I wonder if there’s a tendency to believe that different rules apply for online presentations. Maybe it’s tempting to think that unfamiliarity with the technology or the environment gives you a little leeway if things aren’t quite as professional as normal.
If that was ever true, it was only for a very short period of time. And why take the chance of looking poorly prepared or, worse still, not that bothered? The world has got tired of telling each other that we’re ‘still on mute.’ And ‘I hope my screen sharing works,’ is wearing a bit thin.
Online presentations are a fact of life for many of us. And they are likely to stay that way. I don’t see many clients clambering to give up the convenience and efficiency even when we no longer have to socially distance.
Opportunities to Connect With More People
Looked at more positively, you have even more opportunities to make an impression and build relationships through virtual face-to-face meetings, without having to waste days of your working year driving or flying to client premises. So maybe it’s a good idea to brush up on how you present a professional and calm image on screen.
When working from home we are (quite literally) letting people see a part of our lives that they have probably never seen before. It’s a window into our private lives.
So what will they learn? First rule: make sure there's nothing you don’t want them to see. Study your picture on the screen. Look past yourself to the background of walls, ceiling and floor because what you see is exactly what they see!
Consider the height and angle of the camera on your pc. This should be set at approximately eye level. You are then looking at people ‘on the level.’ You’re not straining your back and they’re not looking up your nose or at your ceiling!
When I started doing a lot of video calls I propped my pc up on books to get the camera to the correct height. This was OK for a few weeks but it was hardly doing it properly. I now have a stand and I’ve acquired another keyboard so that the setup is more stable. Little details that the audience doesn’t see but which make the whole thing look more professional and natural.
Control the Lighting
Next question: where is the light coming from? Try to get as much natural light shining on your face as you can. Having a window or outside light source to one side or behind you is likely to mean your face is at least in partial shadow. People won’t be able to distinguish your facial features very well. Even remote cameras aren’t very good at allowing for such light contrasts.
Placing yourself close to windows comes with potential challenges. For example, is it a window that people walk past regularly? What if they walk past and try to get your attention by waving or the like when you’re in the middle of a serious conversation? If they are behind you might they become a distraction to your audience?
Kids photobombing online conversations make great viral social media clips but is it really what your clients want to see? It’s an unwanted distraction at the very least.
Dress the Part
For any video call I always wear a work or formal shirt. It puts me in the right frame of mind for the call. Wearing formal work clothes is my norm – it isn’t for everyone I know, but it makes me feel right and I hope it also creates the right impression with the work colleagues, customers, stakeholders that I’m communicating with.
Just like a face-to-face meeting I always prepare my notes for the key messages I want to get across and I also set my own objectives for what I want to achieve from the call. The next thing I do is close any programmes that I don’t need during the call and open any that I do. I’m then not using unnecessary memory from my pc - as using the video does - as well as eating into the internet band-width. Having the programmes open that I do want means I can find them quickly and easily, making me look prepared and professional.
Working over the internet has one risk that’s harder to control: whether the technology will remain robust throughout the call. No matter how good the internet connection is normally, when you most need it it lets you down. This could be either a complete failure and loss of connection or buffering – so that the audience loses your picture or part of the words you are speaking.
Unless they tell you, you will not be aware. So I try to have a co-host work with me so that if I lose connection they can tell me and, if necessary, they can take over while I reconnect.
Like any presentation or meeting, the secret of success often lies in the preparation. Online meetings and presentations are now a standard part of working life for many of us. So let’s keep our standards high!
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
If you watched any of the 2020 Republican or Democrat National Conventions in the US you’ve probably been struck by how hard it is to play to an audience you can’t see. Even usually charismatic performers have struggled to perform and connect without audience feedback and involvement. Cracking a joke and pausing for laughs that nobody can hear looks plain awkward, as does delivering a killer line, waiting for applause and approval, and getting only silence.
Making your pitch in an online environment is tough. It calls for a different approach and a different type of preparation. Even when the threat of Covid-19 has disappeared (and who knows when that will be) it’s almost a certainty that many clients will choose to continue with online platforms like Zoom. It’s more cost effective and convenient for them; so why wouldn’t they?
So, sales people who want to be effective had better sharpen their online presenting skills. And, while the audiences for sales presentations might not be given to whooping and cheering like those in a political rally, you still need to develop a presentation style that works without the eye contact, nods, glances between colleagues, and thoughtful hmmms that usually confirm that your points are hitting home.
Working and Presenting From Home
While working from home is nothing new to me, most of my sales experience was face to face with people in a room presenting my business proposals to them. Of course I’ve also had to ‘present’ outlines of proposals over the phone sometimes, giving enough information away to secure the face to face interview but not enough to render the face to face irrelevant! (That’s a difficult balance to strike I can tell you.)
One major challenge of online presentations is simply getting used to using the new technology and setting up our presentation environment. I’ll cover some tips for doing this in a future article.
Eye Contact Matters - But Where Are the Eyes?
But let’s start with the basics for communicating effectively with the people whose faces you see on the screen. Eye contact is always important - online and offline. But where are their eyes and where are yours pointed from the perspective of the audience? Concentrating on looking at your camera, rather than at your screen is good advice, but only up to a point.
In some ways you have an advantage online because you can ‘maintain’ eye contact with each individual (at least from their point of view). But this also comes with the risk of looking a bit intense and scary, like you’re trying to hypnotise them. It’s easy to forget to blink and to stare at the camera in a very unnatural way, which can be quite unnerving for those on the receiving end.
It helps to glance at the images of your audience to see if they are engaged and to gauge their reactions. Naturally, we will try to make eye-contact with the image rather than the camera - but this makes you appear to them to be looking down rather than ahead.
When you look at the camera to make eye-contact you can't focus on their faces to get their reactions, nor can you focus on one person at a time. Of course, your audience is unaware of all this. Getting the balance right so that it all looks natural is difficult and takes practice.
Cultivate the Right Image
One thing I always do when I’m going to be on a video call is that I wear a work or formal shirt. Why? Well it puts me in the right frame of mind for the call, as it evokes the feeling that I’m ‘working’. For me, wearing formal work clothes is my norm – it isn’t for everyone I know, but it makes me feel right and I hope it also creates the right impression with the work colleagues, customers, stakeholders that I’m communicating with.
One great advantage I’ve found with presenting remotely is that I can practise as many times as I like. I can record and play back these sessions to myself so that I appear as professionally I’d like to. Nobody knows you’ve done this but it will help you to come across as spontaneous and natural.
Doing this preparation in the privacy of your home is a massive (and underutilised) aspect of presenting remotely. It’s how you learn to keep going without being thrown by the lack of audience response. It’s certainly proved its worth to me over the past few months.
Most of us believe that we focus on what’s most important. In fact, the reverse is usually true: any information or issue we are made to focus on becomes the most important.
Observe how news seems to come in waves. A particular event (possibly a tragic one) hits the news and then similar events seem to happen across the country. Often, those events were happening and going to happen anyway - but nobody paid them any attention. Opinion polls consistently show that issues in the news assume a higher level of importance: ‘something must be done about…’
So what’s going on? As Robert Cialdini explains in his book Pre-Suasion: ‘we can be brought to the mistaken belief that something is important merely because we have been led by some irrelevant factor to give it our narrowed attention.’
Before 2015 most people had no strong views on the EU, it was a fact of life. Once the issue came to dominate the news agenda it grew in importance to the point where people started to define themselves according to their views on EU membership, some even became a bit obsessive.
In a very unscientific way, I’ve recently observed how the degree of strict adherence to social distancing seems to be related to the percentage of news coverage dominated by coronavirus.
For a mundane example, think about what happens if you are having a conversation with somebody and your mobile phone rings. Try as you might to ignore it, it has a grip on your attention. ‘Who is it? Could it be important? Sorry, what was that you were saying?’
Focusing Attention in Presentations
As a presenter, one of your chief tasks is to be persuasive. In the context of the tendering process this means convincing your client that yours is the most advantageous solution.
It’s likely that your proposed approach will have strengths and weaknesses compared to your competitors. While you must always address all of your client’s requirements, you have more influence over the relative importance of those requirements in your client’s mind than you probably realise.
I recommend that you actively research your client’s hierarchy of needs and match your proposal’s strengths against these. Try to positively influence the relative importance of your strengths in their hierarchy and, similarly, aim to persuade them that the relative strengths of your competition shouldn’t rank so highly in their hierarchy of needs. Let’s look briefly at how you might do that.
What Comes First?
A key consideration is the order in which you present information. The thing we hear first is normally assumed to be the most important. Subsequent information tends to get filtered through the ‘reality’ of the first information we receive and accept. Once accepted, this idea can exert the same magnetic force of attention attraction as the ringing mobile.
When planning your presentation it’s impossible to overstate the importance of how, and in what order, you intend to present information and arguments. Think about how you need to frame and manage the flow of information so that it is focused on your strengths and so that people remember those strengths and perceive them as important for a successful outcome.
Other methods of focusing attention include:
There’s plenty more I could include on this topic, but that would be a book rather than an article. For now, I’d just like to encourage you to think a little harder about how you can use presentations as an opportunity to shape and positively influence the discussion and the decision making process.
I have many years of senior sales and account management positions.
This experience taught me how to interpret exactly what clients are seeking, and what they need and expect to see and hear from the successful bidder. We draw on this experience to give your team an additional competitive advantage by building on their existing strengths while improving their team-working and self-awareness.