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.

The audience remembers what they think about, not what you say. And they can only think properly in silence.

If you examine a presentation from an acknowledged great speaker like Barack Obama, you will find that 50% of his presentation is silence.

That, in simple terms, is how you can get your style correct – broken and incomplete grammar, ideas rather than sentences, and plenty of silence.

So now they are listening. Next, we need to get the content of the talk palatable.

As Einstein said: “If you cannot explain your message in simple English, you don’t know your subject.” Put another way, whatever you say must cause instant thought or pictures in the minds of your audience. So avoid jargon, buzzwords and abstract words. They do not create pictures – just blanks.

A phrase like “bilateral litigation action” may be recognisable to you, given time to think about it. But unless this creates an instant picture in your audience’s minds, they will sweep it aside and deal with the next thing you say.

“Hong Kong has great amenities” leaves no instant picture, but if you say, “Hong Kong has terrific sports grounds, waterfront parks and theatres”, that will produce pictures in the minds of your audience – instantly. Jargon is generally shorthand. It is laziness – two or three simple sentences that are easy to digest, squashed into two or three abstract words.

Furthermore, you are not in an oral exam, nor are you getting marks for all the pieces of information you can transmit. The most engaging speakers give the audience just enough general information to keep them interested, but not overloaded. You should do what I call “leaving loose ends”. By that I mean deliver just enough so that they want more, and will want to ask questions.

I tend to describe talks where no questions are asked at the end as talks that have left the audience so far behind, because of the amount of information, that they stopped listening or could not absorb anymore.

Remember your job is to make them think so that they remember your message, not to prove that you know a lot.

Try not to speak for more than six to eight minutes without some break, or some sort of engagement with your audience. In live meetings, do you speak for 30 minutes without interruption?

In summary, whatever the format, Zoom call or webinar, treat it as a two-way conversation with your audience. Keep your words simple and thought-provoking, as if you are talking to a very bright but ignorant art student. And above all, have fun. When things are not smooth and polished, the audience enjoys it much more.

John Miers is the founder and chairman of corporate training and coaching company Black Isle Global.

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