Guest blog: Finding the people in pixels

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Sian Shaw

Rosie Cooper-Bowman, a Learning Programme Developer at the Natural History Museum, shares her five top tips for adapting your in-person presenting style to cater to digital audiences, based on her experiences during the pandemic

The pandemic has given us a whole new arena – the virtual audience. Over the last year I have been learning new techniques and tweaking my presenting style to connect with the ‘pixels’ on my screen. I have also worked with a wide range of educators and presenters across my various roles and networks to establish best practices. We have delivered, recorded, observed, self reflected, practiced and tried and tested various techniques. Here are my 5 top tips for adapting presenting techniques from a physical audience to a digital one. 

 

1 – Emergency plan 

I found that tech issues are the number one concern of presenters new to digital engagement.

Things will go wrong. But, your audience will be understanding and patient. Minimise the chance for errors by double checking your set up. Most importantly, have a solid emergency plan. What are all of the things that could go wrong and what could you do as a backup? Work out a Plan B (and C!). Not only will this increase your confidence overall, but when things go wrong, you’ll know what to do. In my virtual sessions, I also always have a filler activity planned to buy me time, just in case. 

Whilst your back up plan should be thorough, also know the importance of calling time of death when things have gone very wrong. Consider where your ‘point of no return’ might be. 

 

2 – Body language

Many presenters will be familiar with the notion that only 7% of how we communicate is based in the words we say. A much larger proportion, around 55%, is attributed to body language. 

When we are presenting to a physical audience, body language comes naturally. However this is not the case when presenting to a digital audience. I think this might be one of the reasons we experience ‘Zoom fatigue’ (because either we are going over the top to show our body language, or our brain is working overtime to try and interpret other people’s cues). To deliver an engaging digital presentation it is essential to consider your body language and put extra effort in conveying it clearly. 

Hand movements – Aim for slower, less jerky hand movements. Importantly, consider your frame. Draw an imaginary box around your head that is ‘in shot’ and make sure you bring your hands and actions purposefully into this space. Don’t have them too close to your face and be careful of losing them off the bottom of the screen. Move your hands as you would naturally, just now in full view of the camera. Finding the best placement and sticking to it will feel quite forced and unnatural at first but it makes all the difference in terms of engaging your viewers. 

Facial expression – Matching facial expression to content and voice will be more spontaneous and natural. However, when presenting to a digital audience it is worth turning this up even more and playing with a greater range of facial expressions than you would in person. If it’s not too daunting, remember your face might be the only one they can see on screen and you are at much closer range than you would be in person. Try to keep your face as entertaining as possible. 

 

3 – Variety

To keep things as engaging as possible, frequently vary your tone, volume, pace and energy. Indeed, I have seen many great presenters get stuck at max energy. I expect it is because we get so concerned with bringing high-enough energy for a non physical audience, that we turn it up and forget that we can (and should) turn it back down again. Delivering all of the presentation at 90% energy will soon become dull. By contrast, starting at 30%, going up to 50%, back down to 30% then up to 90% will be exhilarating to watch. Take time to identify appropriate points in your content and introduce different levels of energy, using keywords to remind you where they are.

 

4 – Working the camera

In general, for larger presentations, broadcasts and pre-recorded sessions, delivery should be straight down the webcam. This will feel comfortable for the person watching, even if it feels a bit odd for you. People’s eyes are drawn to faces, so as a presenter, you will automatically find yourself either looking at your own image or the others on the call. Whilst it is fine to look at those windows from time to time, try and keep the majority of your delivery down the lens. If it helps, put a smiley face next to your webcam to help train your eyes. If you do need to look away, perhaps to read comments in the chat, announce that you are about to do so. This helps to explain why you are now breaking ‘eye contact’ with the camera and keeps the audience with you. When using props, practice your positioning to know where things go in and out of focus and frame.

 

5 – Reflection

I believe self reflection is the single most important thing any presenter can do. Record yourself now, watch it back, pick out good aspects, things to work on and compare it to others. As you get more experience, continue with this, refining as you go. Then once you have lots of recordings under your belt, go back to that first one and note just how far you have come. I encourage all the presenters I work with to take time to record themselves and self-reflect, and emphasise that their own critiques are just as (if not more) useful than other people’s.

It is also very helpful to look at the work of others for inspiration or to see what not to do. Don’t be tempted to copy anyone else too much though, it is important to always be yourself (being you is far better than being anyone else).

 

Thanks for your insights Rosie. Would you like to write a guest blog about your experiences of digital learning? Read more about getting involved here

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