Public Speaking Tips for Virtual Conferences

It’s common advice that you should watch and listen to yourself via a recording in order to improve your public speaking skills. There are few things more uncomfortable than doing that, but I had an opportunity this week to discover something even more uncomfortable: watching and listening to myself on a recording with 50 other conference attendees.

IDPro Plenary @ Identiverse 2020


On the one hand, there was definitely some amusement to be had as I and the other panelists took the opportunity to heckle ourselves and each other during the session. But on the other, I realized there was more to learn about where I can improve as a virtual speaker that goes beyond the “watch for verbal ticks and closed off postures.”

If you’d like general pointers on public speaking, I highly recommend reviewing Toastmasters’ website. Toastmasters is probably *the* go-to resource for public speaking support and guidance.

But if you’d like some more information about public speaking at a virtual event, here are a few pointers based on my own experiences as a keynote speaker at EEMA’s annual conference, IDPro’s plenary at Identiverse, and publicly streamed discussions on IAM via Twitter.

Look at the camera like you would look at a physical audience 

Humans (for the most part) like eye contact. They want to know that you’re talking to them, not to something way off to the side, or above their heads, or down at their belts. In virtual reality, you have to fake it by looking at the camera. Easy, right? Hah! My eyes want to do one of two things – look at my notes, or look at what’s moving on the screen. Neither of those things is my camera, and therefore the perspective of the viewer is that I’m not looking at them. I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to … something else.

That said, I’ve found that if I put my notes at the very top of my screen, directly under my camera, I can glance at them while still holding most of my attention to the camera. That’s not dissimilar from scanning the audience, one side to the other. Eye contact is still happening, and the human hind-brain that doesn’t actually understand virtual reality is satisfied.

Imaginary friends are awesome

I don’t know about you, but I am definitely more excited and engaging when I get visual feedback from the audience that lets me gauge how well my message is landing. Unfortunately, I mostly don’t get to see my audience. Even when I do, it’s quite possible that what I see are a gallery of images of people who are looking at their screen and not their cameras. It’s the inverse of the problem I pointed out above – without that eye contact connecting me to the other person, I feel disengaged from the conversation. Fortunately, there’s a part of my brain that’s still only 12 years old, and I rock at having imaginary friends on hand to help me out!

Trust me, this can really work. Take a photo of a friend or colleague at a moment when they are really engaging with you. Set up a one-on-one call just to chat, and let them know you’ll be taking screen shots periodically so you can get just the right image. When you have the image, put it directly under your camera. Talk to this person, engage like you’re explaining this to them. Use the tones and inflections, the ups and downs, the excitement, even the occasional eye roll. You are now a human talking to humans, and not this poor soul stuck talking to a computer.

The occasional “um” never hurt anyone

In every public speaking guide I’ve ever read, I am warned against the dreaded “um.” That verbal tic we all have that lets us fill a moment where we’re trying to think with some sound that indicates we’re still talking, but we need a moment. So yes, sure, if every sentence is filled with “um” or “like” or some other random sound that offers no semantic value, you need to work on that. But you know what? Having a few in your recording is not the end of the world. It makes you sound human.

The root of this piece of advice is: don’t get hung up on little things. It’s going to be hard enough to hear yourself speak without cringing with every “um.” Just take a breath and move on.

Enjoy yourself

The statement, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made,” has been attributed to several individuals throughout history. When you’re presenting remotely, or recording a session, enjoy yourself. Be happy to have this opportunity. Be excited to virtually meet new people. If it’s 3am, and the last thing you feel is excitement over being awake to present in a timezone suitable for people on the other side of the planet… Do your best to fake it, because this is how people will remember you. These things are recorded. People will see it on the web for years to come. Make the most of the opportunity.

Do you have any tips for virtual public speaking? If you haven’t had the opportunity, but have been in the audience, what made you feel a part of your favorite sessions? I’d love to know!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: