Okay, not life threatening ... but fatal to any chance you have of influencing your listeners. You know that person that's dreadful to listen to on a virtual call? The person that makes you want to mentally check out when they speak? You don't want people thinking of you or your teammates that way. I've personally coached more than 5,000 presenters globally. During that time, I've seen many unintentional, but common mistakes most presenters make. Some mistakes are certainly expected and won't do much damage. What I term as "fatal" mistakes endanger your message, hinder the audience's ability to engage with you and could damage your reputation. Yes, your reputation as a speaker, collaborator or leader is at stake.
Anyone that I've coached would tell you that, as a coach, I'm a straight shooter when it comes to direct feedback. It's my job to make my clients better, so I don't sugarcoat my feedback. Coaching must be clearly understood and acted upon. So here is the straight truth. During any presentation, face-to-face or virtual, presenters are asking their audience to absorb and understand information. Many presenters have said to me that they are not trying to influence, they are simply providing information to their audience. They are wrong. As a presenter, you are convincing your audience that you have good, sound, logical information that they should rely on to do what they need to do. Your audience is listening to you because they need your information to accomplish something in their lives. Yes, you are that important! Your presentation does matter whether it's a Quarterly Business Review, specific content introduction, an overview, or a sales or technical presentation. You are influencing with your content. From this perspective, your presentation is important to your listeners and you should treat it that way.
As a coach, I've listened to thousands of presentations, some dreadful, some brilliant. I remember a time when, as a young account executive, my stomach churned and my palms got moist leading up to a high stakes presentation. My mind was focused on how I would sound and appear to others, which led me to consistently have out of body experiences as I spoke. It felt as if I wasn't in control of the sentences that came out of my mouth, and they came out in bunches. I've seen this play out in other presenters many times over the years in many different ways and for many different reasons. One thing I do know is that to improve you have to move beyond your comfort zone.
As you work to become a better virtual presenter, there will be times when you have your "A” game and times when you will be happy simply to finish. The goal is to always measure yourself by your "A" game and understand what you do when you are great so that you can repeat it. If you do this, slowly but surely your confidence will improve as well as your ability to present to those you can't see. While there are many things that can tank a virtual presentation, here are three fatal mistakes I've seen made by virtual presenters at all levels that have an easy fix. Here is my warning to you: some may seem simple, but don't underestimate their importance.
1. Not preparing enough.
This is a fact. People do not prepare enough for virtual presentations. An overwhelming majority of virtual presenters that I speak with say they prepare more for a face-to-face presentation than a virtual presentation. This flawed reasoning is due to a common misconception that virtual presentations are easier because all eyes won't be fixed on you and you can read from your notes easily. Do not fall into this trap! Virtual presentations are fraught with many hidden land-mines. Whether it's a call on a virtual platform like Lync, Zoom or WebEx or a phone conference call, your inability to see your audience means that you will need to employ new strategies that mitigate the loss of your visual references. Remember, one of the main reasons virtual is more difficult is that you have to capture the attention of your audience because they have the ability to do other things while you are speaking. This is different than if they were in the same room with you. Because of this, your first minutes are critical because they are deciding if they need to give you their full attention. YOU CAN’T WING THIS MOMENT! Make sure to spend a lot of time working on your opening minutes. This is where you are sending silent cues to your audience for what you expect them to do during your presentation. I've seen countless virtual presentations where no message is sent and the multi-tasking begins. It's critical in that moment that you connect with your audience, let them know you understand what they want and involve them in the process. This takes preparation and a little research. The value of your presentation will be judged on how well your audience processed and understood your content.
2. Not having a presentation structure that your audience can easily follow.
When you are presenting virtually, your audience is basically seeing slides and hearing words. You are responsible for making your story come to life with these two components - words and slides. We all know that you should never just read the words on the slide. If you do this, you have lost your audience. You might as well just stop talking and tell them to read the deck. This is especially important in more complex presentations where a simple organizing construct makes it easy for your audience to take in chunks of information. They need to know where an important piece of content ends and another one begins. If they all blend together, you risk confusion in your listener's mind. Break your information into chunks of common content and use "landing slides" to separate the content and let the audience know that something new is coming. If you do this as you wrap up each section, you give your audience time to process what you've said and then get ready to take in more information. It's important that your structure include (in this order):
1. Why your topic is important to them from their perspective.
2. How your topic will fill that gap for them.
3. Your agenda for your presentation.
4. A discussion of each agenda item possibly taking questions between each.
5. A concise summary of what you covered.
6. A call to action.
3. Talking fast and endlessly.
All right all of you fast talkers, pay attention. I'm going to be direct again. The single most important thing that you can do to improve your virtual presentations is to slow your $#@% down. I've heard all the excuses, of which number one is, "This is just the way I talk". Sorry, not an excuse. This also applies to those of you who generally aren't fast talkers but become so when the nerves hit during a presentation. Here is a thought to remember: presenting is not about you or how you feel or what you are comfortable with. It's about your ability to provide information to an audience in a way that they can take it in and use that information appropriately. By slowing yourself down, taking it sentence by sentence, you can do several things:
1. Allow your audience more time to absorb and process what you have said.
2. Allow yourself to be more present with what you are actually saying.
3. Focus on each sentence as it emerges from your lips so you can begin to shrink your use of sounds, like uhm, ah, and ehm.
Slowing down and being more present also stops you from losing yourself in your words. You know this is happening when that little voice inside you says, “What the heck are you saying?" while you are talking.
If you can prepare more for the virtual environment, structure your presentation and control your delivery, you will be well on your way to making great improvements as a virtual presenter.