Speaking to large groups is often intimidating. Speaking to large groups online can be even scarier. Why? Because even in a one-way, lecture-type of presentation, you’re getting all kinds of feedback. But doing it virtually feels like you’re talking into a void. That throws a lot of speakers, particularly experienced presenters, off their game.
Imagine you’re facing an audience of over a hundred people in an auditorium or lecture hall. You can hear the audience laugh (or yawn, hey that’s feedback too). The people in the front row are watching you attentively. Maybe you hear them rustling around, telling you that they’re getting restless and you’d best pick up the pace and get to the good stuff. There are a lot of ways of getting both verbal and nonverbal feedback.
We use that feedback to make adjustments to our talks- speed up, slow down, stop and check for understanding. Competent presenters are constantly taking in as much information as we’re transmitting.
Online, it’s a different game. With a large group, odds are everyone but the speaker is muted. You can’t see people’s faces. The nods, smiles and eye rolls we rely on to pace ourselves are missing. Lacking that feedback, most online presenters start to speed up, going too quickly for the audience to understand. We just read our scripts, negatively impacting our vocal tone and making us boring to our listeners.
Most dangerously, we try to pack too much information into a short space. This actually overloads the audience’s limited attention capabilities and too often defeats our stated purpose.
There are, though, some ways to gather useful information online and use it to our (and thus our audience’s) advantage.
Use Polling: Many of the most common web presentation platforms (WebEx, GotoMeeting, Lync) have some kind of interactive polling feature. This can not only give you good information about your audience, it gets them kinesthetically involved (a ten dollar word for “actually doing something”) and enhances engagement. But don’t just use polling at the beginning and end. You can use it to test understanding and keep people’s attention throughout a long presentation.
Watch the “attention meter” (if you have one): If you’re doing large online webinars and meetings, you’re probably using a robust presentation system. Most have some icon to let you know when people are looking at your screen (good) or looking at something else on their computer (potentially less good). In WebEx it’s a red exclamation mark, in others it will be something else. Don’t get paranoid, people will occasionally drift, but if you see a lot of people looking elsewhere, do something to draw their attention back to your presentation.
Ask for feedback in other ways: With a large group, you’ll usually mute the phones in order to prevent background noise and distractions. However, you might still want to hear from people or get their attention. Try using other feedback methods such as chat or the “hands up” button or checkmarks. This will vary from platform to platform but the trick is to quickly and efficiently garner useful information while giving people a reason to stay engaged in the meeting.
Take questions periodically instead of saving them for the end: You can take questions in writing, or unmute people’s phones individually (the auditory aspect of hearing other voices will be more engaging, but it’s tough to do if you don’t have a co-pilot). Either way, expecting people to sit passively holding their questions for 40 minutes or so is counter-productive to getting good input, and a steady stream of questions tells you that people are actually listening to what you say.
While nothing beats being in the same room as your audience, presenting virtually doesn’t need to be a lonely, scary thing to do, either.