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Webinars and Teleconferences: Adapting to Wired Public Speaking

May 24, 2011

Webinars and teleconferences are similar to standard public speaking in many ways, but they also require some significant adaptation.  Due to technological limits and the nature of long-distance communication, the speaker is harder to understand and usually lacks a very important public speaking tool: body language.  To compensate, speakers have to focus more on clarity and audience engagement, and rely even more on some tried and true public speaking basics, such as vocal variety, organization, and of course practice.

Clarity

The purpose of webinars and teleconferences is to get your message across.  Use these tips to overcome the technical and distance challenges:

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Housekeeping: Start with a solid introduction that explains your purpose and format, outlines your agenda, and introduces all the presenters.  Go over all relevant technical instructions, such as muting, volume controls, asking questions, raising hands and using other webinar features, several times.

Eliminate distractions: Speaking from your desk is often harder, not easier.  Have a colleague run teleconference tools or webinar software while you speak.  If possible, go to a different room where no one will disturb you.  To eliminate background noise, ask callers to mute themselves or do it for them right after your introduction.

Supporting materials: Well ahead of your teleconference, send participants all documents, visuals, and any other information they will need.  On webinars, make sure the same items are displayed clearly and slowly enough for everyone to follow.  When you are finished, send participants all supporting materials and items for follow-up, reiterating your main points and requests in the email body.

Frequent and specific referencing: When referring to documents, visuals, and other information, guide participants to the exact place you want them to look.  Mention specific page numbers, paragraphs, and even sentence beginnings.  Whenever speakers begin or answer questions, have them state who they are so participants can follow.  State clearly when you are moving on to the next part of the agenda.

Pace, volume and length: These basics of clarity hold true on webinars and teleconferences as well.  Speak slowly and clearly enough that people listening over a bad connection can follow.  Speak loudly for the same reasons.  Keep your points and answers to questions succinct.

Audience Engagement

Webinars and teleconferences are not your average five to ten minute speech.  They often last thirty minutes to an hour.  For computer or phone communication especially, use these tips to retain audience attention:

Abundant, exciting, and varied visuals: The advantage of webinars (and teleconferences to a lesser extent) is that you can use better visuals.  Vary between documents, charts, and video and music clips, and use tools like highlighting, zooming and slide transition effects.  Use looping welcome slides or non-irritating music at the beginning to retain attention while participants wait.  Rather than showing only completed slides, build them as the audience watches.  Take the time in advance to produce high-quality visuals.

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Vocal variety and word choice: For teleconferences especially, your voice has to carry the show.  As in all speaking, vary your pitch, pace, volume, and emotional expression, and make sure they match the meaning of your words.  Use pauses, but keep them slightly shorter so participants don’t suspect technical difficulties.  Vary speakers as much as possible, and record yourself beforehand to make sure your voice remains pleasant and engaging, not harsh or monotonous.

Audience interaction: Another advantage of webinars and conference calls is that you can more easily interact with the entire audience.  Break up lecturing and long informational sections with polls, question and answer sessions, and mentions of projects, places, or other elements that participants will relate to.  If you know the participants and trust they will be comfortable responding, sprinkle your presentation with requests for specific evidence or questions they can answer.

Fundamentals

As in all public speaking, put these basics above all else:

Prepare and organize: Plan the overall format, which points to make, when to switch presenters, and when to use certain visuals.  Give all participants an agenda.  Create and memorize an engaging introduction and a strong conclusion.  Include a short section to review the main points right before the conclusion.

Practice: Practice remains the best way to clear up problems.  Rehearse with all materials, informational points and presenters if possible.  Record the practice session in case your recording of the actual presentation goes awry.  Prepare some expected questions without the presenters’ knowledge and pose them when rehearsing.

Ultimately, practice remains the most reliable way to develop speaking expertise, whether it be at the podium, behind a computer, or on the phone.  Rehearse with colleagues or hold a toastmasters meeting over teleconference or webinar.  Keep the winning methods, but also try new techniques.  In the end, a well-planned presentation with enough practice – and maybe a glass of water to help with all that talking – will make any webinars and teleconferences worth joining.

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