With face to face events and teaching being cancelled in response to the pandemic, some elements may be moving online. For many this is going to be outside their comfort zone and a totally new experience. Presenting can be challenging for many of us at the best of times but if you haven’t ever presented remotely this is the next level up in discomfort (and if we are honest it can still be difficult for those of us who have years of experience).
So, these are a few things I have learned from presenting online over the years. Most of the advice could apply to conferences, assessments, meetings and even interviews.
Expect the unexpected
This may seem a bit negative to start with but if you prepare for something going wrong you won’t be knocked off your stride as much. I have had my browser crash in the middle of my talk but when I got it back up and running and back into the session, the chair had been covering and no one had even noticed as they were watching a video. Technology and Internet connections often have glitches, but a co-presenter and chair will give you invaluable help throughout, especially if you are using a new technology. Try to get access before the session to play around a bit. Also, think about things such as whether you want to load your slides into the system or share your screen.
Pre-record if you prefer to minimise risk
Ask the organiser if it would be ok to send a pre-recorded version of the talk and then be in the live session to field questions after it has played. This means you can tinker with your presentation until you are happy. You don’t need to have advanced video editing skills, it is more important to record in a very quiet room and sit a bit back from the microphone speaking clearly. I have more specific details in this video for doing it directly in Microsoft PowerPoint – it is a little old now but the basics are the same. Alternatively, you may be in an institution with video streaming services which you could use to do this so check out their support websites for information.
Whether or not there is a problem on the day it is beneficial to have an alternative source for participants to refer to, it may be a website, a shared version of your slides, a recording or even a transcript of your talk (also these are great for accessibility). Share these before the day if possible. This gives you an added safety net and therefore extra confidence going in.
Also on the day try, if you can, to use a wired Internet connection. If not, sit as physically close to the wifi point as you can. I also like to have my phone ready beside me in case of emergency, to tether it (make sure you know how to do this before the day). In the case of a weak connection introduce yourself on video then tell your participants you are dropping to audio only to ensure the best quality delivery. In this instance I would also avoid screen sharing.
Embrace audience participation
This is crucial in a workshop type session but can add real value in a talk as well. Systems differ in their specific functionality but you can get answers to questions via polling, raising hands, emojis in the chat box, text in the chat box, text on an interactive white board or through audio on a one-by-one basis.
This storytelling workshop, from the ALT Winter Conference 2018, is a great example of what can be achieved: session outline / session recording. Actually, I would highly advise checking out sessions from all recent ALT winter conferences for inspiration.
Dealing with distractions
One way an online presentation may differ from a live one is that the audience can be having a very active side discussion in the chat window. This could result in a lot of audio and visual notifications for you, both of which can be very distracting. A great chair is invaluable here, to extract questions from the discussions and to let you know when you need to pause to address queries. If you are on your own, trying to speak and keep an eye on this I find is too much so better to focus on one at a time. For example, you could state at the beginning that you will answer all questions at the end of the talk.
Another distraction can be the need to record your talk, again discuss this with your chair if you have one and ask them to take the lead on this. They can then make the announcement to participants that it will be recorded and also confirm when they have pressed the record button. If you are in a situation without a chair, perhaps ask a colleague to remind you or get them co-presenter status so they can do it for you. Worst case scenario is that you don’t record and provide additional resources instead (covered in backups above).
Social media interaction can be a third distraction. It could be easy to dismiss this as a step too far, when engaging with participants, but I have been in situations when participants used social media channels as ‘help’ routes. Again, the best method for dealing with this is to have a colleague or chair field these for you, as well as actually do the troubleshooting.
Lastly, ensure that all participants have their microphones on mute whilst you are speaking as this can cause disruption for your flow as well as potential feedback and noise. Some systems allow you to do this in the settings for all participants and also on a person by person basis.
Challenge the standard format
Frances Bell discusses some of the issues faced when moving from a planned face to face event to an online one. Some things quite frankly are impossible to replicate online as Frances reflects on but going online can also offer a bit of freedom to the presenter, and she has a few great ideas in the post. So why not try a Pecha Kucha format (20 images/slides each only 20 seconds long), a gasta (5 minutes only), a poem, digital story, facilitate a Tweetchat (pre-design approximately 6 questions and release them over an hour) – the #LTHEchat has some great resources on this – the possibilities are limitless.
In a nutshell
- Plan your chosen route – live or recorded
- Get the best connection you can – test out different places
- Find the quietest place you can (good luck keeping pets/children off screen)
- Ensure you have alternative resources to share
- Test in the system being used if possible – check their technical requirements
- Clarify with chair regarding roles and support
- Use a headset (this makes a big difference to quality)
- Check that everyone can hear you ok
Essentially though, prepare well, begin with the simplest route possible (when starting out it is best to avoid challenging digital experiments), however you can try alternatives to the traditional talk. Try to relax and enjoy, everyone has been in your shoes at some point and take delight in the joy of presenting in your PJ bottoms and fluffy socks.
In concluding this, I do feel that I have to emphasise, at this particular time of crisis, that care of self, family and friends is paramount. I feel like I am existing in two different universes simultaneously – one with work, feeding family, doing the laundry, all the banal things; the other with constantly moving goalposts, worry and potential physical isolation. Thinking of so many people at this time and wondering about both the short and long term impacts all this is going to have. Online community now, more than ever, will be a life line.
Please do add to these tips in the comments as I bet I have missed some of the obvious things and you all must have a few nuggets to share from experience, the good and the bad.
Things I remembered after pressing Publish
- If you are going down the face to camera route (live or recorded) check your background; a plain wall is the best solution to avoid showing personal or sensitive things (especially as we are all now at home) and to reduce distractions for the participants.