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What if you could speak with the Michael Jordan, LeBron James or Steph Curry of public speaking and get their advice how to communicate better in the new, distance-based professional world? Well, you are in the right place. I recently approached seven past Toastmasters World Champions of Public Speaking and asked them to share their insights.
Mike Carr, winner of 2020’s virtual competition, advises….
Don’t look into the camera. Look through the camera. “You have probably heard the advice to be sure and look at the camera while you are talking. That is a good start if you currently look at participants. But if you want to make impact, it is important to take your gaze one step further. Imagine someone you are close to is behind the camera.
In my winning speech, I imagined my daughter behind the camera every time I said the core sentence of that message: ‘The victory is not in the result; the victory is in the try!’ That is something I have said to her in the middle of her most difficult challenges, and the emotion of telling my child that message came through to the audience. It will for you also.”
Spend most of your time off-center. “Your enemy is the audience’s fatigue. Almost every presentation they see is a dimly lit human sitting in the middle of a rectangle. Be different; spend most of your time out of that middle spot and it will be more visually interesting, and memorable, to your audience.”
Film in the corner of a room. “For your background, making the middle of your screen the corner of a room acts as an arrow directing to the focal point: you. Additionally, when you are telling a story and you slide to one side or the other it builds a visual tension for your audience. When you come to the point of your story and simultaneously step back to the middle of your screen (where the corner of your background is), your audience feels the relief of that visual tension and more impact from your story.”
Experimentation creates epiphany. “Differences sell; similarities don’t. Therefore, continue to make your presentations interesting by making them unique. In my winning speech, I started speaking from the lower left corner of the screen with just my head showing. That has been the most commented-on aspect of my speech, but it only happened because I was experimenting the day before the contest final with different perspectives. Experimenting brought about the most memorable impact.”
Use the depth of the room. “One of the greatest advantages of virtual is that you can have a more intimate conversation with each member of your audience by moving in closer to the camera. Every participant can see the nuances of your face. Likewise, you can move back away from the camera for a completely different audience experience. For one presentation, I set up my camera and laptop outside, used a wireless microphone and started 20 yards away and off to the side. As I started talking, I started running toward the camera. This created an effect the audience had never seen before and grabbed their attention from the beginning.”
Keep it simple. “Online is not the best platform for layered communication. The simpler the narrative, the easier it is to absorb what’s being said. Sixty-70% of communication is nonverbal, and online is not the most conducive of mediums to transfer that context.”
Keep it conversational. “Part of why people feel fatigued is the one-directional nature prevalent in online talks. Make your talk or presentation conversational and don’t go into ‘speaker mode.'”
Structure for Engagement. Speak in 10-minute chunks, then have a break to interact, then proceed to your next point. When you break up your talk with room for interaction, the audience will have a chance to engage with you and be a part of the conversation.”
Do 60% of the work offline. Have a pre-event session with you audience to set context, talk about what you want to achieve and give them a chance to contribute their ideas. This setting allows the audience to have an informal connect with you before the engagement begins. If you are preparing for an important meeting, it also gives you a chance to influence stakeholders before your actual session.”
Put background in the foreground. “Make sure that your body occupies 70% of the screen. Don’t stand too far or too close. Use a darker background so you stand out. Make sure your background is not cluttered. Avoid speaking with a bookshelf background, for example, as that distracts the audience.”
Be mindful of your audience’s attention span. “Don’t use slides unless you absolutely have to. Switching between your screen and the slides will drown the energy of your audience. When speaking, you will be tempted to look at the screen to gauge the audience reactions to your speech, but when you do that it looks like you are not giving your audience eye contact. Therefore, always look at the camera and not at your monitor.”
Darren Tay, winner of the 2016 competition, advises….
Prime and prepare your audience members. “You may request all audience members turn on their video feed. You can share with them that, as a speaker, you feed off the energy and participation of the audience. Being able to see them and having them see you will help you deliver better for them. Your audience is more likely to comply if you give a good reason. You may share with your audience that doing so, they will not miss out on important information that’s either not available elsewhere or will help them greatly.”
Value-add your visuals. “If you plan to use visual aids like presentation slides, remember to value-add like crazy. What’s the difference between value-copy and value-add? Value-copy is to simply read off whatever is on the slides. Your audience might as well download the slides and read them on their own. Value-add, on the other hand, is about highlighting, showing, illustrating, demonstrating or explaining something that’s not already shown.”
Manoj Vasudevan, winner of the 2017 competition, advises….
Use content that evokes emotion. “Stories, metaphors and analogies, when effectively, delivered will paint a mental picture and evoke emotions from miles away. I know two ladies living in the same household for decades who were friends for life. In later years, they developed acute dementia and couldn’t recognize each other. One day, when one of the ladies passed on, the other started crying uncontrollably. How was she able to sense the sad departure? Even when memories fade, emotions have a tendency to stick. Remember to encapsulate your key points with content that evokes emotions remotely.”
Use the power of your voice. “Many people worry about how they look during a video call, but they miss another vital aspect:audio. Unleash the power of your voice through vocal modulation, the right audio equipment and the most powerful thing you can use as a speaker: the rightly timed pause.”
Ask powerful, open-ended questions. “When you ask questions, it forces your listeners to think. By using well-phrased questions, you enter the realm of your listeners minds where your questions linger on, despite the distance. ‘What has this pandemic taught you so far?’ ‘What are your plans once this is over?'”
More interactions, less distractions. “It is easy for a remote audience to get distracted. Keep them engaged through periodic interactions, and avoid anything that will distract you or your listeners. Where practical, call out some willing participants by their names and ask easy-to-answer questions without putting them on the spot. Or invite the listeners to leave comments in the chat. Make it easy and safe for them to engage.”
Ramona J. Smith, winner of the 2018 competiton, advises….
Treat the virtual stage like the actual stage. “Many of us get a little lax when it comes to virtual speaking. We think that because our stage is now reduced to a rectangle or square that we can become lackadaisical with our presentation or appearance. Dress as if you were in person. Keep the same energy you would have in a face-to-face board meeting.”
Speak outside the box. “Stand and deliver. Body language and hand gestures are paramount when delivering an impactful message. When you stand up more of your body is visible. Your speaking area is widened. You open up space for potential usage of props, demonstrations and a co-presenter.”
Prepare before your present. “This is always my number-one tip with any aspect of speaking. Athletes will agree that you play how you practice. The same goes for delivering an impactful message. Practice delivering your presentation in the mirror. Rehearse your speech on your electronic device and record yourself. Practicing in advance allows for smooth transitions in the virtual realm with audio, video and screen-sharing. It also helps to eliminate unnecessary filler words, fiddling and pauses.”
Aaron Beverly, winner of the 2019 competition, advises….
Remember fundamentals. “The medium has changed, but the fundamentals of good communication have not. Know your audience and make sure you have a clear message.”
Change your settings so you can’t see your own image. “If you’re too distracted by how you look, make it so you can’t see yourself and remove the distraction.”
Watch your facial expressions. “Virtual formats mean we see less of your body, but that means we concentrate more on what we can see: your face. Be wary of the expressions that you make while presenting. Expressions can be used as an asset, but they can betray your true feelings.”
Do not use your computer as a crutch. “Now that our computers are right in front of us when we present, it’s tempting to not practice and read your presentations verbatim. However, it’s still noticeable if you don’t make eye contact with the camera lens and you still come off as robotic. Don’t rely on the crutch. Practice just as you would if you were not presenting virtually.”
Related: How to Overcome Stage Fright
Now it’s your turn. What’s your best tip to shine while delivering messages from distance?