When people attend a virtual meeting, people log on at different moments. During that time, it can be awkward for people to sit in silence and wait for everyone to arrive. If you are facilitating a meeting where you want people to participate and speak up, this type of atmosphere is difficult to overcome. Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to make the virtual environment more engaging and dynamic.
1. Have music playing when people log on.
When people log on to one of my workshops, I often having music playing for everyone to hear. This accomplishes a few things. First, it gives people something to talk about and connect over when they first enter the meeting. Second, if people’s cameras are off, the meeting still feels like it has energy and momentum. Finally, if you’re playing fun music, I’ve seen people start to move to the beat or sing along, which instantly adds in a bit of fun at the start of a meeting. If people are enjoying themselves and in a good headspace before a meeting, it’s much easier to collaborate and work together.
2. Have people use a themed virtual background.
If you want to add in some creativity to a meeting, ask people to download a virtual background with a specific theme. Especially if your team is working from home, this adds some appreciated visual variety to people’s screens. You could have people put up a background of
— Ideal travel backgrounds
Japan, Barcelona, Disneyland, etc
— Favorite tv show backgrounds
Simpsons couch, the Friend’s coffeehouse, Parks and Rec office, etc
— Picture of people’s favorite hobby
Yoga studio, garden, kitchen, etc
Not only is it fun for people to think about what background they could use before the meeting, it also allows your team to bond and share a bit about themselves in an easy and engaging way.
3. Have people share an “uninteresting fact” about themselves.
Many people dread ice-breakers because they have to think of something interesting to say. That’s why one of my favorite ice-breakers is to ask people to introduce themselves and reveal an “uninteresting fact” about themselves. It can be anything from “My front door has red trim” to “My cat is sitting next to me” to “I had cereal this morning for breakfast.” By saying an uninteresting fact, people instantly start to open up without the added pressure of having to come up with something profound to share.
The point of an ice-breaker is to help people open up around each other. So whether you’re playing music, having people show up with fun backgrounds, or sharing a bit of easy information about themselves, think about ways to help your group relax and connect.
Your voice is an incredibly powerful tool. It’s especially important since most people are conducting their meetings virtually where they can’t rely as heavily on using body language to communicate. That’s why having a clear and strong voice is critical. However, when you’re in back to back meetings it’s easy for your voice to get tired. Therefore, here are three ways to help you avoid vocal fatigue:
1. Warm up your voice beforehand
People know how important it is to warm up their body before doing a physical activity, but they don’t often think about warming up their voice before speaking. That’s why I spend at least a few minutes before I teach my workshops warming up my voice. I like to blow through my lips, spend some time humming in different pitches, and I move around a bit so I am breathing deeply and fully. That way I know my voice will be ready to use when I speak up in a meeting.
2. Sit up tall
If you’re attending multiple meetings, it’s easy for your body to melt into a “schlump” where your shoulders are crouched over and your head is tilted back. This collapsed position is very hard on your voice because you’re collapsing your voice box and inhibiting your breathing. Therefore, I recommend either coming to the edge of your seat and sitting up tall, or standing as you present, if you are going to be talking for a while. That way your physical stance will keep you supported.
3. Avoid clearing your throat
Many people “clear” their throats before speaking. However, that actually makes things worse. It can aggravate your throat and, overtime, cause more vocal issues down the road. Instead, I recommend humming and then swallowing. This process still clears away any mucus you have built up, but it doesn’t aggravate your throat when you do it.
By warming up, keeping a tall and supported stance, and avoiding clearing your throat, you can help avoid vocal fatigue.
If you listen to a lot of presentations, you’ll notice speakers often use similar phrases during their talks. Then other people hear those expressions and repeat them in their own talks. While some of these phrases are useful, here are a few phrases I’d suggest phasing out of your future presentations:
1. "To give you a little bit of background…"
When people use this phrase, it subtly sends out the message, “This might not be exciting but I have to cover this information.” However, background information is often incredibly important and you want people to actively listen to it. Instead, I’d begin by jumping straight into the information.
2. "For those of you who don’t know…"
This phrase can often sound patronizing and creates distance between the speaker and the audience. If you’re worried that some people in the audience don’t know this information, I’d use the phrase, “In our field it’s important to….” That way if someone does know this information they will think, “Yes, that’s true” and if they don’t know it they will think, “Oh, that’s useful.” This way you keep everyone engaged the whole time.
3. "I won’t go through all of this but…"
This phrase is normally used when people have too much information on a slide. It instantly tells the audience to stop looking at the details on the slide because they might get overwhelmed. Instead I’d say, “I’d like to point out how…” That way instead of highlighting how complex the slide is, you’re helping something important stand out.
By avoiding these phrases, you can easily elevate your presentations and effectively share your message with others.
During a presentation, many speakers end up falling into what I call “the snowball effect” where they speak faster and faster as the presentation continues. This can be problematic for both the speaker and the audience since the speaker gets out of breath and the audience has a hard time catching all of the information. If you find yourself speeding up as you talk, here are a few tips to help:
1. Don’t connect the first few phrases you say with “and”
The beginning of your talk sets the pace for the rest of your presentation. Most people end up combining their first few sentences into one long sentence with “and”. For example, “I’m Bri McWhorter and I’m from Activate to Captivate and I’m excited to share some presentation tips.” Instead, make each of those phrases independent statements. Then it comes out as, “I’m Bri McWhorter. I’m from Activate to Captivate. I’m excited to share some presentation tips.” That way you start off at a slower and more natural pace.
2. Think of your presentation as giving step-by-step instructions
When people are giving instructions, they don’t speed through them. They take their time giving each one and then check in with the listener to make sure it’s sunk in. That’s what you want to do with your presentation. This is all new information and just because you’re familiar with it, doesn’t mean your audience is. That’s why you need to reveal it step-by-step so each section can be absorbed. Try practicing your transitions as instructions and see if it helps you slow down.
3. Every time you click — breathe
I recommend that every time you click to a new slide, you breathe and exhale. That way, even if you do start to speed up during a presentation, you have a built-in way of slowing down. Since the audience needs a moment to take in the new visual anyway, you end up helping yourself slow down and you help the audience have a moment to absorb the new information at the same time.
If you break up your first few sentences, think of revealing your presentation as step-by-step instructions, and breathe every time you click to a new slide, you can elevate your talk by slowing down a bit so your audience has time to listen and learn from your presentation.
As the world opens back up again, hybrid presentations are becoming more popular. It’s a great way to give people the option of being able to participate in-person or online. However, with this format, it means the presenter has to be even more prepared in order to make a positive impact. Here are three tips to keep in mind:
1. Put your headshot on your title slide
Since most in-person events require masks, this means that people online and in-person never get to see your face. That’s why I recommend putting your headshot on your title slide. That way, even though your face is covered, people can still imagine what you look like. Then, when people look you up online after your talk, or see you outside after an event, they can recognize and connect with you.
2. Face your audiences
With hybrid presentations, your audience is in two places, one in front of you and one behind the camera. This can be an odd adjustment for many presenters since their tendency is to look behind them at the screen where their slides are being projected. However, when speakers do this, they often turn their backs to the camera. That means the entire virtual audience can’t see you anymore. Therefore it’s important to face out so your physical and virtual audiences can see you at all times.
3. Repeat questions
After your talk, your audience will probably ask you some questions. However, since you have two different audiences, this means the virtual audience can’t hear what’s happening in the room and the physical audience can’t read the chat box. Therefore as a speaker, get into the habit of always repeating the question before you answer it. That way, the virtual audience can hear what someone asked before you launch into an answer and the physical audience doesn’t get confused when you are answering a question online. By repeating the questions, both audiences feel included and can easily follow your answers.
If you add your headshot to your title slide, make sure you are facing your audiences, and repeat questions so everyone can follow what’s happening, you can easily elevate your talks for hybrid presentations.
Nerves can be difficult to overcome, especially during important presentations. Nerves cause many people to stiffen up and go into what I call “Presenter mode” where their body tenses and their voice becomes more muted and monotone. Not only is this hard for the presenter, it’s also hard on the audience, because it’s difficult to listen to someone speak when they are overwhelmed by nerves. That’s why it’s important to have a few actions you can rely on to relax and feel more like yourself.
1. Think of your first word as a sigh
When people start speaking they often hold their breath when they start to speak. This can make the presenter’s voice sound strained which can magnify nerves. Instead, I recommend thinking of your first word as a sigh. If you sigh as you say “Hello” or “Alright everyone, let’s begin” it will help remind your body to exhale and relax. That way, when you start speaking you sound more at ease.
2. Move your body
When your body is tense, you have more adrenaline pumping through your system so you want to find active ways to remind your body that it can relax. One way is to remember how your body moves during a conversation. When you’re casually talking to someone, you move your hands when you talk and you twist your torso as you share ideas. But during a presentation, people tense up. Therefore when you're introducing yourself, move your torso and use your hands as you speak. That way you can release some of the tension that has built up to help you feel more natural.
3. Find a point of focus
When people start speaking they are often trying to look all over their computer screen or at everyone in the room. This can heighten your nerves because your eye is trying to take in too much information. To help calm yourself down, I recommend finding one person to talk to. Think about putting them at ease with this next bit of information. Then, direct your attention somewhere else with your next piece of content. Finding a point of focus can help you slow down and make your speech feel more like an intimate conversation.
Nerves can surprise us, so it’s useful to have a few tools to rely on to help calm yourself down. Thinking of your first word as a sigh, moving your body, and finding a point of focus will help you feel that this presentation is more like a conversation. The more conversational you feel, the more at ease you will be.
It happens to the best of us. You start to answer a question and then find yourself going on too many tangents and aren’t sure how to recover — you’re rambling. The issue with rambling is that it’s hard for your audience to follow your train of thought and figure out what your core message is. It takes effort for listeners to stay alert to the twists and turns in your story.
Therefore, if you are rambling in an interview or in a meeting, when you find yourself thinking, Where am I going with this? it’s important to know how to wrap up your thoughts and come to a clear conclusion. It’s that core message, or the phrase that you want people to recall, that you need to be direct about. Thankfully, that’s all you have to practice — ending with that take-home sentence that you want people to remember.
Unfortunately, instead of ending with a direct message, most people get embarrassed and end their answer with a trail-off phrase such as, “So ya…”. Or, they just end with a small detail about a story that has nothing to do with the question. Instead, practice ending with the sentence you want people to recall.
Let’s pretend you’re asked in an interview, “What is your greatest strength?” If you find yourself giving a long-winded answer, instead of trailing off, I’d bring it back to the original question and say something along the lines of, “And that’s why I think collaboration is one of my greatest strengths.” That way, if your answer was slightly disjointed, you still ended with the message that you want the interviewer to remember — that you are a great collaborator.
It takes some practice, but this technique can be used in all types of settings. If you’re in a meeting, talking about a project update, and you find yourself describing insignificant details, instead of ending with, “I know that was a lot of information,” I’d end with, “That’s why I believe we are on track with the latest design.” That way, even if the team got confused by some of the information you provided, there won’t be any questions on the current state of the project.
If you find yourself rambling, just take a breath, think about your core message and end your answer with that sentence. It’s a simple yet effective tool to help you and your audience communicate.
More and more people are having to pre-record their presentations for events. But it can be overwhelming to speak to a camera, alone in your room, and make it feel like you’re delivering the speech at an event with over 500 attendees. In pre-recorded talks, presenters often tense up, sound monotone, or rush through their content.
Here are 3 techniques to help you feel more relaxed and natural when you are recording a talk:
1. Talk to someone
It’s difficult to give a talk to people if there aren’t any people around. That’s why so many presenters feel awkward giving a speech to a camera. Thankfully, there is one situation where we do feel comfortable talking to someone even when they aren’t in the same room — when we’re on the phone. During a phone conversation with a friend, you aren’t able to see their face, but since you know them, you can imagine their reactions to the content you’re describing. Therefore if you’re going to record a talk, simply decide who is listening to you at that moment. Add energy and emphasis to certain points. Another option is to put a picture of a friend at the same level as your camera and talk to the picture. If you have a clear idea of who is listening to your information, you are far more likely to let your personality show and give an engaging talk.
2. Move so you don’t stiffen up
There’s a tendency for people to stiffen up when they are recording a talk. Their arms stay down, they don’t move their face as much, and they start holding their breath. The pressure of “being recorded” takes over and people tense up, causing them to lose a lot of their natural personality and energy. To help overcome this, before you record, wake up your body by jumping around, twisting your torso, or even having a quick dance session. If you stand up during the recording, it can also help you feel more supported and energized. Then, when you start your introduction, move your head and have access to your hands. Move your body like you would if you were having a live conversation. This will help you look more natural, which makes it easier for your audience to connect to you and your ideas.
3. Remember to have rest moments
In live conversations and presentations there are moments when, after a speaker makes a key point, they will pause and check in with their audience to make sure that information was received. This pause allows the audience a moment to reflect and absorb the information before the speaker moves on to the next point. However, in recorded talks speakers often speed through the content since they don’t have anyone to check in with. Therefore, to make your presentation feel more conversational, think about your key points and place pauses around them. It will make a pre-recorded talk feel more lively and personal.
If you decide who you are speaking to, stay relaxed by moving your body when you’re talking, and remember to pause so certain points stand out, you can help your pre-recorded talk feel like you’re giving a live presentation.
The words and phrases people use in presentations are incredibly important. As a presenter (whether it’s online or in-person) you want to create a strong connection with your audience. However, I’ve seen many presenters use certain phrases that, while common, can actually create a divide between the speaker and their audience. Here are three suggestions to keep in mind:
1. Change “As I’ve said before” to “Since”
“As I’ve said before” can sometimes come off as patronizing. It suggests that the listener should’ve been paying better attention. By switching this phrase with “Since”, it helps remind the listener of previous information, but in a supportive and conversational way.
2. Change “As you can see” to “We saw”
What if the audience can’t see what you’re saying? Perhaps their screen is too small. Or, maybe the image you’re pointing out is complex and the information you’re describing doesn’t immediately stand out. When presenters use this phrase, if the audience can’t easily “see” what you’re saying, then they will think, “No, I can’t”. This can disconnect the speaker from their audience. Instead, change the phrase to “We saw”. Then a listener can think, “Oh, I didn’t notice that, great to know.” Or, they may think, “Yes, I see that too.” By simply switching a few words, you can keep the audience on your side.
3. Change “For those of you who don’t know” to “It’s been shown”
This phrase highlights a knowledge gap between the presenter and their audience. By switching the phrase to “It’s been shown”, you keep everyone in the conversation. If they did know the information previously, they will think, “Yes, I knew that.” If they didn’t know it before they will think, “Oh, that’s interesting.” By switching up this phrase, you can bring people together no matter what knowledge they walk into the presentation with.
By changing a few simple phrases, you can be a more effective speaker and create a stronger connection with your audience.
Many people start their presentations by asking a question. They believe it is an effective way to engage their audience. While I understand the reason behind asking a question, I’ve also seen this tactic go very wrong. Here are three things to consider before asking a question in your presentation:
1. What if you get an answer you don’t want?
I once went to a talk where the speaker started by asking, “How many people have ever heard of “x” subject before?” Everyone in the room raised their hand. Then, she continued by saying, “Oh, well let’s pretend you haven’t” and then gave a 40 minute talk. This speaker had probably been told that opening a talk with a question is a great way to start. However, it is critical to realize that you may get a response that you don’t want. If a response to your question could unravel your talk, I wouldn’t ask it.
2. Is this rhetorical?
It’s very common for people to ask rhetorical questions in their talks. For example, I often hear people say, “Why did we do this?” and then immediately proceed to answer their own question. While there isn’t anything wrong with this, it’s important to note that your audience will start expecting you to answer your own questions. Then after your talk, if you ask them a question, you might not get anyone to speak up. That’s because you’ve set up an expectation that you will be asking rhetorical questions. Instead, rephrase your question into a statement like, “We did this because...” It’s a much more direct transition into the next part of your talk.
3. Do you need the answer?
I’ve been to many talks where the speaker asks a question, but doesn’t actually need the information. An audience can tell when you are just asking a question for the sake of asking it, versus asking a question and appreciating the response. This is why I recommend only asking a question if you need and value the information the answer can give you.
If you ask a question in a presentation, make sure the information you receive is critical and necessary. Otherwise, rephrase your questions as statements. It will help elevate the quality of your talk.
Bri McWhorter is the Founder and CEO of Activate to Captivate.