13 Presenting Remotely
Joe Hutcheson, M.F.A.
- Identify the occasions and circumstances which require remote presentations.
- Establish the additional skills needed for remote presentations.
- Establish the difference between live and recorded presentations.
- Identify potential solutions for various remote circumstances.
It was a Wednesday afternoon in March. I had just arrived to my afternoon Speech 100 class and was preparing to take roll. As most often is the case, students were chatting and scrolling through their phones. Suddenly, a student made the following unsolicited announcement:
“Hey! CUNY just tweeted that all classes will be remote starting Monday, March 23rd.”
Silence fell over the usually chatty crowd. As students continued to file in, they could sense the uncertainty in the air.
“Okay, it’s going to be fine…we can do this…” was all I could seem to say.
We all knew it was coming, to some degree. Although this was early in the COVID-19 epidemic, we were all familiar with the news. None of us could have predicted that we’d soon be wearing masks as a regular part of life and would continue to do so for more than a year; we couldn’t have known that we wouldn’t see each other in a classroom for the next few semesters—even as I write this, it’s difficult to comprehend.
I meant what I said, I did believe it would be fine. Although this particular class was an in-person version of a course in public speaking, I had been teaching an online version of Speech 100 at Borough of Manhattan Community College for several semesters. My students may not have believed it, but I knew together we could figure it out. And we did.
The value of being able to effectively deliver presentations remotely is not specific to the events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was certainly reinforced by it. As technology has advanced and tiny cameras have become customary in many of the devices we deal with on a daily basis, presenting remotely has become more and more common. This chapter is not a set of rules or definitive right and wrongs, but a discussion of general approaches that work for remote presentations.
Why present remotely?
Whether it is the choice of the speaker or the audience, a remote presentation may be the best option. While we are all certainly aware of this being a solution to safety concerns, there are other more positive advantages to presenting remotely. There are also some obvious challenges.
|Advantages to Remote Presentations||Challenges to remote presentation|
|• Reach a larger, more distant audience.||• Audience disengagement.|
|• Safer in times of epidemic or social distancing.||• Technological limitation for speaker and audience.|
|• Environmentally friendly.||• Visual aids solutions.|
|• Economical in terms of time and travel.|
|• More streamlined visual aid options.|
Clearly the author of this chapter finds the advantages of remote presentations outweigh the challenges. This, however, does not suggest that remote presentation is always a preferable choice. Nothing truly takes the place of live, in-person presentations. But different occasions call for different solutions; when there is an option, it’s up to the speaker and/or the audience to decide the best solution.
Let’s discuss some of these advantages and challenges a bit more thoroughly.
Advantages to Remote Presentations
Reach a larger, more distant audience. Without having to have a group of people gather in one place such as a lecture hall, theatre, classroom, etc., clearly the reach of a speaker is not held to such strict geographical boundaries. This opens up a world of possibilities: audiences can enjoy a presentation from someone in an entirely different country; potential employees can be interviewed or submit recordings of themselves to potential employers in other states; students can study abroad without having to leave their homes.
Safer in times of epidemic or social distancing. Though this chapter is being written at a time when the global COVID-19 pandemic is increasingly under control and social distancing guidelines are being lifted every day, what we have learned during the past year of continual quarantine and uncertainty will certainly be a part of our lives moving forward. During cold and flu season, some speakers or audience may choose to deliver or receive a message remotely to protect themselves and their loved ones. Those who have not or cannot receive vaccinations may find it in their best interest to seek a remote option rather than risk infection.
Travel accounts for a good deal of the world’s environmental pollution. The environment benefits from reducing the need for speakers and audiences to travel to be physically together.
Environmentally friendly. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information:
“As the transmission of novel corona virus (COVID-19) increases rapidly, the whole world adopted the curfew/lockdown activity with restriction of human mobility. The imposition of quarantine stopped all the commercial activity that greatly affects the various important environmental parameters which directly connected to human health. As all the types of social, economic, industrial and urbanization activity suddenly shut off, nature takes the advantages and showed improvement in the quality of air, cleaner rivers, less noise pollution, undisturbed and calm wildlife.” – Arora, Bhaukhandi, & Mishra, Science Direct, November 10, 2020
Economical in terms of time and travel. Travel expenses can be overwhelming and can actually limit our ability to experience more of the world outside of our specific geographic location. With the advent of various technologies, a remote presentation in India can now be viewed by someone in the Bronx who can’t afford to take the time off to fly abroad; a person in Beijing can apply for a job in London without having to pay for a plane ticket; a student who wants to study abroad but also needs to work in their home country can consider distance learning in any country that offers it.
More streamlined visual aid options. Most video conferencing applications also have a “screen share” or “file sharing” option. If used correctly, this function can streamline the process of sharing presentation aids. Anything a speaker has on their desktop, hard drive, or personal device can usually be shared easily with their audience. Notice, however, that visual aids are mentioned as a possible challenge as well, which will be discussed further.
Challenges to Remote Presentation
Audience disengagement. Those same devices with which we can see each other from miles and miles away also do their best to distract us. It can be safe to assume that most of us don’t turn off all of our notifications or close all of our open applications before engaging in video conferencing, though this would be a very good practice to adopt. When part of a remote audience, often participants may opt to listen more passively while engaging in other activities.
Technological limitations for speaker and audience. We must keep in mind that we do not all have access to the same technology. As a speaker, when given the opportunity to choose between live and remote presentation, one might consider the demographic of their potential audience and the likelihood that they will have the necessary technology to be reached. Will they have the device necessary to receive a remote presentation? Will they have access to the bandwidth? As someone who determines the circumstances of a presentation (such as a teacher, supervisor, or potential employer), the equitable approach is to consider the technology to which the speaker has access and with which the speaker is familiar—or at least reasonable expectations to acquire them.
Visual Aid Solutions. If a speaker is familiar with video conferencing platforms which allow them to share their screen seamlessly and has access to the technology with which to do so, they are fortunate and should take advantage of them. Without these skills and capabilities, sharing a visual aid with an audience and being certain the audience can easily see and process it can be challenging. The same applies to audio aids. Later in this chapter, we will discuss best approaches when dealing with limited technology.
Same Idea, Different Approach
A previous chapter in this book discusses the elements of the communication process. This is a standard discussion in any public speaking text, and usually involves a similar description. These are generally considered the elements of the communication process:
The similarities between in-person presentations and remote presentations are most evident in the elements of speaker, message, and listener. The most basic communication model is still in play: a speaker is sending a message to a listener in the hopes that message will be received. The other elements of our communication process —feedback, interference, situation, and channel—are most affected by a remote presentation format.
|Basic communication model||Conditional or inconsistent feedback|
|Speaker/audience relationship||More easily distracted audience|
|Importance of presentation aids||Speaker and listeners in different contexts|
|Reliance on strong communication skills||Channel for communication depends on technology|
The elements of public speaking which are shared between live and remote presentation have been and will be covered in this book. The differences are more essential to a discussion on remote presentation.
Conditional or inconsistent feedback/More easily distracted audience. A realistic observation of the “work-from-home” habits many of us have developed over the last few years would likely show that we are less focused in our meetings and appointments than before. As our devices are designed to be exciting and interactive, there are perpetual distractions all around us when we are required to surround ourselves with technology. We are not lowering the lights and focussing on one projected slide presentation in the same meeting room, board room, or classroom. We lack the physical conventions which bring a live audience together. Therefore, audience attention is likely to be less focussed. This is simply another type of interference a speaker must work through. The message must be clear and concise, and the speaker should do all they can to grab and hold their audience’s attention. The same care in which a speaker selects their initial attention grabber at the onset of a presentation can be taken with each moment in the presentation thereafter. Furthermore, messages should be made as concise and clear as possible to make it as easy for an audience to commit their focus.
Speaker and Listener in Different Contexts. As mentioned above, our remote audience is not all in the same room. Sometimes, they may not even be in the same moment in time.
If a presentation is recorded, a speaker not only receives no live, non-verbal feedback, but the speaker may never receive any feedback at all from certain audiences. It is still the responsibility of the speaker to try and maintain their audience’s attention, though they may not be present when the audience receives their message. This must be an underlying motivation while recording the presentation.
During a live remote presentation, the audience is composed of independent receivers in various locations with their own set of distractions. What can we do as speakers to bring a sense of unity to our remote audiences? The idea of establishing common ground discussed earlier in this textbook becomes an important tool not only to bond the speaker and the audience, but to help bond the audience members to each other.
Channel for Communication Depends on Technology. Regardless of the technical resources of the speaker or the audience, some level of technology is required to establish a remote connection. While a live video feed is probably the closest a speaker can come to simulating a live presentation, less degrees of technological support can still be successful means of communication. As long as the speaker or presenter can get a message to the audience, the basic communication model can function.
Technology and Presentation Aids
Work with what you’ve got; work with what you know.
We are all presented with different challenges and have access to different resources. While you undeniably must have some sort of device (computer, electronic tablet, smartphone, etc.) and a reliable internet connection, a remote presentation can be successfully achieved with various levels of technological support.
Some speakers will have a good grasp of how to use PowerPoint and share their screen with their audience; some speakers will provide physical presentations aids and show them over video. Some speakers may record their presentation and then spend time in an editing program adding text and images to support their presentation; some speakers may simply record themselves against a nice, neutral background.
While it is always a good idea to improve our technological skills, learning a new software or platform right before a presentation may not be the best choice. Chances are the speaker is nervous enough without adding the element of relying on something unfamiliar.
Using tangible visual aids such as models, printed images, charts and graphs, or other types of artifacts can be just as effective as a more technologically supported solution.
In fact, because so many presentation aids are presented digitally, an argument might be made that a more “old-fashioned” solution could increase audience engagement and help focus attention.
Audio aids and video work a bit differently and depend on the technological support to function properly during presentations. As a teacher, I must be aware that while I stream a video on my desktop and share it to my virtual classroom, my students are often seeing a grainer, choppier version of the video. Playing a video or audio recording on another device that can be picked up by your camera and/or microphone may be an option, i.e. playing a video on an electronic tablet held by the speaker for the virtual audience to see or playing a recording over a speaker that is not attached to the computer and can be picked up by the computers microphone. Just remember, the important part of using a presentation aid is in the title: presentation aid; it must help the speaker get their point across and not provide additional distractions to the audience or obstacles to the presentation. Whenever possible, put yourself in the audience’s position and see the presentation from their viewpoint. This is part of an audience-centered process.
Virtual Eye Contact
The importance of eye contact has been discussed elsewhere in this textbook. While some presentations may be given orally with the on-screen visual aids being the primary optical focus for the audience (such as turning off the speaker’s video and focussing on a shared slide presentation), this section applies to presentations that are attempting to mimic a live presentation model.
No actual eye contact is possible in a remote presentation. When we look at our screen, we are seeing millions of moving pixels making up very accurate visual representations of our audience members. If our audience is gracious enough (or required) to have their video on during a remote meeting, we can honor them by engaging in virtual eye contact.
Personally speaking, when I was new to a remote classroom setting, I discovered not only the opportunity to explore the skills necessary for successful remote presentation, but also to see myself teaching on camera! Not that I’m particular fascinated with my own looks, but I found it very challenging not to get caught up in watching myself speak rather than connecting with my audience. Suddenly, instead of wondering what I must look like while I was presenting information to my students, I could see in real time right on my screen. I learned to set my “grid” up so that I couldn’t see myself as easily. The students may have not known the difference, but I have no doubt that my connection to them improved once I engaged in more regular virtual eye contact.
Whenever possible, a speaker may consider avoiding reading their speaking notes from the same screen on which they are connecting with their audience. In live, in-person presentations, speakers practice taking information from their notes while returning meaningful and regular eye contact with their audience as often as possible. In a remote presentation, an audience may feel more engaged with a speaker if they feel the speaker is splitting their attention between their notes and the listeners rather than speaking to—or through—their notes. If one has a large enough screen on their desktop, this may not be the case. But many of us are dealing with laptops and handheld devices which would not accommodate a split focus as easily.
Standing vs. Sitting
Traditionally, a speaker would stand for a presentation if they have the ability to do so. Gary Genard, founder of the Genard Method of performance-based public speaking training, states that “if you have the choice to sit or stand when presenting, standing is better.” He goes on to say that “speaking virtually benefits from full-body involvement as well.” (Genard).
In a remote setting, many of us work from a desktop or laptop computer which provides the camera and microphone, part of our channel for communicating remotely. These are generally more easily accessed when seated. A speaker who chooses to invest some time and effort into setting up their equipment to accommodate a standing presentation will certainly improve their audience interest and perhaps even enhance their credibility.
Technical Considerations for Remote Presentations
When choosing a location from which to deliver your remote presentation, the background must be taken into consideration. The background should not provide any interference for the speaker. Choose a neutral background or, at the very least, a background that is not distracting. Remember, we are always trying to hold our audience’s attention against their natural tendency to let it wander; we have to help them focus on us. Not everyone has access to a completely blank wall, but we can all take some time to find a background on which to shoot which will give our audience as little to pay attention to (besides us, the speaker) as possible.
Believe it or not, lighting has very transformative powers. Many of us have memories of sitting around a dark room or a campfire, holding a flashlight below our chin to shine straight up our faces while we told a scary story. If you’ve never seen this effect, take some time to find a mirror, a flashlight, and a dark room and prepare to see a very different version of yourself.
Auditoriums and classrooms are generally well-lit spaces. This is intentional. Lighting is part of the context in which a presentation is given, and should be taken into careful consideration. Lighting also has the capability of being an obstacle for the speaker under certain circumstances. If a speaker is lit from behind, their audience will see them in shadow; if lit from only one side, half of their face will be in shadow. We have discussed above what happens when lit from below; being lit from directly above casts different kinds of shadows down our faces, though not nearly as scary.
Even if we are working with basic lighting, we can certainly make sure the light source in the room is supporting our presentation as much as possible. We can make sure that whatever device through which we are communicating is between us and the light source. If the light is overhead, we can adjust to make sure it isn’t casting harsh downward shadows. We should always try and take a look at what our audiences are seeing before we present. Most conferencing software allows us to conduct a “meeting” and record it without having other people present. As with most things, a little preparation goes a long way.
Splicing or Cutting Video
Some of us may be called upon to give job interviews by way of recorded presentations. I have done so myself. While all presentations are important on some level, the stakes for a job interview are fairly high. Aside from the obvious care we would want to take with the technical elements above, we want those viewing our video to perceive us as competent communicators. A video that is recorded in a single take, without splicing different clips together, gives the viewer a sense that the speaker is prepared and confident. It also may allow the viewer to forget for a moment they are watching a video and imagine what it may be like to work in person with this potential employee. Splicing videos together may give the viewer a sense that something immediately before or after each clip has gone awry and needs to be fixed. If the video is on the short side and spliced together, it may give the viewer the impression that the potential employee did not care to take the time to record the video over. Often a video job interview is essentially a short informative speech about ourselves; delivering this presentation in a single take can show potential employers that we are prepared and can communicate a message fluently and clearly from beginning to end.
For other types of recorded presentations, the speaker must decide for themselves whether cutting and splicing feels appropriate to the occasion. A cooking demonstration may require a time jump while that turkey roasts in the oven for five hours. A video presentation about a speaker’s home town may provide an opportunity to cover more geography, and splice clips together in which the speaker delivers their message from different locations.
Practicing the Presentation
The old adage states that “If something can go wrong, it will.” While this is not always the truth, presenting remotely adds an entirely new set of potential mishaps. We must be prepared and anticipate what could go wrong and have a plan to prevent it if possible. And just as with a live presentation, we must be prepared to carry on if and when something does go wrong.
Practice both with and without your video support. Do the presentation a few times as if your audience is live and in the room with you. Then, record yourself doing the presentation the way your audience will see you. After taking some time away so the presentation isn’t as fresh in your mind as the speaker, watch the video from the audience’s point of view. Do some self-analysis to see how you will be perceived remotely by your audience. Speakers who are allowing their lighting, microphone, or camera to become an obstacle or an element of interference for them will come off as unprepared and unprofessional. Speakers who are seen and heard easily over video automatically gain a few credibility points with their audience.
Presenting Our Best Selves
Regardless of the method or occasion, whenever we rise to the occasion of speaking publicly, we hope to present our best self and should do everything within our power to do so. The time and effort we put into preparing to present remotely directly contributes to our success. Whether you plan to give a remote commencement speech at a graduation, bring an important issue forward at a virtual town hall in your community, or submit a recorded video job interview for your dream job, your best self deserves the opportunity to shine through regardless of whatever remote channel you use.
- What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of delivering remote presentations?
- What are some of the similarities and differences between remote presentations and live, in-person delivery?
- What are some important technical elements a speaker should take into consideration when preparing a remote presentation?
- Deliver and record a short remote presentation without regards to any lighting, sound, background, or other technical considerations. In other words, make no effort to take those things into consideration. Don’t watch it yet! Deliver and record the presentation again taking all of the same elements into great consideration. Now watch both videos back to back. Notice the differences and how they affect you and the audience.
- Set up a video conference with a few classmates. Before the conference, arrange your surroundings in a way in which you think you are able to deliver a message the best as a speaker; set up your lighting, your recording device, your background, etc. Each student can provide some type of visual or audio aid to share with the group. Take turns analyzing each others’ setups from an audience perspective.
Arora, Shefali, et al. “Coronavirus Lockdown Helped the Environment to Bounce Back.” The Science of the Total Environment, Elsevier B.V., 10 Nov. 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7323667/.
Genard, Gary. “The Genard Method: Public Speaking Coaching and Training.” Genard Method Public Speaking Training, https://www.genardmethod.com/.