Lessons learned for people who are nervous about delivering online (from someone who isn’t a natural presenter)


Michael Osborne, July 25, 2020

Would you be nervous about delivering a presentation [online] to professionals in your industry? Do you find the self-doubt and ‘imposter syndrome’ kicks in? If so, you are not alone – I can relate! For me, it’s largely ‘fear of failure’ and fear of the unknown that often hold me back: “What if I blank?”, “What if someone asks a question I can’t answer?” In being open with this vulnerability, the response has been lovely. It turns out, these thoughts are fears are not unusual. In fact, they’re actually quite common.

Here are some of the lessons learned from my recent experience; delivering a webinar at the Learning Technologies Summer Forum on accessibility – a topic I am very passionate about!

Don’t make assumptions and check expectations

If you are invited to speak, find out as much as you can about the opportunity: how long your session will be, and how that time should be split (e.g. delivery time vs questions and answers). Find out what technology you will be expected to deliver in, and how big your audience might be. No question is a silly question if it will give you, the [nervous] speaker, peace of mind.

Voice your concerns

If you have any concerns, voice them. For example, “I have too many slides and I don’t know what to cut”. Asking for help on the things worrying you means you can your questions answered, and problems addressed early on. If you have access to people more experienced – colleagues, your chairperson, or whoever – call on people’s experiences. Ask for advice.

Be communicative

In the build up to the event, it is important to keep two-way communication open between you and the event organisers. Everyone has to be comfortable and kept in the loop at all times.

Know your subject

“Know your subject” might sound like obvious, but I am including it for reasons other than you might immediately think. Remembering/being reminded that you know your subject, you are the subject matter expert (after all, that’s why you’ve been invited to speak), really does help silence the imposter syndrome.

Know your content

They key to good flow of a presentation/ online delivery is to know your content. Not just what you have included, but also the order it’s in; what is coming up and when. Especially if you reorder things based on people’s feedback. You don’t want to get thrown on the day, and this comes from practice/ rehearsing.

Try and keep it interactive

Start with a story. Make it personal. This helps people immediately engage and it is relatable. Don’t go too long without an interaction from the audience. You don’t want people to be passive for too long – they will ‘switch off’. Polls are a great way to build engagement – but you must react/respond to people’s answers.

Get feedback early

One of the best things you can do is get feedback early on from trusted peers – even if your presentation is not finished. They will give you feedback and make some suggestions you might not have thought of.

Practice in the technology

Practicing the in the technology you will be using can be broken down into two parts:

1) Have familiarity with technology (software) you are presenting in.
2) Test the presentation in that software.

Not all technology works the same. You might be experienced in meeting and screen sharing software such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but that does not mean you will automatically be an expert in something like Adobe Connect. It is important that you have familiarity in the software you will be operating. It sounds obvious, but do not leave this until the last minute. Things like uploading your presentation (even in draft status), designing and configuring your session/ virtual room, and making changes like adding polls, chat interactions, and video content all take time.

You need to be comfortable with the interface and know where the controls are. You want to be able to test your audio, enable your video and navigate through your presentation with ease.

Next you need to test your presentation in the technology you will be delivering. Through testing my presentation (as an uploaded document) in Adobe Connect, I learned that animated gifs do not work. Furthermore, whilst the software does a brilliant job at converting the PowerPoint – animations and all – the ‘gradual build’ of a slide did not work in the web app version of the software, despite working fine in the desktop app. This was picked up in my internal testing and would have been missed otherwise. Knowing this meant I could make alternations before the live session. I also learned that, if you call up the ‘notes’ section of your presentation, the font size is tiny. Don’t fall into the trap of blocks of text, else you may find yourself squinting and falling into the trap of reading it.

Rehearse for timings

Preparing great content is half of the battle. There is no point preparing an hours’ worth of content if you only have half an hour to deliver it in. Unless you are experienced in [online] delivery, the only way you are going to get a feel for timings is to rehearse it. And when I say “rehearse it”, I am not talking about “And now I would say…”, I mean rehearse the presentation exactly as you would (or intend to) deliver it to your live audience. Deliver it in the target technology. If you have an external chairperson, invite them. Better still if you can get a live audience for it then do! Get feedback from your trial audience.

I am very thankful to my ProfitAbility team for allowing me to deliver the session in full on the Wednesday before my Learning Technologies Summer Forum delivery on the following Tuesday. Rehearsing and getting feedback made a big difference to my confidence and delivery on the day.

Signposting

Signposting early on, in delivery, is important. It sets expectations of what you will cover and when. However, be cautious of adding expected timings. Expected timings sets an expectation you might have to stick to, which can put unnecessary pressure on you. People know how long they have committed to when they signed up to your session and will be coming to it with expectations that it will take that long.

Audio Quality

Use a wired headset with a good microphone. If you don’t have one, invest in one. It is worth it; consider it not a cost but an investment.

Setting

Do you have a busy background? If the answer to that question is yes, consider whether you can move the equipment you need (laptop, charger, wired headset, external mouse, and maybe any lighting) to somewhere with less ‘noise’ behind you. (Important to a comic-book nerd like me with lots of Batman merchandise behind me).

Lighting

If your desk is adjacent to a window, consider using additional lighting. You don’t want a shadow over half of your face. Do show your webcam if you can. (From an accessibility point-of-view, it helps people who are deaf or hard of hearing to lip read.)

Downloads and takeaways

Make your downloads and takeaways available both at the beginning of the session and end of the session. Not everyone will be able to stay for the full session. Don’t take that personally. It might be they can only join half the session because they have a meeting to attend, or they listen to the start to see if it is worth catching up with later. By contrast, there will always be late comers.

Include your presentation and transcript in the downloads – and make people aware that you have. It doesn’t matter if you are delivering a live face-to-face session or an online webinar, people will try and take photographs or screenshots. If they’re doing that, they’re not actively listening to what you’re saying. As a spectator, it’s also annoying is slides with a build and you don’t know when the next slide is coming – so you miss the final points. By making your presentation available for download, they can fully immerse in your presentation.

Size of audience

On the Friday before my delivery, I got the numbers for my session. 913 had registered, with a predicted attendance of 380-490 people. As you might imagine, that was quite intimidating to someone who was already nervous! Prospect of a large audience might make you panic. That’s okay. Nerves are only normal.

You might start to think, ‘with such high numbers, I’ll need to give longer on polls and interactions. I might also need to cut content. What do I cut?’ The advice I got was that no changes (to polls, etc.) were required and that I should leave it as rehearsed. “It’s good and you know your subject, that doesn’t change with a large audience. It will be fine”

Expecting a large audience, I asked three trusted contacts – both of whom were experts on my topic – to join to answers people’s questions, as they come in, in the Q&A boxes. This really helped me, as it meant I could focus on the delivery and not worry about answering loads of questions in a short space of time at the end, or leaving people disgruntled by not having their questions answered.

A summary of lessons learned

* You are the expert on your subject

* When designing your session, get feedback early

* Rehearse timings: Content is half the battle. Rehearse for timings, get feedback, and repeat

* Practice in the technology you will be using – especially if it is new/unfamiliar to you.

* Audio quality: Use a wired headset with a good microphone. If you don’t have one, invest one

* Start with a story: Make it personal and people will immediately engage and relate

* Let people know why your topic is important to you and why it should be important to them

* Signposting is important to set expectations

* Consider your tone: It’s okay to make a point but be mindful not to come across as too harsh.

* Downloads and takeaways: Make downloads and takeaways available at the start and end of the session. Include the slides and transcript here if you can

* Size of audience: Whether you have 10 people, or whether you have 300+, once you are ‘in flow’ it won’t really matter. Especially if you can’t see them!

* Take your time and be yourself

About the author

Mike is passionate about designing and developing accessible, gamified experiences. Mike entered the Learning & Development industry in 2012, after graduating with a degree in games technology. He has since worked on many projects to take proven (classroom) business simulations online to support learning and behaviour change in some of the world’s largest companies. Mike has featured in Training Industry ePublications for gamification and has spoken on video and audio podcasts about accessibility.

In February 2020, Mike became one of the Learning Technology [UK]’s first-ever Thirty Under 30. In July 2020, he stepped out of his comfort zone to speak about Accessibility at the Learning Technologies Summer Forum. His ambition is to make learning accessible to everyone.

You can contact Mike via LinkedIn or Twitter.