You still need compelling content while paying special attention to your voice and the visuals of your presentation.

Imagine walking into an auditorium for a speech and there are two screens instead of one. On the right is a smaller screen with an image of the speaker. On the left is a larger screen with a nice scientific illustration with a title. Where is your attention going? Where does he hang out?

This is what our new online reality looks like. In order to make effective online presentations, we need to be able to understand the differences between an in-person presentation and a virtual presentation. And presenting well everywhere is an essential skill that all graduate students should develop.

What is similar?

First of all, the principles of content haven’t changed, but it’s even more important to understand them when presenting online. Without being able to see an audience and gauge the reaction, presenters cannot recognize missteps and self-correct, or identify when the audience is distracted and disconnected. These challenges mean that the trajectory of content is more important than ever. Here are three great concepts to remember.

Start with why. Start with your lack of research knowledge or your research question and ask “so what? Three or four times. You will be surprised at the efficiency this exercise can take you from a research hypothesis of “producing more evenly distributed coatings of materials” to “recharging a car in less time than filling a gas tank”. The first lets people guess the importance, the second motivates people to learn. To learn more about ‘start with why’, watch Simon Sinek TED Conference.

Reduce content. The rule of three works well. Most people can deal with three things without feeling overwhelmed, and most people can remember three things. For longer discussions, construct models of three: three main ideas, three sections, three points in one section, etc. Remember to summarize and prefigure between sections. Keep the audience on the ground. Pass three cautiously; usually not worth it.

Use models that work. A good strategy is to start with something familiar and tangible, preferably in the form of a story. Then use this form as a bridge to general understanding. For the remainder of the talk, work backwards: from general to specific, diving deeper and deeper into less familiar and difficult details. Then go back and end where you started. This pattern mimics an hourglass. Other models work too, but make sure to keep the flow simple and logical.

What is different?

Presenters are now two-dimensional and limited to one location. The visuals are brighter and of higher resolution. These changes cause people to focus visually on the slide deck, and then potentially on their phone or second monitor. The impact of your body language will fade and your voice will become more prominent. Applying these three tips will increase your impact:

1. Review your configuration

We used to go to a classroom or auditorium to present. Now, most people are sitting at their desks, not thinking about the transition. Consider making three changes.

  • Establish a routine before the discussion. You need a transition time to warm up and prepare. Give yourself 15 minutes before the presentations and experiment a bit to see what works for you.
  • Do not present from your office chair. Get up and, if possible, move to another location. If you can’t move, stay at your desk. Place the camera on your laptop at eye level by placing your computer on a stable stack of books, a stool, or a chair above your desk. The standing position will serve as a reminder that you are presenting, not to write a newspaper article.
  • Find a decent corded microphone. Many cell phone microphones work well, but test yours with a friend. Your voice is now critical; your microphone should be clear.

To learn more about how configuration changes can help combat zoom fatigue, check out this recent item.

2. Be more dynamic vocally

Your voice has now become your most important tool for being dynamic – use it! Expanding your vocal range is achieved by changing attitude, because as attitudes change so do our pitch, tone, and volume. But with this change in attitude comes a warning: it must be genuine. Your goal is simply to enable attitude changes that truly reflect how you feel about various content. Are you sad, angry or curious about your opening problem? Is your methodology relatively simple? Was your result expected or surprising? Allowing you to feel will trigger a dynamic vocal presence that will keep your audience engaged. Standing will help here too, as our voice follows body language. Michael Grinder explains this relationship well on floor 2 of his House of Communication.

3. Develop better visuals

Visuals are more important and serve a different purpose. Here are three keys to consider.

  • You need high resolution photographs that will help increase emotional impact and memory. Look in PowerPoint, which now contains royalty-free images as well as icons and illustrations (go to “insert”, “photos” then click on “stock images”). Also take pictures in your lab with your smartphone. The impact of your own photos can be powerful.
  • You need well-developed (probably animated) illustrations that will increase comprehension and reduce audience processing time (double bonus!). For general phenomena, look for professional infographics that you can then cite. For details on your research, build them yourself. Try to use Can go.
  • Activate your visuals. Use animation, morph, and annotation to keep the visual flow dynamic. The goal is to create slide visuals that build up and move in real time with your voice. Well done, this movement helps understanding and discourages people from looking at their phones for fear of missing out.

Note that nothing here says more visuals, and definitely don’t add more text! The visuals just need to be better developed and more dynamic.

Learn and practice

Like everyone else, I look forward to presenting in person again. But even when we do, online presentation isn’t going to go away; the convenience and increased reach of virtual presentation is too valuable. Understand the differences between in-person and online presentation, look for opportunities to practice, and learn how to do both well.



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