Illustration by Tridib Das
March was the first time I’ve ever backed out of a speaking engagement. It was in the early days of COVID-19, and Adobe shut down international travel before most people were taking the pandemic seriously. I reached out to the organizers of the noBS conference and let them know my first trip to Australia would have to happen another time. When the organizer suggested I do the talk remotely, it was a pretty big mental shift for me. While I’ve been on panels, and a part of several keynotes over the years, I had never given a virtual talk. Since then I’ve given a handful of keynotes, and several company-wide presentations at Adobe, all from my home office. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Follow your routine
I’ve written about my speaking routine before, so I won’t go into great detail here. My best advice: if you have a routine, keep it! Do everything you would normally do to prepare. Remote talks tend to feel less formal. You’re in your home, and you’re comfortable. But your listeners expect a professional experience, especially if they are paying to hear you speak. Prepare like you’re about to go on stage in front of 10,000 people. Little changes in behavior, like dressing up, will cause shifts in the way you present, and your audience will notice.
Have a pre-show checklist
If you have a modern WiFi system like Nest WiFi, make sure you set your presentation machine is set to “priority device”. If you can, go a step further and set up a group of devices that you can pause internet connectivity to for the duration of your talk. Turn on “do not disturb” for all your devices. If you have a smart doorbell — turn off the ringer. If you’re not home alone, let others know they should stay away. Lock the door if you can or give potential disrupters in your house something to keep them occupied. I tend to give our dog Alfie particularly chewy dog treats during important meetings — he’s happy, and my meeting goes uninterrupted.
Check your setup
Do a camera check. What’s behind you? Is it distracting or does it add to the story you’re looking to tell? It’s part of your presentation now! I work in a room with huge windows and certain times of day it’s very difficult for people to see my face. I bought blinds and better room lights to accommodate for this. Think through your surroundings.
If this is something you might be doing often, or for large audiences, there are a few hardware pieces that can go a long way. A camera hookup that allows an existing DSLR to stream video can up the visual quality significantly, and a mic like the Blue Yeti or the Rode NT might be worth the investment*.
Also, clear off your computer desktop, close browser tabs, and hide bookmark bars. You don’t want your browsing history to be what people remember your talk for. Remember, when you first take control of the meeting there may be a moment where EVERYTHING on your screen is shared.
Use a secondary device
Perhaps the most important advice I can give is use your secondary devices. Most presentation software requires mirroring of screens, so there’s often no way to have presenter’s notes. I’ve gotten around this by using Keynote on my iPhone as a second screen. If your Mac is running Keynote, and your iOS device is on the same network, you can control your presentation from that device. Make sure your controller is positioned in your line of sight so you’re not looking off into the distance, or down at your hands. This second screen gives you a clean presentation, speaker notes, a timer, and a way to control your presentation all on your iPhone.
If you have the luxury of an iPad you can even have Keynote in multitasking mode alongside another app. Have a friend listening to the presentation ready to Slack you if the video or audio cuts out. Or log into the presentation chat on your second device. One advantage of remote talks — you can use the space your viewers can’t see to help you present with confidence.
Ask for a tech rehearsal
Advocate for a tech run through with the organizers. For keynotes I’ve done since quarantine, I met the organizers at least a day beforehand. We tested connections, made sure I had the right version of the broadcasting software installed, and it allowed me to get familiar with the controls when the software was new to me. This can also be an opportunity to test your pre-show checklist (above) to make sure you didn’t forget anything. This step is common when doing keynotes in person, but not always when remote unless you ask for it. Minimize risks and distractions beforehand so you can concentrate on your performance the day of.
Prepare to present to the void
Know ahead of time if you’ll be able to see the people you’re presenting to. For small team meetings, this is likely not an issue. But if you’re presenting at a conference it’s likely that you won’t experience any feedback during your talk and won’t be able to see the chat pod once you go full screen. It’ll just be you, your computer, and your presentation.
For my talk in Australia, I had given it many times before. I knew with relative confidence when people were going to laugh, when people might be nodding along, and overall how it was going to be received. I would recommend doing your presentation in front of at least one other person before giving it to a faceless, silent group. And if that’s not possible, record yourself doing it once and watch it back. This might be overkill for small talks, but if you end up being lucky enough to speak in front of a large group, it will makes a huge difference in your confidence without the crowd to fuel you.
Hopefully some of you find this helpful when giving presentations in this new world we all find ourselves in. I’d love to hear any tips or tricks you’ve found giving remote presentations in the comments below.
Reach out to me on Twitter @ericsnowden and I’d love to talk about this post, or answer your questions.
*Special thanks to Shawn Cheris, Ariel Norling, and Parker Gibbons for the hardware suggestions.