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If we’ve been reminded of anything during the Covid pandemic, it’s that—for most of us—genuine connection with other people is a critical need of the human species.
Unfortunately, in our new world of virtual business meetings, a lot of people apparently missed the memo. “Zoom fatigue” is a real thing. It’s caused by the cognitive demands of video conferencing. As social distancing keeps people apart physically, the Internet is abuzz with hundreds of millions of virtual meetings every day.
But the fatigue is not just about screen time. It’s also about what’s on the screen. And even with hours and hours of video presentation experience, many (most?) presenters still miss the mark.
George Bernard Shaw had it right when he said “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Modern translation: Merely holding a virtual meeting doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve genuinely connected with the people you want to influence.
Juliet Funt can help. She’s CEO of a company that helps individuals and teams manage workflow to speed execution and reduce waste to boost both efficiency and effectiveness. In addition to helping leaders and managers unburden themselves from low-value busywork, she coaches people to excel with virtual presentations, a skill set that’s now more crucial—and marketable—than ever. And it involves a lot more than just getting the camera angle right on your laptop.
Juliet offers insights that go right to the heart of human connections. Focus on this. It could be the smart career advice you didn’t even know you need. Trust me. You probably do.
Rodger Dean Duncan: In training people for success with virtual presentations, you emphasize “intentionality.” What exactly is that?
Juliet Funt: Like with anything in our professional lives, “intentionality” means
stepping back to bring some extra energy and effort to a topic—rather than just doing it. To understand where they need to go, companies and teams must step back and examine the journey they’ve been on so far regarding virtual presenting.
We’ve watched many companies closely, and what we have seen is this. When Covid-19 hit, we all dived into virtual, hoping it was a temporary shelter. We did not optimize—we managed. And as the managing went on and on, month after exhausting month, that level of quality, rife with sloppy habits, got solidified. We kept hoping it would just be over soon. But not only is it not over, it’s now a permanent part of our professional world, and teams are going to need to learn to be bilingual in both the in-person and virtual set of skills.
Duncan: You say there are three levels of virtual presentations—C, B, and A. What are the differences between these levels, and how does a presenter decide which one is most appropriate for a particular occasion?
Funt: Every presentation involves “production” and “performance.” What that means is that we have a technical environment to optimize (production) and we have personal skills we need to amplify regarding how we come off (performance). These two categories, done well, buy us respect and connection. Poorly executed, they rob us of credibility, and our audience may wander. But as they both require time and energy; we need a gauge of how much of each to use every day. So, the three ascending levels of C–B–A presentations can become our guide.
Level C isn’t a presentation at all—it’s a conversation. Chatting with a friend, casual meetings with your team—production and performance are not needed here. It would exhaust us if they were. If I’m in C-mode, I can ignore camera angles, and I can pick up my laptop and go make coffee—it’s fine. In fact, in C, just rest your eyes and turn the cameras off when you can. Conversation is not presentation.
At Level B, we step it up a notch. Perhaps we’re building a new relationship, developing a lead, or making a first impression. At this level we have a goal. We apply more thoughtfulness and skill toward the quality of our lighting, background, scripting, and preparation.
Level A is where we bring our very best. Pitching the big deal, meeting our dream client, or applying for a job. These are high-stakes presentations. Here there may be financial investments in upgrading equipment or background—and, at a minimum, an investment of effort to ensure preparedness.
This framework makes sure that everyone deploys effort correctly and appropriately. Pro tip: if you are a leader, mark all meetings clearly with C–B–A to direct your teams.
Duncan: With any kind of presentation, the initial minute or so (first impression) is especially critical. What’s your advice on how to prepare and deliver an engaging opening?
Funt: Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. The better prepared you are, the more confident you will be as you begin. Most important, don’t skip the handshake. This
means, never greet a guest with slides already up. That’s skipping the handshake, which is that opening moment where you look right at the camera—and you say hi, and they say hi, and connection is made. It’s the single most powerful relationship moment. If their first glimpse of you is minimized in a tiny thumbnail, you’ll miss it.
Duncan: One of the challenges of virtual presentations—compared to speaking before an in-person audience—is the lack of “feedback.” How can an online presenter most effectively meet that challenge?
Funt: We must raise the real while lowering the ideal. The “real” is the feedback we need to do our best. The “ideal” is our expectation for a kind of feedback that’s impossible in the virtual domain.
To raise the real, you can practice with a buddy and get feedback in advance. You can also look for feedback during your presentation, where possible, by breaking for questions at intervals through your content or soliciting questions in the virtual chat.
Feedback after the presentation can include asking people on your team, “How did that go?”
And then, when you’ve raised the real, you must lower the ideal and accept that “old-fashioned” interactions that so fortify us as presenters are just not present. Accept it. And then just bungee jump right into that awkward, lonely moment and go.
Duncan: To help connect with the online audience, you advise virtual presenters to “ladder up.” What does that mean? Can you give us an example?
Funt: Oh, I love this one! “Laddering up” is a tool I teach (and use), which is a structured way of creating a positive vision about your professional contribution. It’s a way of kicking your heart into gear about where your work is actually leading—and why it matters to you. The technique centers around the repeated question, “What’s the best possible outcome of that?”
Here’s what it looks like. Say I’m a sales trainer who works for a health food company, and I’m sharing highlights of a new sales process manual. Am I truly inspired? Not really. I may need to ladder up.
I ask myself, “What’s the best possible outcome of that?” We’d have a more organized sales team with better messaging. “What’s the best possible outcome of that?” The team would sell more of our food products. “And what’s the best possible outcome of that?” More people would eat healthy, delicious food. “And what’s the best possible outcome of that?” They would live longer, healthier lives.
Bingo! That’s the top of the ladder. You’ve just created a direct line from that sales manual, right to the meaningful reality of human beings living longer, healthier lives. That will inspire you and create the energy you need to reach across the digital void.
Duncan: What are the keys to effective rehearsal for a virtual presentation?
Funt: Rehearsal of your general content will make you feel, and be perceived as, more confident, even if you don’t do formal pitches or solo presentations. I use the acronym TRAP to get our learners to a sweet spot in between too loose and too memorized. TRAP is an acronym for Test, Record, Absorb, and Practice.
When you test, you animate a script or key brand phrases that you use for the first time and make necessary tweaks. Read them out loud and see how the words feel in your mouth. Then record. Take a voice memo app and record yourself using the phrases or doing the presentation. Now the most interesting step: we absorb—playing it back, letting it drip into your brain—when you’re chopping vegetables, shaving, or working out. The point isn’t to memorize the words but to allow the content to enter your subconscious. Then, practice.
Once your presentation is sort of set, you will also want to translate it into a “bird’s tail”—a semicircle of thin sticky notes around the top and sides of your computer. Place your content in a clockwise arc, with your first content to your lower left, and around the edge of your computer in the order spoken. This particular method of bulleting your script prevents you from reading on camera—the worst mistake you can make in a virtual presentation. And as the sticky notes of the “bird’s tail” are small, they force you to speak from bullets, ensuring a more natural read. Just don’t cover the camera!
Duncan: Most people use some form of slides with their virtual presentations. What’s your advice on avoiding “death by PowerPoint”?
Funt: I’m a bit militant here. Most of the time best practice is short presentations with few slides—as few words per slide as can tell the story. Everything else should be verbal or in a pre-read or post-read. And as the attention span of exhausted Zoomers continues to shrink, consider this: whatever length you think is right, usually about half that length would be preferred by your audience.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.