Virtual Presentations – All You Need To Know From A Television Presenter

Having started on webinars and virtual workshops, as most people did, at the start of the lockdowns, I was a noob at it. At least that’s what I thought.

As I got into the groove, I found many practices vaguely familiar. Then it hit me like a bolt – it’s television presentation all over again!

No wonder it was all so strangely familiar.

So, I’ve settled myself in very nicely with the advantage I have with years of television hosting.

Here’re a few tips that I’ve adopted and refreshed for presenting virtually.


Keep the one-way communication short 

In a 30-minute programme, like Power List Asia, which I hosted for six seasons, there’ll always be two commercial slots fitted in – usually after eight minutes (if the math isn’t adding up for you, commercials take up about six minutes in total). So three eight-minute segments are produced with each having its own story arc and cliffhanger. The timing has been refined over the years considering the average attention span of a viewer.

This is confirmed by John Medina, professor of neurology at University of Washington, in his book Brain Rules. Medina says we can really only pay sustained attention to a consistent pattern for about 10 min before the mind wanders.

So, practice and theory converge to tell us to keep your spiel to less than 10 minutes at a go.

Here’re other considerations in an online setting that change the rules we normally play by in a physical context. The decorum our audience maintain by paying attention in a physical setting, is partly attributed to putting up appearances for people around them. Now that the witnesses are no longer there, the crime is free to commit. They can turn off their videos and hide their lack of interest to the drone on the other end of the line. That missing accountability coupled with the multitude of distractions at their workstations make it extremely challenging for a speaker to hold their attention.


If you can’t keep it that short, keep it varied.

Variety is the spice of life – and attention. Change the visual impact by mixing up your slide templates – textual, image, graphs, quotations, videos. Don’t forget to swap the image back to you by stopping the slide share even mid-way through the presentation when a discussion is happening, This will help to focus your audience’s attention on you and the exchange of ideas among the participants.

If it’s a group presentation, tag the other presenter at about the eighth to tenth minute. Introducing another speaker, even if it’s to give a testimonial, will be a helpful stimulus to recapture interest.

In a training scenario, I build in mini exercises and break out into smaller groups more often than in a physical setting.

Hearing other voices helps: I call on participants to share their perspective. Of course, the onus is on me to craft provocative questions to elicit a conversation. Having a co-trainer chime in with a different perspective and take over at different times, if you can afford it, helps to keep the workshop going for as long as one and a half days.


Use your to voice to captivate

I have huge respect for radio presenters. One of their biggest challenges is the fact that they have nothing but their voices and content to grip the listener. In television hosting, we have the added advantage of half our bodies to convey our message. It still does not negate the need to modulate our voices as we relate a story.

Varying your pitch, pace, volume and adding rightly-timed pauses are par for the course for building expression and repertoire to your vocal delivery.

I recommend recording yourself by reading out loud for about five minutes, playing it back and assessing how alive you sound. Mark out the article you’re reading with indicators like

  • “//” to indicate pauses (usually between paragraphs),
  • underline words that make a difference to the meaning.
  • “()” for sentences that you can read quickly
  • highlights for conclusive statements that require a slower pace
  • ? for a happy note
  • ? for a serious note

Practise regularly. Good vocal variety does not happen overnight.

The acid test – if you do lose interest in yourself during playback, then you need to work harder. You could also let someone else listen to the recording for a more objective assessment.


Work doubly hard to be energetic.

With enough distractions in your listener’s field of vision, speakers must muster enough energy for it to be felt through the camera onto audiences’ devices. I found standing throughout my delivery a sure-fire way for me to keep up the verve. If I can take it easier – during a discussion, for instance – I would lean on a high stool for support and stand again when it’s show time. Nevertheless, I highly recommend standing when you’re presenting virtually. The difference you’ll feel is significant. More importantly, how your audience feels is crucial.


I’ve been framed!

The power of physical meetings is the advantage to use our entire body to communicate – from the way we angle our feet and torso to the way our arms work with our facial expressions and the freedom to shift our positions for variety and meaning. Video conferencing, for the most part, removes those advantages from us with the limitations of our webcams and physical space. You could say our webcams disembody us. For some of us, we become, literally, a talking head, while others, a live bust, visible from head to upper chest.

Here’s what I’ve learnt from my experience as a news anchor: studio directors have generally agreed that the more of the presenter is seen, the greater the presence. So, given that we are most often seated throughout the entire show, the best framing would be to have the presenter be seen from head to waist.

I’ve found that standing a distance away from the webcam to capture my gestures as I speak, has helped me to communicate with my upper body, and not just with my facial expressions.

To do this well, keep your camera lens at eye level so you’re not looking down nor up, but straight ahead. This may mean raising your device and not merely tilting it. You’ll know if it’s level when the vertical lines around you are perpendicular to the bottom of your frame.


Watch your backdrop

My webinar backdrop. Plant from my garden to add some height variation to the image. Note the improvised backlighting – a common feature in TV interviews

For our television interviews, the producer would recce the location days ahead to ensure we have the right spot for the conversation. There’re many considerations and if most of the boxes are ticked but not the backdrop, the crew would turn up hours ahead of time to set it up. Furniture would be moved, plants from the garden brought in, articles in the room shifted to that right spot for the frame. Your backdrop is to your image as accessories are to your outfit – they complement and enhance your look. The bookshelf behind the speaker suggests someone who is erudite and learned. Defocused photo frames on the wall expand my perspective of the speaker to the relationships and interests he has outside of the professional context. It doesn’t have to be an expensive set up. Just a considered, intentional arrangement that’s non-distracting.

Avoid virtual backdrops. They cut out parts of your image when you move and they’re just passe and simply too expedient/lazy.

Worked with a CEO of a tech company to set up the most appropriate backdrop for his high level discussions from his home 

Ensure adequate lighting

Your main visual communication is your face. So, make sure you’re properly lit with the lighting in front and not behind you.  If you’re fortunate enough to have your workspace well lit with natural light, good on you. If you don’t, you can get those halo selfie lights (I hear they’re flying off the shelves, so don’t be embarrassed about buying them) or just a standing or table lamp. To make the light less blinding on you and harsh on your image, get some baking paper or tracing paper to cover the lamp to diffuse the light source (improvisation is the order of the day!) White or day light is what I would recommend for a more natural look.

I happen to have concealed lighting at my workstation behind my webcam. The light bounces off the white panel in front of me to give my face good exposure without the harshness of direct lighting.

With these tips, you should be on your way to hosting your own Youtube channel soon!


Lighting needs to subtly illuminate your face
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