Years ago, when my company was young, I was coaching a fairly high-profile financial professional who was getting ready for his firm's annual general meeting. We'll call him Robert.
Robert was brilliant and charming and welcomed my speaker coaching expertise. Like we still do today, with everyone we work with, we identified his distracting verbal and vocal habits and replaced them with more productive ones. We wrote and rewrote his content, building personal stories into his presentation. Then, we got him on his feet to rehearse and things fell apart.
He was a confident presenter, but boy did he love to close himself off, physically, and stand there, looking like a human pretzel. Arms crossed. Legs crossed. Leaning so far back, I was worried he'd fall over at any moment. I offered Robert every coaching tactic I knew at the time to lead him towards a better physical position for audience engagement. No luck. He refused to change.
Finally, I asked him, "Why do you stand like that when you're presenting?" and he replied, "Because it feels good." I paused, and matter-of-factly said, "Robert, this presentation is not about you. It's about your audience." There was a long, awkward minute of silence. Then, the pretzel unfurled. Until that moment, as smart and successful as he was, he hadn't thought about his presentation from the audience's point of view.
We spent the next few rehearsals working on a physical position for him that, at first, was very uncomfortable. There was a lot of complaining coming from that grown man. Eventually, Robert got the new position into his muscle memory and by "showtime", he wasn't even consciously thinking about how he was standing. It was now part of his onstage presence. It was a coaching win for me.
Cut to all these years later, and we're still reminding speakers, "It's not about you." It's ultra-imperative today because audiences are virtual or hybrid and a lot of what speakers need to do is new, uncomfortable, and some things feel downright weird. Here are five tips to share with your speakers to get them uncomfortable enough to shine.
1. Increase the use of the word "you"
While we want to feel that "we're all in this together," being a virtual audience member can be lonely and siloed. Increasing the use of the word "you" makes it feel more personal to the audience. As if you are speaking to just them. Simply changing "thanks everyone, for attending" to "thank you for attending" can be a useful engagement tool.
2. Be as non-virtual as possible
You're virtual and stuck in a tiny box behind a screen. You can't help it. What you can help is appearing as human as possible to your audience. Create an environment that makes you look as real as possible. Ditch those often distracting and low-quality virtual backgrounds for a real-life scene. Use a room screen or even an ironed sheet to be your background to mask anything you don't want your audience to see.
3. Remain Standing
The number of complaints we're hearing about speakers who were engaging in person, but lost their audience on the small screen is staggering. That feedback often boils down to the overall energy of the speaker. We tend to get a little lazy in the virtual environment. Combat a low energy performance by standing and speaking. It will make a HUGE difference.
4. Eye contact is critical
One of the benefits of presenting to a virtual audience is that you can make eye contact with every single person no matter how large that audience is. Make sure your camera is at eye level or a little above for optimal connection.
5. Shorter is better
Everyone is suffering from screen fatigue these days. Keep your content as concise as possible. Your audience will be much more likely to stick with you for twenty minutes than for two hours.
Kerri Garbis, Founder and President, Ovation
Kerri is the President and founder of Ovation. She has successfully run her company virtually since day one, building and maintaining relationships in a virtual environment for over a decade. A professional actress since childhood, her company offers transformative Professional Presence and Speaker Development training helping business professionals all over the world Get Prepared, Get Confident, and Get Ovation!