How to Give a Virtual Talk (and How Not To)

David Berkowitz

David Berkowitz

Author at The Trust Web Times
David Berkowitz

David Berkowitz

Author at The Trust Web Times

This week, I had a quarantine first: waking up in the middle of the night to give a virtual talk to a Hong Kong-based trade show.

The talk was at the Connected Retail Experiences conference within the Start Me Up HK Festival. As I wrapped my talk at 5:30am Eastern time and IMed with visitors at the virtual exhibition booth, I jotted down some tips that may be helpful for you. These tips apply to both thought leadership-driven sessions and pitches.

Here’s what you should remember:

Rehearse the talk all the way through. This applies to any presentation, but for this kind of talk, rehearse in a room where there’s no one reacting to you. Often, for talks, you want to practice in front of other people. For a virtual talk, assume the worst – that you’ll have no idea if anyone’s in the room, what kinds of people are there, and if there’s Q&A. With an in-person audience, if it’s a dead crowd, you have a chance to rouse them and turn around the talk. With no audience reacting, you’re just praying the whole time that anyone cares.

Talk less. Smile more. What, you think I can avoid Hamilton references right now? It’s not so much about talking less at it is slowing down your speech enough so that people can capture every word. They might not have cues like seeing your face; even if you’re on video, you might be in a tiny box in the corner that’s enough to let people know you’re there but not enough for anyone to really see you. And smile. Have a tech glitch? Smile. Forgot what you meant to say on a slide? Smile. Fielding a question over Q&A that you’d rather not answer? Smile. It’s the easiest way to pep yourself up and give the audience a way to relate to you.

Don’t play video clips. If you’ve ever had to watch a video on Zoom, the frame rate is often worse than thumbing through a flipbook. If you want to show something with motion, turn video clips into GIFs. You can do this with Giphy or other tools.

Show examples early. Have a visual – some kind of demo, example, or simple framework – that you can reference throughout the talk. Use it as an anchor. It’s great to get into big ideas about how you’re changing the world, but attendees will need to grasp what you’re talking about. If you want further proof of what to prioritize, follow the Q&A sessions at virtual events. Questions are usually very practical and tactical. That’s good. It means they get what you do and want to know how it applies to their business. It’s not as fun as talking about your vision for humanity, but you know what’s fun? Solving people’s problems and getting leads.

Encourage Q&A. If there’s any kind of chat, it’s more fun to take a break from your slides and riff on what people are asking. Make this time theirs. I’m a fan of the reasoning that when one person shares a question, a lot of others are wondering something similar. As a bonus, it shows you can think on your feet. That fuels a dopamine rush as your confidence rises, and it will make your talk better. During this talk, I got so into Q&A that I didn’t get to half my slides. That’s okay. See the next point.

No one ever said, “I wish there were more slides.” No one. It’s like George Carlin’s “Things You Never Hear” bit. One of Carlin’s tamer lines in this genre: “Dad, you really ought to drink more.” People just don’t say it. Ever. I bring this up whenever I can – not the Carlin bit, but the principle. If you’re ever debating leaving a slide in, just toss it. If you just watched or rewatched Hamilton, did you think, “Great show, but I wish it was 10 minutes longer”? No. And you and I are not Lin-Manuel Miranda.

End on time. This relates to the “peak-end rule” from psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman. For any experience, people tend not to remember the whole thing but rather the most salient moment and then how it ended. You know what’s a great way to have conference organizers invite you back? End on time. It may be the only thing the organizers remember, and they will love you for it.

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