Star quality

Giving an Oscar-worthy performance isn’t just for actors, but making an impact in a virtual meeting requires planning and plenty of practice, says Helena Brewer

Helena Brewer is from Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs


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Technology has opened up a new world of virtual meetings, training sessions, webinars and job interviews, giving us the freedom to join in from the office, home or elsewhere.

You may be working with a team spread across the globe whom you rarely meet face-to-face, so it’s important to ensure you have the skills needed to go live on the small screen. Here are some suggestions to help you.

Check all your kit works

If you are using unfamiliar software to deliver a presentation or run a meeting, ensure that you make time for a trial run-through to help you avoid any glitches; there are free tutorials with most software. In addition, you may want to record the meeting and share with colleagues unable to attend; again, practise using the technology in advance.

Handle interaction

If you will be handling audience questions, decide how the attendees will interact with you. Will people unmute to ask a question? If so, you need a strategy for handling those who talk for too long! Most packages have a text-based option so you can see questions coming in. Looking at these while presenting is a challenge; consider having a colleague review the questions as they arrive and identify themes. You can also pause for questions as you complete a key section to confirm participants’ understanding.

Choose words carefully

In most situations, particularly work meetings, the professional and in-company jargon will be understood by everyone involved. However, if clients or contractors are joining the meeting you may need to watch your language. Make sure your choice of words is appropriate for the audience: avoid quirky expressions that may require you using up time giving an English lesson.

Avoid quirky expressions that may require you using up time giving an English lesson

I once listened to an important meeting, which started with the finance director giving a project status update to staff and contractors around the world. Her cricketing metaphor confused the Latin Americans and a particularly old-fashioned saying had everyone under 30 scratching their heads.

Watch your body language

You could well be sitting in the same chair for a while so make sure you are comfortable; good back support will help. Also, check the position of your laptop or camera in relation to where you are sitting so you are aware how much of you can be seen.

Movement is tricky: if you lean forward towards the camera, the audience will receive an unexpected close-up. Small habits, such as rubbing your ear or flicking your hair, will be magnified and very distracting. If you haven’t watched yourself before, it’s a good idea to do so now!

Using notes can be difficult. Ideally you want to look natural and reading from a screen is most likely to make you look robotic. Be as familiar as possible with what you need to say; if it helps, put a few bullet-point reminders on the edge of your screen that you can see at a glance.

Get the lighting right

How well-lit is your room? If you are sitting in near darkness, all your audience will see is your face, which will look ever so slightly sci-fi. If there’s bright sunlight shining at you, it may have you screwing up your eyes or creating a shadow figure behind you. This can be distracting for those watching, so you may need to close blinds and adjust the lighting.

Welcome participants

Providing a brief introduction about you and the purpose of the event helps settle attendees. If you have more than 20 attending, it may not be possible to allow time for them to introduce themselves. However, if it is a business meeting, a small conference or an interview, it is definitely worth knowing who else is there. Allow time for introductions as simple as name, position and company. This will assist you in knowing if all key stakeholders have joined and, if not, if they have sent a representative instead.

Ensure the sound is good

This is the biggest issue when
delivering on the small screen: you need to check in with your audience and determine that they can actually hear you. When joining virtual meetings, there are sometimes surprisingly loud background noises.

If you can control muting attendees, then do so. If not, then encourage them to mute themselves while listening. There may be times when, despite all the checks, the signal just isn’t good enough.

Be prepared to redeliver key points at the end of the session. It’s also good to reassure people that a recording will be made available.

What you are sharing?

While you are focusing on the camera you may forget to check behind you. A clean background is best.

If you work in an office with glass screens, walls and doors, it can be distracting for your audience to have people walking past. Also remember to clean away any confidential information that might be on a whiteboard behind you.

Someone walking into your room is worse, as journalist Robert Kelly found when on air from home, when his toddler, older child and wife unexpectedly joined him. (It’s worth Googling.)

By following the suggestions above, you will improve your performance on the small screen and become more comfortable delivering in this way. As a result, you will undoubtedly increase your future opportunities to star!

Top tips for an award-winning performance

  1. Make sure you are familiar with the software you’ll be using. You don’t want to be fumbling on the day.
  2. For Q&As, where lots of questions will be typed in, you should ideally have a colleague to help you manage the process.
  3. Watch your language! Avoid colloquial sayings that may confuse your global audience and waste time.
  4. Check your body language. If you are sitting comfortably with the camera positioned correctly, you are most likely to look your best and come across professionally.
  5. Adjust lighting so that you don’t look like a sci-fi creature emerging from the gloom or washed out by bright sunlight.
  6. Plan introductions appropriate for the size of audience and type of event. You may want everyone to introduce themselves – if so, make sure you have the time.
  7. Be ready for problems with audio and make a back-up recording in case some participants have major problems.
  8. Have a blank wall behind you if possible and, whatever happens, make sure you don’t have confidential information visible.