How to inspire online: Unlock the three levels of virtual presentation mastery

What makes it that you say after a Zoom call or Teams meeting:

“Wow, that was inspiring!” ?

It’s one of these things where we know it when we see it and experience it, but that is hard to define. It’s different for all of us, and yet, I do believe that there exists a pattern for inspiration that we can tap into.

In this article I want to provide you strategies to add that Wow! effect to your next Zoom or Teams presentation.

Virtual inspiration has many layers, but I think it has three foundational elements:

  • Inspirational strategies and your full personality
  • A great narrative and crystal clear storytelling
  • Technological savvy

I will go through them in reverse order as, same as in a video game, you need to have secured one before you can “unlock” the next level.

Level I : Master the Trinity of Technology

We have all been to virtual sessions where there is a poor connection, you can barely see the other person, slide after slide is being presented in a monotone voice. These are absolute inspiration killers.

If we like it or not, if we want to inspire online we have to familiarize ourselves with technology completely.

On top of having a good internet connection, a power cable (!) and the right log-in details for your call, the most important thing is the holy trinity of virtual connection: light, sound, eye contact

  • Light: Your face should be well-lit, and there should be no light coming from the background (like the people presenting in front of their window). One of the best investments you can make these days is in professional light for your office. And try to have a blurred or very natural background.
  • Sound: Your voice should be crystal clear. Not from a far distant, and not from one of the mega-big headsets. Also not from your AirPods. We should see you as the full human. The best way to achieve this? I recommend investing in a podcast microphone that stands next to your desk, and avoid those headphones.
  • Eye contact: When presenting to the other person, you think you make eye contact when looking at the screen image. It feels this way. But in reality you don’t. You will appear as if you are looking down, somewhat disconnected. You need to look into the camera, into the yellow, red, blue, whatever colour-light that is appearing next to your camera. If you do this, it appears as if you are really directly looking at every individual. The catch if course is that you cannot see other people’s reactions. Pro Tip: Call in with a second laptop, place it behind your first so that you can combine the two.

Cicero is credited with saying:

“In an orator … we demand the acuteness of a logician, the profundity of a philosopher, the diction virtually of a poet, the memory of a lawyer, the voice of a performer in tragic drama, the gestures, you might almost say, of an actor at the very top of his profession. Here, then, are some of the reasons why a first-class orator is one of the rarest things in the world.”

All of the above is true and remains true in online engagement. And I would add:

In a virtual orator, we demand on top the eye contact and light setting of a TV presenter, the voice of a radio DJ, and the IT prowess of a video gamer.

Working on these three already will greatly improve your virtual prowess. Want to take it even further? Here are 15 more strategies.

Now we are ready to unlock the next level:

Level II: Have a Great Narrative

To start with: of course the basics need to be right. Almost nobody finds a talk with a nervous speaker or an unstructured talk inspirational. It’s hard to feel inspired while trying to decipher a 50-page slide deck in Arial 14.

In my seminars and TEDx coaching sessions, I always stress one point: Have the objective & story flow right. The shiniest slides, the greatest zoom wow setup, a charismatic personality, the best voice can be killed by a bad story flow. However, when your story flow is great one even doesn’t care if your slide design isn’t optimal.

If you use slides, one of the best strategies I recommend is to have vertical and horizontal congruency.

Create a blank powerpoint presentation. On the top, write down what I would call Action Titles. So instead of “Forecast 2021” as a title you can write: “2021 is impossible to forecast. We have developed 4 scenarios to describe potential futures”. Do that for your full deck. You then have a PPT deck just with blank slides and only the Action Titles.

What you can do then is flip through it, read the story flow. With that you achieve what I would call “horizontal congruency”.

After that, if you need slides, you can add “vertical congruency”. Below the action title you can think of what is needed in terms of additional information (chart, text, visual, …) to strengthen and support the message. Only put there what truly adds value.

I found that focusing on this you develop one thing that is especially crucial in online presentations: a natural speaking style. When we can’t see you fully or only over video, the ability to speak naturally about a topic is what conveys your personality, so go work on this.

There are many other ways of improving your message – If you feel you need to improve on these basics check out my TEDx talk on the CODE of presenting and of course the Book “The Smart Presenter” that I co-authored with Paul Arinaga.

Having a great and compelling narrative is the best way to unlock the next level:

Level III – Appeal to the 5 H of Inspiration

If you have worked on the above, then, and only then, can you dive in the need for inspiration. If you want your virtual talk to be inspirational, I recommend looking at the 5 H of inspiration: Head, Heart, Heavy Duty, Humor and Hand.

Head – The wow factor of appealing to the mind

One strategy is to provide ideas and take us into a journey into the future. Of course one knows that nobody knows exactly the future. But a model, thought or prediction can be extremely powerful, as it gets us moving. After that you have a feeling of. “Ok, I have now a glimpse into the future or I understand the present better”.

Examples for this are the “rock star of statistics” presentations of the late Hans Rosling. Another example is what Author Alan Weiss recommends: have “Power Charts”, 1-2 carefully crafted charts should have that give deep insights and that could be used in several presentations. And alternative check is looking for a “Did you know that?” fact. The key indicator for a power chart is that some 2-3 people said “Oh that is interesting, I didn’t know that”. Then you have found presentation gold.

Heart – The openness of being a human being and connecting on the human side

Former Bosch CEO Franz Fehrenbach once said about former BASF CEO Jurgen Hambrecht:  “When he speaks you can see that he is burning for his subject. And that convinces others”. Passion and energy can go a long way with inspiring an audience, but it’s easier said than done.

My key tip: Build several moments into your talk where you naturally have to open up. One of the best ways to achieve this is via personal stories. Think about how your content connects to your personal life and then use structures to plot your experiences and conned to the talk. Author Carmine Gallo estimates that a lot of the most powerful presentations that have been rated inspirational ratings have 60-70% of personal stories as content. Now, personally I almost feel that this is a bit too much, but depending on the content I would suggest having at least 2-3 personal stories in an inspirational speech. It is a powerful metric to track.

Heavy Duty – Focus on the deep vision and insights of something larger than us

True inspiration comes if we as humans can connect to something bigger then ourselves. If we can leave a legacy, impact the world.

So the key focus area if you want to inspire is the answer that big questions of the “Why” your topic and idea is relevant and important for the world. Show the bigger picture. Show what would happen if everybody implemented your recommendation. Especially in these days people long for the bigger picture.

Humor – The feeling that I can laugh at something, without hurting others

Humor, the ability to laugh during a speech, can be one of the most powerful and positive things a speaker can do, especially in an online context. However, humor can also be very daunting to many. One often hears advice such as “start with a joke” or “be funny”. It does not work that way. Humor is a serious business that needs training, as I have spoken about here.

However, one thing that everybody can work into his or her speech is spontaneity. Spontaneous breaks the flow can therefore lead to positive humor moments. And in the virtual the easiest way to achieve this is via interacting with the audience.

Not via questions such “Are there are questions?”, or “What do you think?”, which are in fact difficult questions. Instead, work with polling & word clouds software such as Sli.do or Mentimeter that are quick, fun and easy to implement. This allows for co-creative elements that are spontaneous and pattern-breaking and can therefore often make us laugh in a positive way.

Hand – The feeling that I can do something now

People sometimes think that inspiration just needs to stay lofty, up in the clouds of inspiration and the un-concrete. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Humans are also inspired if they know they can leave the session and can do something differently. That the topic is concrete and practical for them.

So make sure that you include for instance a strategy. A word. A case. A trick. A hack. A model. Anything were the next morning we think: “Ok, I can try this out.” That then connections your “Heavy Duty” with concrete steps that propel me on the journey. And that inspires immensely.

I keep the 5Hs ready as a checklist for my talks. If you want to have an inspirational impact, make sure that you “tick” at least 3 or more of the elements above. If you want to read further and dive deeper you can find additional strategies here.

Get going, unlock all levels to inspire your audience wherever they are

With unlocking the three levels above you can start to have true online inspiration. On top of a great presentation and all of the advanced inspiration strategies we also need to master the technology elements.

That’s why inspiring online is a hard endeavor, but absolutely achievable and worth it. Because once you truly inspire online, your message can scale and you can truly connect with your team and audience across the world. And this is really needed these days.

Happy virtual presenting!

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Let me know if you want to explore this further for your team, event. We have given numerous coaching programs and trainings on how to deliver really great and exciting virtual sessions. The time is now to upgrade and update your online communication skills.

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