19 May 2024, 22:48
By Kellie McCord Dec 10, 2020

Engaging the audience when presenting online

With so many people working from home, online meetings and presentations to colleagues and customers are fast becoming the norm. In this article, Kellie McCord, a member of Toastmasters International, explains how those in the furniture or interior design arena can make the most of online presenting, and create a strong connection with the audience …

The question “how do I connect with an online audience?" is actually no different than “how do I connect with an audience in person?”. 

The only difference is that a screen sits between you and the people you are speaking to. Rather than seeing it as a barrier, I like to remember that if our eyes are windows to our souls, then a screen is a window into someone’s world. We can now take a peek into the home lives (including their home furnishings!) of our colleagues, customers and suppliers. This is actually a great way to connect on a deeper personal and professional level - if you allow it. And in difficult times for furniture businesses, this can be invaluable.

So, how can we create connection with an online audience?

Be real!

As Ivan Sutherland, renowned American computer scientist and Internet pioneer, stated: "The screen is a window through which one sees a virtual world. The challenge is to make that world look real, act real, sound real, feel real."

So, what does that look like in reality? Well, it means that as tempting as it is to alter your background to a cool, nifty backdrop, don’t do it. Instead, use your own background. Of course, if it is a business meeting, then make sure that the background is presentable by not having a pile of dirty dishes behind you. Equally, it is not a social occasion, so you do not want your DVD and gaming collection in view. But there is nothing wrong with someone seeing your living room or study wall. If you have photos up, that is fine. It makes people feel relaxed, because it makes it real.

Don’t be afraid to have water or coffee at hand

Many people seem to feel uncomfortable sipping water over online meetings. If you are were in a face-to-face meeting, you would probably have something to drink on-hand, so why not during an online meeting? If you are chairing the meeting, start five minutes beforehand and ask your audience to make a quick cuppa, or grab some water before the meeting commences, so they feel comfortable.

Make sure you respect people’s time

Because the audience is online and sitting in the comfort of their homes, some presenters seem to think that running over time is not a big deal.

It is. It loses connection quickly, as your audience will be left wondering when the session will end, if they will have enough time before the next call, and if they will manage to finish off the tasks on their to-do list today. Therefore, manage your time. If you begin to run over, acknowledge it and try to wrap up.

Before a meeting, set up a poll to ascertain what people would like to discuss

Knowing your audience is the best way to connect with them. Why? Because it allows you to create a message that is designed for them – to speak directly to them.

If, for example, you need to discuss a particular subject, such as trends in sofa design, and it is not up for negotiation, then you could email a PDF of the agenda for the meeting. This primes people. They know what to expect and when, so that when they come to the online meeting, they are better able to focus and concentrate, since they have had an opportunity to pull together information and images and also mentally prepare.

Body language

Many people think that because the meeting is online, they have to be glued to their seat and sit perfectly still. Not so. It’s okay to move, it’s okay to see more than just your face.

Consider news anchors. How much of their bodies do you see? It varies slightly, but almost always, even if there is a close-up, it will include their arms, so that they audience can see their gestures. Doing this makes it more real and intimate, because in our everyday communication, we use our bodies. So, don’t be afraid to move about.

On that note, you also do not want to keep still and stare at your screen (which I know seems counter-intuitive). Instead, look into the camera. This allows you to look into the eyes of your online audience. Therefore, rather than thinking of the camera as a camera, think of it as ‘the eyes of the audience’. You wouldn’t deliberately not look someone in the eyes when talking to them face-to-face, so do not do it online.

Be interactive

Many online presenters seem to take on the leading role in the online meeting. By that I mean, they talk and talk and talk. They think they are the star of the show!

However, the reality is that they are not. Just because you are online, it does not change the purpose of a meeting. The meeting is taking place to serve your audience. Therefore, make it interactive. How? By doing some of the following: ask questions; ask for feedback; ask someone to demonstrate an idea/concept; ask someone to define a term; or ask the audience to imagine something.

For longer meetings, create (if the software allows) break-out rooms, so that members of the audience can discuss topics or particular items in smaller groups. When the break-out rooms rejoin the main meeting, they can then tell the other audience members what their group discussed.

In conclusion, online presenting done well can create a powerful connection between people. You may not be able to touch the fabric on a new range of furniture, but there are ways to get people interested, involved and building deeper working relationships that will benefit your business.

Kellie McCord is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs.

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