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  • Writer's pictureMatt McGarrity

How do you make a Zoom presentation better? Approach it differently.

When the pandemic hit, I thought I was ready for online teaching and speaking. I had already recorded hundreds of short educational videos for my public speaking MOOCs. It turns out, I was and wasn’t fully prepared for the challenges of doing talks on Zoom. After almost two years of teaching, conference talks, and workshops, I have a better sense for what works. Ultimately, you can't treat a Zoom talk exactly like a live one. Recognize what the medium calls for and adapt your talk accordingly.

Start with a reliable and flexible setup

When I recorded the MOOCs, I was fortunate to be able to work with great videographers and editors. Now, I had to try and replicate that at home.

I started with lighting. Why? Um, I’m not ugly per se, but I need all the help I can get. I’m just slightly more vain than I am attractive; such a Sisyphean burden.

From the MOOC productions, I knew that I wanted multiple lighting angles without harsh shadows. The goal is a 3-point lighting setup.

Photo: Wikimedia

I couldn't quite replicate that setup at home, but it helped out. My home office has a window opposite me, which is good for natural lighting (and maybe a fill light). I had a desk lamp that I put a piece of tissue paper over (to serve as a back light). I have a room light above my head, which is terrible for lighting, but I couldn’t turn it off or the room would be too dark. I got an additional light like this one, which could also hold my webcam.

The full megillah for big talks. Regular meetings got, like, 30% megillah.

When I record video, I normally like to keep the camera far away. Why? I’m primarily a speaker and not a YouTuber. I’m used to the stage and the podium; I move and gesture a lot. In a tight shoulder and head shot for video, I look frantic. On camera, I normally want to be framed head to mid-thigh. Most camera operators won’t zoom out that much on me, but they know not to get in too close.

That's about right for me. Enough screen space to pop in some text. Enough room for movement and gestures. My home setup didn't really allow for this.

When the pandemic started, I recorded video standing up. That didn’t last. The setup was too much of a hassle. I defaulted to sitting in my presentations. This isn’t my ideal since I feel like I lose an important energy when sitting, but it had to do.

I still wanted that camera far enough away so my gestures and movement could be big and natural. My desk didn’t really lend itself to an eye-level shot, I settled for having the camera slightly above me and about 4 feet away. I prefer that angle since it allows me to move in my chair and lean back (delivery movement!) without going out of frame. Plus, having the camera below you just always feels weird to me.

I'M CHARLES FOSTER KANE! Now, can you make me a co-host so I can share my screen?
Photo: Wikimedia

I tried to make the background interesting, but not distracting. It’s my office, so I’m not going to radically redo it, but I made it as nice and clutter-free as possible.

Too many candles, but I needed something to distract from the COVID beard.

I don’t like Zoom’s virtual backgrounds. They usually get way too visually noisy anytime the speaker moves. Plus, they’re kinda goofy. Save it for the Zoom family reunion. If you don’t have a good background, I think Zoom’s blurring feature is pretty good.

That’s a lot of thinking just for setup, but this was something that I had to use for daily Zoom talks and conferences. I think YouTubers can have some great setups, but this is the exact same space I was sitting for work as well. Make do with what you have.

Include slides that fit the visual medium of online

No doubt your Zoom talk will include slides. In a live performance, I’m ambivalent towards slides. They’re a tool to help, but not replace, the speaker. On Zoom, I think slides are more important; nevertheless, they’re still a tool for advancing speaker goals.

One of those goals is to have a talk that’s easy to follow along with. Slides are great for this. Near the beginning of the talk include a preview slide that identifies what you’re going to be doing in your talk. It doesn’t have to include every single thing, but it should provide a roadmap so that listeners know what to expect. Slides make this even easier since they provide a visual cue.

Preview slide in a recent 1-hour workshop

For longer talks, I like to include slides that mark the different topics. Again, it gives me a nice break in the middle of a talk and it reminds listers where we are in the speech.

Finally, don’t overload the slides. No doubt you’ve seen the speaker who just simply read the slides at the audience. It’s basically the speaker’s manuscript broken up into 30 poorly constructed slides. These don’t work. People read at different rates; they have to struggle to read what’s on the screen. Your slides should be seen as text and visually illustrations. They highlight and underscore a key idea or include a visual that augments the point you’re making.

What’s appropriate? I normally like 1-2 concepts per slide.

This slide anchored probably a 5-7 minute discussion of public opinion and social networks

If you plan on making the slides available to the audience, tell them early and often. You don’t want people trying to transcribe your content instead of listening to you.

Replicate live-audience delivery…mostly

You want to deliver mostly to the camera. You might need to check the chat or look at your slides, but the majority of your attention needs to be staring into the emotionless lens. I normally see a wide gulf between public speaking and acting, but here is a point of overlap. You need to act as if there is an audience in front of you.

Speech delivery sits between conversational speech and writing. A presentation isn’t a conversation since the audience is bigger and doesn’t get to talk as much as you do. It’s not writing, which is a purely visual medium, which uses much longer and formal sentence construction. Presentational delivery is conversational in tone and writerly in preparation. The danger of Zoom is that it feels more like a chat with 1-2 people. It often isn’t. Deliver on Zoom kinda like you would in front of an audience. When you shift to Q&A or discussion, flip back into conversational mode.

Periodically stop for questions and check the chat. No one wants to hear you talk for 45 minutes without a break. Not even your mom. Take lots of mini-breaks. Pause and ask for questions. Pause and say, “Let me see if there are questions in the chat.”

When you ask, “are there any questions?” Give time for someone to actually formulate a question! Odds are every single member of the audience hadn’t written down a question, waiting, with bated breath, for the instant the opportunity arose. Ask for questions and give time for people to refocus their energy, cogitate, and maybe develop a question. At minimum, I always do a slow 10 Mississippi count in my head.

If you check the chat and see a good comment or question, repeat it for the entire audience. We’ve all been guilty of seeing something in the chat and just saying our response out loud. This is the equivalent of someone in the front row asking you a question that the back row can’t hear. Repeat it for everyone, maybe praise the comment, and then start your response.

Accept the void

The bag of tricks you have for engaging a live audience won’t work on Zoom. At least, they won’t work in the same way. Don’t try to turn Zoom into a live speaking encounter; it’s not. I don’t like it when a speaker asks, “Can everyone turn on their cameras. I want to see your lovely faces!” It’s like a motivation speaker who shouts, “How are we doing today? Ah, you can do better than that! How are we doing today!?” Ugh, gross and manipulative.

“I can’t hear you!” “Yes, you can. Liar!”
Photo: Upsplash

People have their reasons for what they do on Zoom. Maybe they are dealing with kids. Maybe they’re eating while listening. It could be a thousand things. You need to accept the void. You won’t see many in your audience. Those that you do, may be multitasking. It doesn’t change your job as a speaker in that environment: you need to produce a good talk.

The one thing that that shooting lots of MOOC content did for me was reinforce the importance of doing a good stand-alone talk. I never had anyone in front of me, apart from two camera operators who were focusing on other things. I had to do talks that could stand on their own. I treat synchronous Zoom talks the same way. The talk has to be clear and well put together, delivered as if there an attentive audience right there.

I’m often surprised how much people are actually engaging the material. I’ve done plenty of classes and professional workshops where there are hundreds of people in the Zoom, but it feels like I’m pitching to an empty room. I’ll finish and immediately 80% of the audience turns on their mic and says thank you; I got tons of comments and questions. They were paying attention, but the medium made me feel isolated.

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