You’ve been asked to make a presentation to your company, an organization or a school, and the requirement is that you have to speak – into a webcam – for a half-hour or so.

How do you keep the talking head thing visually interesting and make sure your audience doesn’t zone out?

Liz Miller broke up the monotony by bringing a live llama into her Zoom video meeting. Mimi Bliss looks to interactive polls to wake up audience members and give them a way to respond. And Jeremiah Owyang sneaks in before the session starts to look at the people in the audience and find things to talk to them about.

In our continuing telecommuting series, here are more tips on how to make a more effective video presentation, whether that be on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, WebEx or whichever video meeting program you use.

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How to create interaction

Bliss, a Nashville-based communications consultant who works with executives on their presentation skills, says the number one cause of a poor one is the “lack of interaction.”

To help with that, she turns to polls, a feature found in many of the video conference programs, to ask attendees to make a decision and engage in the presentation. (Even if your program doesn’t offer visual polls, you can always recite them orally.)

For Owyang, an independent tech analyst based in the Silicon Valley, he finds interaction by checking out the little thumbnails of the people in the room before he starts, “to pick up on whatever’s out there and weave it into the talk. A guitar, a surfboard…something to remark on.”

And nothing screams waking up the audience as seeing a live llama show up as one of the squares in the Gallery View of your meeting attendees. Miller, an analyst with Constellation Research, connected with a local animal sanctuary that was looking to get visitors again in a post-pandemic world for her talk on how businesses will be able to rebuild.

“It was something visual and fun and because of what the talk was about, it made it relevant.”

Topics for questions

This reporter recently gave a tech talk to a local Rotary group, virtually, with a 25-minute run time. With the goal of getting interaction from questions, he took Bliss’s advice and gave attendees a list of ten topics to choose from, to help frame their questions.

“I always say to be wary in virtual meetings, because if you say, `any questions?’ you’ll probably get silence,” says Bliss. “Giving them topics to choose from helps them respond accordingly and gets more participation.”

Using filters

Many video conference programs have a set of silly filters, or virtual backgrounds, that you can add to spice up the scene. Or you can do as Miller recently did and turn to Snapchat’s free desktop program Snap Camera, which works with video conference tools. It basically brings Snapchat filters to the program of your choice.

Miller put a virtual cat on her head during a recent meeting, and inserted a stack of microphones before her, press conference style.

“If you can inject a sense of humor into a conference call, that really helps,” she says.

Phil Libin, who created Evernote, one of the first really popular smartphone apps, is now on to his latest – a filter factory called mmHmm that lets you jazz up your presentation with photos, videos and backgrounds in a big way. 

The look is very snazzy, but a few caveats. The program is in beta now, and you’ll need to ask for an invitation, which could take awhile. In Libin’s presentation to USA TODAY (see above photo) he looked fantastic, but when we tried to recreate it (below), there’s was a big halo around the body and face.

The company says Libin was using a professional green screen backdrop and professional lighting to achieve the look. So if you’ve got the time and money for gear, you might want to check it out. Or remove the “silhouette” style (the one with the halo) for a circle or square box around your face.

Playing mind games – on yourself

For Chris MacAskill, who runs the online forum, the hardest thing about making a presentation is not being to hear feedback from audience members.

“I brought in 40 slides,” for his recent virtual talk to a Silicon Valley Jewish Community Center, “and that helped. But when I shared the screen, I had to imagine that the audience was engaged and loving it. When you hear nothing going on, you assume you’re bombing. So my mental trick was to imagine I was killing it.”

Practice your presentation

Finally, rehearse. You can turn on a any video conference program and see how you look and sound without even connecting to anyone. You’ll be sharing your screen? Give it a dry run, and make sure there are no tech hiccups. Hit record and play it back to make sure you’ll be smooth. (And remember to have the web camera eye level and to look straight ahead!)

The benefit to a run-through, as Bliss says, is you can “Fix it before you go live.”

Reach out to USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham on Twitter (@jeffersongraham) or via e-mail, [email protected]

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