With so many of us working remotely – and having to quickly transition into a new online-centric world – we’ve lost the benefit of being “in the room”. As a result, the way we engage and present online is more important than ever before. Here are some tips to make sure your online presentations are not only geared for a socially distanced audience but also engaging and memorable enough to spur people to action.

1. Structure your deck so it tells a story


“Effective storytelling is the ultimate way to deliver effective ideas,” says Jacalin Ding, a senior product designer and lead user-experience-design instructor at General Assembly who regularly runs online presentations to small and large groups of clients and students. At her most recent online workshop, she had an audience of 300 unique users for a two-hour presentation – with a drop-off rate of just two percent. Her secret to success? Putting storytelling at the heart of her presentation. When creating her slide deck, she has a five-step plan:

  1. Build a story by dividing the deck into chapters or sections with a clear beginning, middle, and end
  2. Spend time on introductions and establishing rapport; showcase your passion and expertise with case studies or anecdotes
  3. Try to include as many real-life examples as possible. “It’s a much easier form of content for audiences to relate to while digesting complex information”
  4. Include graphics rather than blocks of text, and don’t be afraid to inject humour to help deliver content in a conversational way – think memes or animated GIFs
  5. Plan and promote some goodies at the end (“but make sure they’re good”) and include a bullet-point summary of your main takeaways

2. Encourage interaction to improve engagement

Keep your presentation short and engage as often as possible, says Isman Tanuri, a leadership and business consultant who delivers online facilitation workshops. “The key difference between in-person and online presentations is the high number of distractions that can take place during a presentation delivered online,” he says. “It could be email notifications, phone alerts, the many open browser tabs, conversations with colleagues in chat apps, family needs, and achy bottoms.” 

The best way to create audience engagement? Keep slides to a minimum and break up your presentation every five to 10 minutes with interactive elements. “Use polls, the videoconferencing chat feature for real-time questions, and breakout discussions in virtual rooms,” advises Tanuri. “Pepper presentations with questions to ensure the audience is intellectually stimulated.” 

Gathering questions using the Q&A function while you present is another way to encourage engagement. Rather than answer them as you present in real time, Ding prefers to save the questions and come back to answer them at the end of the presentation. If she can’t answer them all, she sends a follow-up email or sets up an additional session, or even uses them as content ideas for crafting posts on her LinkedIn feed. 

3. Choose the right tools

When building presentation decks, PowerPoint has been the industry go-to software for many years; however, there are loads of alternatives nipping at Microsoft’s heels, such as Slidebean, Google Slides, Prezi, and more. Many are cloud-based and offer customisable options and intuitive design, slide templates, image libraries, chat features, and even voice-over narration. 

Videoconferencing software is your next decision. Zoom seems to be go-to teleconferencing tool of choice; its user base has jumped 300-fold from December 2019 to April 2020. However, there are many popular alternatives, such as Google Meet and Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, even Skype and Messenger Rooms. If you’re presenting to a China-based audience, DingTalk may be a more popular pick; it has roughly 200 million users across more than 10 million companies. Whichever software you choose, be sure to check which interactive features you need for your presentation – for example, do you require users to edit documents during the meeting? – and get familiar with the technology before you present. 

“I use visual whiteboard tools to create online visual spaces that participants can engage in,” says Tanuri, who cites Miro as his favoured tool. Alternative choices include Trello, Figma, and Mural, among many others. Again, look at what features you need for your online presentation before you settle on a software tool. “Making polls visual is a favourite trick, as it helps to generate a 2-D dimension to the different opinions in the room,” says Tanuri. “It’s a great conversation starter, too, as the audience can make deductions or form opinions based on the visual data.”

4. Adjust your presenting style and prepare for bumps in the road

Broadband service outages, lost connections, malfunctioning software – technical problems can and do happen. Unlike being in a room with a group of people, there is very little that you, as a presenter, can control. Things that can go wrong, will go wrong,” says Tanuri. “You may have the highest speed broadband access in the land and the best microphone in the business, but an audience member may have only a spotty connection to the internet and cheap throwaway earphones.” His advice: have a backup plan and pivot.

 “Have empathy and seek signals from the audience to guide your presentation, or as they say in rock‘n’roll, ‘play to the crowd’,” says Tanuri. He asserts that it’s important to know when to throw out a plan or quickly change direction if the audience is not responding to your presentation in the way you anticipated. “Be adaptable and adjust on the fly,” he advises. “Ask what they need constantly.”

Presenting in a monotonous voice is another common blunder. Ding has a simple trick to help any public speaker sell their passion online: “Remember the emotion when you read a storybook to a kid,” she says. “Picture that while you present. Even the most boring topic can sound interesting if you practice that rule.”

5. Don’t forget the basics

You may have the best slides and ideas ready to present online, but it may all fall apart if you skip the practical basics. Here’s a checklist:

  • Sound check: use a microphone and regularly ask your audience to raise their hand or use the chat function to advise if they have problems hearing you
  • Find your light: avoid sitting in front of a bright window so you’re not backlit
  • Get in position: raise your screen so that you are looking straight at your camera. Simple hacks include propping your laptop on a stack of books or even fashioning a height-adjustable desk by using an ironing board raised or lowered to your preferred position
  • Explain your tech: at the beginning of your presentation, spend 30 seconds asking your audience if they’re familiar with your conferencing software and if they need help finding the Q&A button or chat function
  • Rest and recharge: build in a two- to seven-minute break every 40 minutes and encourage your audience to look away from the screen to refresh
  • Don’t forget the follow-up: Send a PDF of your presentation with a thank-you message and summary of the Q&A notes