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7 Ways to Engage a Virtual Audience

By Paul Barton

One reason I love public speaking so much is the audience. I draw energy from them and immediately put that energy back into my presentation. I become more animated and in turn, my audience shows more engagement. I see them smiling and their heads nodding in agreement. They take notes, and when I make a great point, they write furiously. When they see a slide that they like, they raise their smartphones to snap a photo of it. I hear them laugh at one of my quips. I see their quizzical facial expressions when they are trying to understand. They sit up straight and lean forward as they are listening intently.

I can react to all of that — unless I am making a virtual presentation.

Virtual Business Presentations

Increasingly, business presentations are being delivered virtually via webinars, podcasts, and telephone conference calls. Virtual presentations have many advantages, not the least of which is that they allow people from all around the world to participate without having to travel. But such meetings can be challenging because you cannot see your audience and that makes it more difficult to determine if your messages are resonating.

Last Friday, Kris Pugsley of ON Semiconductor and I co-presented a webinar hosted by Poppulo about how large companies could communicate more effectively with their employees. There were more than 1,000 corporate communications professionals from around the world who listened to our webinar.

Engaging a Virtual Audience

Here are some of the techniques we employed in an effort to engage our audience:

  • Good Content: We knew our topic was relevant to our audience and that they would be curious about what we had to say. We presented intriguing strategies but we also included many practical examples. Audiences want to hear stimulating thoughts but they also want ideas that they can implement right away.
  • Personal Introductions: In addition to our professional biographies, Kris and I each shared a photo and shared some information about our personal lives. Knowing that Kris underwent brain surgery last year and that I have a 10-year-old son with severe Autism helps humanize us to our audience.
  • Vocal Variety: Kris and I took turns presenting so the audience got to hear the content broken up with a male and a female voice alternating. An extra bonus was the charming Irish accent of our host, Emma Hanley (Poppulo is based in Ireland.)
  • Compelling Graphics: We had visually pleasing graphics with compelling data.
  • Audience Polls: We polled our audience at four different points during the presentation. The audience was able to see the results instantly. Having to determine how to answer, the physical act of clicking on the response, and then waiting to see how their answers compare to the rest of the audience helps keep the audience engaged.
  • Q&A: The audience typed questions into a chatbox as the presentation went along and we responded to their questions in the final 10 minutes.
  • Social Share: Our host publicized a Twitter hashtag for the event so that the audience could engage in conversations before, during and after the webcast.

Judging from the number of questions asked on the webinar, the feedback we received on Twitter and LinkedIn, and the traffic generated to my website following the webcast, our presentation indeed resonated with our audience.

As presenters in the digital age, we have to become more creative to engage our audiences in virtual presentations. Performing public speaking virtually can be a challenge, but it can be done effectively with forethought, a little creativity, and good planning.

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