A Day-of Speaking Checklist for Hitting Your Online Presentation Out of the Park
Regardless of if your virtual speaking session is pre-recorded or live-streamed, there are several steps you want to take on the day of your session to maximize its success (and limit the potential for last-minute hiccups).
Be sure to check off each of these steps on the day of your presentation:
- Update your computer so it does not update and restart during your presentation.
- Sign in to your event’s video conferencing software and double-check your surroundings. Declutter anything that is in view of your webcam that doesn’t make a positive impact.
- Run through your presentation one last time, ideally with a trusted colleague or team member that can provide feedback. This is especially important if you had someone help you build your deck or write your script.
- If you consistently run over the allotted time for your session, remove a portion of your presentation and include it as a bonus resource for download.
- Pre-schedule social media posts that promote your session. Create posts for the morning of your event, 15 minutes before your session starts, and the start of your session. And don’t forget to add some Tweetable moments to go out during your session, too!
- Verify the event hashtag and any associated social media communities that you should monitor.
- Double-check the links to and permission settings of any resources you plan to share with attendees.
- Breathe. You’re going to do great.
How to Extend the Value of Your Digital Session
It takes a lot of time to prepare and present at an online event. And you don’t want your efforts to be one-and-done with your return on investment.
Once your session is over, repurpose your slides and script to create a series of social media posts that spotlight actionable tips from your presentation. If you created any attendee downloads, be sure to re-share those on social media, too.
If you were unable to answer all of your attendee questions, or if attendees seemed especially interested in specific parts of your presentation, create new content that explores those areas. This can include a detailed blog post, an e-book or workbook, or a conversation on social media.
If the event hosts allow it, you can even share your session transcript as a blog post so that anyone can find and access your presentation’s insights.
Practice Makes Perfect With Virtual Presentations
Although this may sound cliché, virtual presentations truly get easier with practice. It can feel awkward or uncomfortable to see yourself on camera at first, but I promise this gets easier with time.
By following the steps we detailed above, you’ll have all the preparation you need to confidently present your virtual session and extend its value well after the event is over.
If you have more questions about how to prepare for a virtual presentation, or if you’d like to explore how virtual speaking opportunities can support your thought leadership efforts, send me and my team a message. We’re here to help!
P.S. For even more tips + tricks for creating an engaging virtual presentation, head over to Twitter and check out Tweets from our recent conversation on the topic.