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Engaging an International Audience … Virtually

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 13, 2020

You’ve got a nice tea beside your laptop. The kids are reasonably quiet. The session is about to start and it’s you on next. You have an audience from around the world. How do you make sure your talk is a success?

International Events have Changed

Most good speakers know a bit about how to reach an international audience in person. If you had the right interpreters, the right technique and you knew how to make a decent slide deck, you could put yourself above about 80% of the competition.

In a world where Death by PowerPoint was practically a certainty, those with a modicum of presence and the ability to speak using notes, instead of a typed manuscript script, tended to do well anyway.

Everything is different now. You might not get to see the audience. You’re competing with twitter and email and browser-based games. Your voice might be interrupted by kids or washing machines or random connection drop outs.

What do you do?

First, the basics

Before we go any further, let’s recap the basics.

Your talk is only as good as your setup. You likely don’t need an expensive microphone and a webcam that looks like it came from the Starship Enterprise. But you do need a wired microphone and a headset to reduce echo. You also need a decent speed internet connection (preferably wired) and a relatively quiet space. Presenting from outdoors looks cool but no-one wants to be interrupted by an errant sheep or a sudden gale.

If you have an international audience, you should really be interpreted. The reasons for this are many and have been covered lots on this blog but suffice to say, with fewer visual clues and less of a stage to play with, you really need the right interpreters to make the show work.

This also means that you need to brief the interpreters even better than before. Here at Integrity Languages, there is a free standard brief you can use. It’s aimed at event organisers but it works for speakers too. On top of that, make sure you send over your slide deck well in advance.

Here’s one more basic tip.

When you’re rehearsing your talk (and you do NEED to rehearse), make sure you record it at least once. You don’t ever need to watch yourself back but think of uploading a version to YouTube, marking it as “unlisted” and sending it to the interpreters. They will thank you and your audience will thank you.

Next up, be better than the distractions

If you ever went to in-person events (remember them?), you might have heard the odd speaker gripe about people being on their smartphones. If you are presenting virtually, there is literally nothing you can do to stop people reaching for their phones during your talk.

Or is there?

Put simply, if you are presenting online, you need to be more interesting than a phone. At the very least, you need strong voice modulation, character, excellent content and enough movement to keep people thinking and awake.

What’s movement?

Movement is simply another way of talking about changing in what is on screen, the advance of an argument or idea or from one kind of speech to another. Throw in interesting and relevant stories in-between the bits of your talk that are more about facts. Switch out a few statements for questions. Change what is going on in your slides frequently. All that adds up to more movement.

Obviously, you don’t want to overdo it. No-one likes a presentation done at the speed of light. But even small changes such as bringing bullet points on individually, reducing the amount of text on each slide and making points using stories, can make a big difference.

In short, be interesting.

To be interesting, be short

This leads to one last thought. While it seems that conferences are scheduling virtual sessions to be the same length as in-person ones, it might help to actually be slightly shorter than usual. Staring at a computer screen isn’t exactly great for your eyes and the less time you take the more people can interact.

The more people can interact, the more they can shape their learning to their own needs. Interactive sessions are naturally more engaging and personalised than even a great speaker just sitting there and talking. Budgeting an extra ten minutes for questions also helps keep the entire event on time. Your host and your audience will thank you, as long as you don’t overdo it.

One last thing

If you are organising an event, feel free to send these tips to your speakers. If you would like them in a handy pdf, drop me an email and I will send one over to you. And if you need interpreters for your next international event, get in touch and I will build you a customised team.

Ban PowerPoint at online events

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: April 28, 2020

Slides are often unnecessary, regularly misused and more than likely a pointless addition to your presentation.

Yeah, I said it. Don’t pretend you haven’t ever thought the same.

It’s almost always the same story. Take one nervous or unthinking presenter, add a desire to cram as much info as possible into a talk, lob in access to PowerPoint and what do you get?

A talk with 24 slides per minute, each including fifteen bullet points, a tiny drawing or chart that looks like it could be either a shocked cat or a complex equation, and an audience who could have learned just as much, if not more, by simply downloading the slides themselves and reading them over a cup of coffee.

Where video is available, the vast majority of virtual presentations don’t need slides, shouldn’t have slides and don’t benefit from slides.

The No Slide rule explained

I recently had the opportunity to speak at the BP20 online conference and I shocked a few people by dispensing with slides entirely. I had noticed, from previous webinars elsewhere and even from another talk at the same conference, that slides actually serve as a distraction.

If the speaker is simply making some specific points, they are better making them clearly and with conviction, with their face to the camera. Having a bullet point flash up on the screen often slows them down or derails their thinking.

If they are tempted to make too many points, they’d be better making fewer points and getting them right. It’s much better to have two really strong messages than 20 tiny details.

If a speaker wants to show an example, a picture says more than many words and a physical prop is always more interesting than a list of bullet points or a tiny table.

Instead of turning to PowerPoint right away, we need to put far more emphasis on creativity, connection and relevance.

Reading dulls your speaking

Have you ever been in a church service where people read out some Bible verses together or recite something? It turns even the most excitable people into slow drones.

Exactly the same thing happens with PowerPoint. The most passionate speaker starts reading out a list of bullets and fumbling for their words. The most enthusiastic audience catches themselves reading instead of listening. And anyone at home can just make do with putting the presenter on mute.

Interpreters spend their entire careers warning speakers of the danger of reading from a text. We need to warn them about the dangers of PowerPoint too!

Constrain, Create, Connect

Here’s my point. If we can get people away from PowerPoint during virtual events, we will get better events.

If speakers think they need to present huge lists of figures, what they need to create is an email or a memo, not a presentation.

If speakers feel that they need to make 101 points in size 8 font, they need to learn to concentrate on the points that matter, not everyone they could make.

If speakers really feel that they have to use tons of pictures, diagrams, or charts, then they need to think about how people learn, not what they want to say.

In short, by banning PowerPoint and its kin for every virtual event where there is a video feed, we can help people do three vital things to their talks:

Constrain what they say by sticking to the most important points for the audience and the 2-3 things they want people to remember.

Create talks that are a pleasure to listen to and go far beyond just passing information.

Connect with the audience, rather than just treating each talk like a direct brain dump.

The more event organisers help speakers concentrate on those three things, the better our online events will be.

Thank you for reading this post. If you really want to boost your speaking skills, I created a course just for you. You can find it here: http://bit.ly/PSBB-Course.