The pandemic has made web conferencing common in the professional world as distributed workforces are becoming the norm. This means that students need to develop virtual presentation skills as well as live ones. Here I will outline some of the most important virtual presentation principles to teach students.
The number one mistake people make in virtual presentations is to look at their monitor instead of the camera. As the camera is above the monitor, looking at the screen makes it appear to the viewer that you are speaking to their chest. The very first thing to teach students is to look at the camera while speaking. They can glance away to look at notes. This even adds some variety to the presentation by making the speaker appear less robotic, but the speaker’s primary gaze should be on the camera, not the monitor.
The second most common error in virtual presentations is to leave the camera well below eye level so that the viewer is left looking up to the speaker, which looks creepy. The camera should always be at eye level. Also, it is best to position yourself about arm’s length from the camera, or about three feet.
How you position and light yourself on camera demonstrates professionalism during a presentation. Many people make the mistake of having only back or side lighting, which silhouettes them or casts shadows across their face. The primary lighting should always be behind the camera, in front of the speaker’s face. Also, speakers should avoid combining artificial and natural lighting as the latter will overwhelm the former and again create shadows.
Students also need to be coached on how to show emotion and to gesture during their presentations. Nerves often result in neutral facial expressions and little movement. When the presenter looks bored, the audience will become bored. Students should focus on showing enthusiasm, even overemphasizing their points. Moving their arms—which are now visible since they’re at arm’s length from the camera—makes their presentation more interesting to their audience and their voices more dynamic. It is a good idea to show examples of enthusiastic presenters for students to model their own work, such as this one from SciShow on YouTube.
Speech pace, tone, and clarity (or articulation) are just as important online as in an in-person presentation. While script reading is discouraged because it makes most people sound robotic, students can easily post notes behind their camera to guide them. This can result in increased confidence and, hopefully, clear, well-paced speech. Make sure students do not lower their voices due to lack of confidence or slow down their cadence, another common error.
Text-heavy slides are discouraged in both in-person and virtual presentations because it splits the viewer’s attention between reading the words and listening to the narration. This is of even greater importance online because the ratio of screen to presenter results in slides dominating the screen. This is an excellent chance for students to practice building slides that are image based. The slides should support what they are saying and not be a collection of bullet points that they merely read aloud.
Turning on your camera and remembering to unmute yourself while loading and presenting your own slides is a skill many professionals still struggle with. This is something most students don’t even realize requires practice until they try it awkwardly for the first time. To avoid potential issues, I dedicate time in breakout groups for students to practice these important skills.
One of the most important factors in becoming a strong presenter is practicing and receiving feedback. Virtual presenting makes this easier than in-person presenting and often results in greater confidence when presenting in any format. The ability to record yourself presenting and providing your own feedback is extremely helpful—as is the opportunity and ease of presenting online to peers and receiving their feedback.
Unsurprisingly, the benefits of continuing to teach virtual presentation skills extend beyond the skills themselves.
Fear of presenting is a common among students (and people more generally). I have been pleasantly surprised to see a greater comfort with virtual than in-person presentations. Students report that they feel more confident in their own space, can more easily use visual aids to stay on track, and have a greater opportunity to record their presentation for practice. This seems to be especially important for students with different language proficiencies.
Virtual student presentations can also support the creation of a psychologically safe environment for learning. Presentations are a valuable opportunity for students to support each other using the chat function or reactions. I’ve watched students who have never spoken in the in-person classroom participate actively in our online space.
Virtual presenting is not going away. Equipping students with the skills to present effectively online will continue to provide benefits for both academic and professional presentations. Perhaps more importantly, these skills will also help to provide a solid foundation for other forms of online communication that they engage with throughout their daily lives.
Casey Gurfinkel is a professor of communications at George Brown College and a communications instructor at the University of Toronto.