Putting Your Best Face Forward

As someone who does the odd presentation (and I don’t mean my presentations are odd) to camera clubs and other special events, I’ve become more used to public speaking each time I do it.  It took me a long time to feel comfortable with it, and even still, I usually don’t eat on the day of a major event.  I worry about pulling it off.  I replay the event over and over in my head.  What I worry about most is the audience reaction.

AudienceThere are tips for audience engagement, not the least of which is the notion of turning your delivery into a conversation, away from a monologue.  People respond best when they feel you are speaking directly to them and pausing for them to react.

Whether in small or large groups, the ability to wander, to look people in the eye, to see their facial expressions and to anticipate their reactions is what can make or break an event.  It’s easy to do in small groups, harder in large halls with dim lights.  But how the heck do you replicate that in a video conference?

Lately, we have all been doing more things online.  We’ve tried to continue with our business or hobby activities online, adjusting to cameras pointed at us (rather than us doing the pointing) and headsets or microphones attached to our faces.  Our audiences can be a set of small smiling icons nicely laid out in a grid on your screen, each neatly tucked into a one inch square box.  Or for larger crowds in a webinar format, you might see no icons at all, and just have a chat panel open to allow attendees to type in questions.

WebinarThe technology works great, the materials are polished and ready, you step up to begin and see – nothing.  No applause to welcome you, no changes in posture in what is hopefully eager anticipation for the start.

You don’t realize just how dependent you are on body language, the murmurs in the crowd, the shifting of seats, the buildup to your beginning.  These inspire me to leap off the cliff.  When you don’t have that, you need to rely on other preparation and cues to be successful.

What do I mean by successful?  I originally intended to use this blog to provide some typical things to pay attention to.  Things like checking your connection, bandwidth and audio before you begin.  Making sure your content is elegant, but simple enough to work on a smaller screen.  And for goodness sake, getting a real microphone if you are the speaker, not relying on your tinny webcam or iPhone headset.  But there are a lot of sources for that kind of help.


Instead, I have some lessons learned on what makes a real difference online:

  1. Have a plan.  There is a place for random conversations, but for the most part, someone needs to be in charge of any online session.  They direct the conversation, they cut off discussions that go off on a tangent, they set time limits for any topic.  You don’t have to have a fixed agenda, but you need a plan.
  2. Know your audience.  Are they comfortable with the technology or are they newcomers?  The latter will need more verbal guidance throughout the meeting, but not enough to disrupt the meeting to help them.  It’s a fine balancing act.
  3. Limit free-form conversations to about 20 people.  Most online software has what’s called a “meeting” format, where everyone can see everyone else and everyone technically can speak (with mute capability available to the organizer).  The other format is a “webinar” format, where attendees can’t see each other, see only the presenter, and all questions/comments are typed in via a chat room.  Don’t try to manage more than 20 people in a meeting/conversation.
  4. Watch out for screen fatigue.  With most of us online now for hours a day, our tolerance for looking at a screen is going down big time.  Try to keep your sessions to an hour or less.  Split a longer session over two days.
  5. Build in opportunities for socialization.  This is in contrast to #3.  We can all find videos on YouTube or elsewhere where we can watch a talking head and sit still and quiet while doing so.  What most of us have lost in this pandemic is the opportunity for being social, laughing with each other, arguing with each other.  Design the experience to include built-in opportunities to socialize.  Ask your audience questions.
  6. Build in breaks.  Let people stand and stretch and take a washroom break.  At least every hour – but of course, you are not running longer than an hour so no problem.
  7. Try to replicate events and activities that your group normally indulges in.  That could be coffee with friends, groups that meet regularly to explore topics of common interest, even some types of workshops on different photography subjects.  But keep in mind the limitations of distance and inability to collaborate physically.  For example, a still life workshop could be run online, but would require each participant to have their own setup so they could follow-along.
  8. Add an unexpected perk.  One great thing about being online is that geography is not a concern.  Invite people to join you who would normally not participate because of distance.  This could be a long absent friend, an expert in the topic or someone with a historical connection to your audience or to the subject.  You need at least one ah-ha moment per session just to be different from everyone else.

It’s hard enough speaking to an audience live when they are captive and can’t easily leave.  It’s harder to speak to them online when an exit is less conspicuous and the comforts of home are close-by if the presentation is boring.  Think about what would keep your attention and try to create that experience for those you interact with.  It will make their day, and yours.