Remote Presence: Engaging Audiences in Virtual Conferences

This post was originally shared in our Remote Confidence newsletter (ran April – May 2020).
by Minal Bopaiah

Many speaking gigs are getting rebooked as virtual conferences or webinars. Are yours? Are you worried about keeping the audience’s attention?

If so, you’re going to want to reconsider your opening.

For many speakers, the celebrated public speaking technique is to start with a story. However, that doesn’t work as well in the virtual world.

While many TED talks begin with a story, watching a video of a recorded talk is different than trying to engage audiences live via a digital platform. The way people use the Internet and their computers during a live session requires a different approach.

For one, because virtual sessions are live, people can be easily distracted or even seduced into multi-tasking. When they are part of a live audience, cultural norms get us to silence our phones (after checking them one last time!) and not do other tasks in front of speakers (mostly, save those people who don’t put away their phones). For virtual audiences, there is no cultural norm triggering their minds to settle down and just listen. By starting your talk with a story, you run the risk of losing their attention. 

Instead, start by sparking curiosity. You can do this in a number of ways.

Speaking coach Neil Gordon suggests starting with a question that reminds the audience of their pain point (and positions your talk as the answer). In fact, he ran a test of starting a video with a story or with a pain point question, and the latter won. Pain points should speak directly to the audience’s survival concerns if possible.

Another option is to spark curiosity about others by conducting a poll. On a recent virtual session I conducted, I asked participants what was their most distressing first world problem since the pandemic started. The answers ran the gamut from “not being able to dye my roots” to “no sports tv” to “running out of booze.” (If you’re curious, having your roots show was the winner.)

As media has progressed, it has become more and more interactive. When we transitioned from radio to television, sight accompanied sound. On the Internet, tactile motions (the mouse, the keyboard) accompany sight and sound. It’s important you engage all those sense for a rich experience online. Getting someone to click right away means you’ve got their attention over a million other things and open tabs on their browser.

You can encourage participation by using the annotation features in some video conference software (like Zoom or Adobe Connect) to allow participants to draw on the screen for all to view right away. Granted, this requires an audience that is tech savvy, but you can use the feature in a number of ways. For example, you can present the feelings wheel below, and ask people to place an X next to the word describing their feelings. 

Colorful wheel with feelings words on it

To capture and keep attention for a virtual talk, get people clicking and feeling right away–from either pain or excitement. Of course you don’t want to overdo it. But by engaging peoples’ evolutionary desire to avoid pain, or connecting with their senses online through curiosity building activities, you stand a better chance of having your audience stick with you until the end.

Idea for Action: Rewrite the beginning of an in-person talk to focus on a pain point. Can you add curiosity points in the middle of the talk? 

Minal Bopaiah headshot

About the Author: Minal Bopaiah is a strategic consultant with nearly 20 years of professional experience. She frequently gives keynote addresses on unconscious bias in design, designing for equity, and allyship across difference.

Find out more about her strategy and design firm, Brevity and Wit, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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