Were your colleagues’ eyes glazing over at your last Zoom meeting? Do webinar audiences nod off before you’ve completed a sentence? Communications expert John Miers reveals tips and tricks for engaging and retaining your virtual audience

We have now endured nearly 18 months of webinars and Zoom calls, and what have we learned? My answer is: Generally, nothing. Technology has improved but most performances are as dull as ever. Webinars presented by law firms can be worse still, with inherently dry and technical subject matter compounding other shortcomings to make the audience experience nothing short of mind-numbing.

John Miers
John Miers

Let’s look at some of the challenges presenters face when having to deliver to a computer screen instead of a live audience. Some of these are obvious but few people have attempted to cure these problems.

If it is a webinar, you are looking at yourself in a mirror almost all the time, so it is very difficult to engage yourself.

If it is a Zoom call, because your “camera” is either above or below your screen, the viewers see you either looking over their heads or at their elbows. This is especially true when you are seeing the person whom you are talking to. You want to look at them to see their expressions, so you look at the centre of the screen. They see you looking at their elbows or above their heads. Try talking to a friend face to face, and look at their elbows all the time – never at their eyes.

However high the definition of the plasma screen, you only ever see the front of the person’s face. In live situations, you and they turn away frequently and, strange as it may seem, this three-dimensional image that you get makes it much easier to assess the character of the person you are conversing with.

Lawyers are taught how to make written material legally watertight and, unfortunately, they often replicate this behaviour when speaking. The result is a performance that bears no relation to an engaging and interesting conversation.

Those are the challenges. Now we should see what we can do to conquer them. The first objective, I believe, is to think about why we are doing the webinar or the Zoom call.

Every time you speak, you are doing it so that the audience remembers your message. You also want them to remember you positively. This is not an “ego” thing. You want them to look forward to hearing you again – to have the recollection that you are genuine, honest, know your “stuff”, and are easy to understand. It is precisely this recollection that leads to business development. The opposite is fatally true. If you bore or fail to engage your audience, they will look for another “expert” in your field that they can easily understand and trust.

The key to engagement is to behave as if you are in conversation. If you are presenting at a Webinar, imagine you are actually talking to someone behind your screen. Some people may ask a colleague to sit behind the screen, to make this easier.

If you are on a Zoom call with another person, look at your camera, not their image, on your screen. It is difficult, but with practice you will feel more comfortable. Besides, there is no need to look at the camera/person all the time. Total eye contact in real life is very uncomfortable, almost threatening. The moments when you must look at your audience are when you are making a point, and pausing for a second or two looking at the camera/person. Your audience will see you looking as if you are checking that they have understood your last point. It will look as if you are in conversation with them.

Here at Black Isle, we often point out to our clients that the only time you must look at your audience is when you are not talking. That is so contradictory to conventional advice, which insists you must look at the audience all the time when you are talking. Amazingly, considering it is something you do all the time in conversation with friends, it takes a lot of practice to keep looking at your audience when you are not talking. It is a technique that we help our clients work on.

So, your behaviour must be as if you are in a conversation, where you and your audience share the time. Their part is silence. They can only think when you stop transmitting, so stop trying to talk in long-winded, perfect sentences. Talk in short bursts. Ideas not sentences. Hesitate after the idea, in the middle of speaking, and give each new idea a few seconds of silence so that the audience can think about what you have just said – better still, let them wonder what you are about to say.

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