7 Tips for Remote Presentations That Rock

Posted: - Modified: | presentation, sketches, speaking

Remote Presentations That Rock: given at the virtual IBM Technical Leadership Exchange conference in November 2009 and the IBM Take Two women’s leadership sessions. Please feel free to learn from this and share this with others!

UPDATE: Added 14-minute standalone video.

(I just discovered I could draw more than just stick figures! Yay!)

Virtual presentations are tough.

We’re not going to talk about basic presentation skills: how to organize your thoughts, how to deliver your presentation, how to support your message with the right charts or images. There are a number of books and IBM courses on effective presentations, and I’ll link to them on the webpage for this talk. Today, we’re going to talk specifically about giving presentations online.

Why is this important? It starts with the reason why you give a presentation–any presentation. No matter what kind of presentation you’re giving, your goal is to persuade people. You’re convincing people to pay attention to what you’re telling them and to act on that information. You want people to make a decision or take an action.

Persuading people, influencing people, is a lot harder when you’re not face-to-face. You’re competing against e-mail and instant messaging for people’s attention. You can’t watch their eyes or their body language to tell when you’re going too fast or too slow. People can leave any time they want, so you have to be interesting all throughout.

I’m here because I think virtual communication skills can make a big difference in our company and in our world. To me, remote presentations mean that no matter where you are in the world, you can attend events that used to be limited by travel budgets. Not only that, no matter where you are in the world, you can share your expertise. I really, really care about that. I want you and everyone else to be able to step up, take the stage, and share what you know. I want you to be able to present well so that you can teach and inspire others.

But virtual presentations are tough. Let me share with you some of the things that hold other people back. People say,

  • It’s hard to connect with people over the phone.
  • I want to get through the material, but I don’t know what people think.
  • I always run out of time.
  • I’m afraid of technical problems.
  • I don’t know how much to put into my presentation.
  • I feel like I lose momentum when giving presentations.
  • I feel like my presentations don’t result in anything.

I’ve faced those challenges too. I still do! So here are my seven key tips that can help you not only get better at doing remote presentations, but even enjoying them.

1. Make it real.
2. Interact.
3. Make space for learning.
4. Practice, practice, practice.
5. Keep it simple.
6. Start strong and end strong.
7. Continue the conversation.


1. Make it real.

The most important step you can take is to pretend that your remote presentation is just as real and just as important as face-to-face presentations. This is almost impossible when you can’t make eye contact, when your neck is starting to ache because of the way you’re holding your phone, when you’re doing it in the middle of an already busy day. And if you don’t have the energy to connect, you’re going to make it difficult for people to listen.

So pretend you’re face to face. Dress up in your favourite suit, just like you would for a real presentation. Smile, just like you would for a real presentation. Get a headset so that you can stand up and do a real presentation. People might not be able to see you, but they’ll hear your confidence and your energy.

Having a hard time pretending? Ask a coworker to listen to you give your talk, and you’ll probably find that your presentation becomes much easier to give. If you’re working from home or all of your coworkers are busy, you can use pictures of people as your audience. Sometimes I’ve used stuffed toys as my stand-ins!

Make it real for people listening to you, too. Why should they listen to you instead of just reading through your slides on their own? Make your presentation a real performance. Smile and use the hand-gestures you would use to get your point across. Webcams are cheap, and they can help people feel as if you’re right there with them. Make it real.

What’s one thing that can make your virtual presentation almost as real as being there in person? Interaction. You have to listen as much as you talk.


2. Interact.

The biggest presentation mistake you can make is to rush through what you have to say without finding out what people think. People tune out when what you’re saying isn’t relevant to them AND they know they don’t need to pay attention. They mentally check out. They start reading mail or responding to instant messages. And once you lose people, it’s hard to get them back.

There are three big reasons why you should listen to people during your presentation. First: you can create more value. If you don’t take questions, you might as well record your presentation and share it, or send a copy of your slides and notes around so that people can read it. Is what you’re talking about relevant to people? Does anything need to be explained further? The main reason why people are listening to you is so that you can listen to them and answer their questions.

Second: you can keep people’s attention. Mix it up. Add variety.

Third—and this is incredibly powerful: Listening to people during your presentation will teach you a lot. People are learning from you, but you’re learning from them. You’re learning from the ideas they share, the questions they ask, and the stories, examples, and answers you think of as you address their questions.

There are all sorts of great ways you can get feedback from people who are attending a webconference. For example, the Elluminate system lets people raise their hands, add a check to their name, answer multiple-choice polls, indicate A/B/C/D/E, add text to a shared whiteboard, or share their thoughts in the chat. Even if you only have the phone, you can pause for questions.

Here’s the difficult part: you need to become comfortable with waiting. Seven seconds is probably the minimum you should wait for a response. Seven seconds seems like a lifetime when you’re giving a presentation, but people need time to think of their questions or think of their answers. Yes, it will feel awkward, but it’s essential.

In addition to building interaction into your presentation, you may also want to use the text chat to invite people to share their thoughts throughout the session. If you find it hard to keep track of what’s being discussed there while presenting, ask someone to watch the discussion for you, and to bring up anything that you should know about.

Reach out.

Great, you say. Interaction. That’s good. But you don’t have enough time to present everything already, so how are you going to make time for question and answer?


3. Make space for learning.

You need to make time for that interaction. You can’t just squeeze the questions and answers portion into the last few minutes of a presentation that has already run over time.

Ruthlessly edit your presentation until you can find the core of your message. If your session is scheduled an hour, say what you need to say in 20 minutes—or even 7 minutes. Save the details for Q&A, a follow-up note or a blog post. One pattern that works very well is to say your core message, then save the rest of the session for Q&A. If people are typing their questions in the text chat while you’re doing your presentation, you can even weave some of the questions and answers into your short presentation.

Get your key message across, then get out of the way.

How do you find your key message?


4. Practice, practice, practice.

You know this already: you should practice important presentations. But for presentations that really rock – virtually or in person – but go beyond that. Practice thinking about your topic. Practice talking about your topic. Practice writing about your topic. As you repeat yourself, you’ll find that the most important points float to the top. Listen as you explain what you want to say, and you’ll figure out great ways of communicating it.

I write a lot about topics I’m passionate about, like social networking and presentation skills. I write again and again about the same topic. Every time I write or talk about it, I learn something new. I get a little better at expressing what I think. I come across new ideas, too. Practice helps.

Practice with your tools, too. Trying a new interactive technique? Experiment with it before using it with a large audience. And always, always have backup plans. Be ready to skip parts that don’t work and tools that are having problems. Work hard at practicing so that your actual performance looks effortless.

Practice is easier when there’s less to practice, so:


5. Keep it simple.

Practice and edit, practice and edit, until you can get to a clear, memorable key message. Make it something you can keep in your head and talk about even if no one can see your slides. Memory aids help you organize what you want to say, and they help people remember. For example, if you’re talking about goals, you can talk about all sorts of things people should do in order to set better goals. Or you can talk about setting SMART goals: specific, measurable, ardently desired, realistic, and time-bound. The keyword “SMART” makes it easy for people to remember your points afterwards.

Keep your slides simple, too. Instead of using fancy effects like transitions or animations, or putting lots of text, just put your key messages on the slide. That way, people can focus on what you’re saying instead of on reading the slides.


6. Start strong and end strong.

What are people going to remember about your talk? Based on the way that our memory works, they’ll probably remember the beginning and the end. The primacy effect of memory means they’ll remember the first part, and the recency effect means they’ll remember the last. Make the most of those times. Every minute counts. Every slide counts.

Imagine this: You could spend ten minutes on a slow start, waiting for everyone to dial in, thanking people for attending, and then reading your agenda. Or you can use the time to warm up your audience, get to know some of the attendees, share the key point—the executive summary–of your presentation, and then hit the ground running. Most of the time, it’s a good idea to cut the suspense and put your main point first, so people who hang up halfway through the call still know what you were trying to say. Start strong.

End strong, too. Here’s a quick fix to make your next question-and-answer session even better: instead of showing a slide that says “Thank you!” or “Questions?”, post a one-slide summary with your contact information and a link to where people can find out more. That way, you help people remember what they wanted to ask questions about, you help them learn more, and you give them clear actions to take next.

Because the most important question for a presentation is: “What’s next?” What do you want people to do after listening to you? What do you want them to learn or remember? Your presentation isn’t the end of a conversation. It’s just the beginning.


7. Continue the conversation.

So continue that conversation. Make it easy for people to download your slides, notes, and recordings so that they can review your presentation or share it with others. If you share it, other people can come across your presentation in search results and blog posts. Invite people to share their comments, reactions, and questions. Show people what their next steps are, and help them take those steps. You’ve already done the hard work of making and giving the presentation, so you might as well make the most of it.

And you can reach out even before your presentation, too. For example, I started this presentation as an idea. I wrote a blog post. People commented. I made a presentation, and then a longer blog post. At every step of the way, people shared their thoughts and helped me make it better. The presentation has been viewed more than a thousand times and I haven’t even delivered it at the virtual conference yet. It’s part of the bigger conversation that’s going on out there.

Be part of the conversation. Make your presentation matter.

I hope you’re ready to rock your next remote presentation! =) Pick one of these tips, write it down, and focus on it when you’re planning your next talk. What did you like the most about this talk, and what will you work on? What other challenges are in your way? What can I help you with?

Presenter’s note: I plan to edit this down to key messages (always, always!) and add more interactivity for this session, which I’m delivering as an internal IBM teleconference on November 3, 2009. Feedback is always welcome!

You can comment with Disqus or you can e-mail me at sacha@sachachua.com.