February 3, 2021
Hosting a virtual event? Read on to learn how to bring out the best in your speakers.
Prep. Prep. Prep.
A large part of preparation is communication but try not to overload speakers with emails. Provide only the information that matters to their role. This includes what’s expected of them, how to give their virtual presentation on your chosen platform and key pieces of advice for giving a presentation from home (ex. find a quiet room from which to livestream, turn off notifications and keep tabs closed during the event).
It’s important to note that your speakers will probably have had to learn a different platform for every virtual speaking engagement. Provide a tutorial of your platform from a speaker POV to familiarize your speakers with those features they’ll need to use to present and participate in Q&A. One size does not fit all when it comes to platform tutorials; for our event in October 2020, we used simple screen recording software to record three separate tutorials for attendees, speakers and exhibitors. We also hosted and recorded a speakers-only webinar a few weeks before the event and transcribed the tutorial to create a written virtual speaking guide complete with screenshots of the platform.
In addition to communication, rehearsing is key for virtual speaker prep. Give your speakers the time and space to practice and engage with you/your team one-on-one. Whether the presentation will be live or pre-recorded, schedule at least one practice session to evaluate each speaker’s setup and comfort level, tailor presentation styles and provide specific pointers.
Engaging an audience through a computer screen is very different than speaking on stage in a room of people. Not only do presentations have to be shorter to match online attendees’ shorter attention spans but the speaking environment is no longer uniform or in the planner’s control. Speakers aren’t being mic-ed up by a pro but must figure out their webcam, microphone and lighting situation themselves. Delivery becomes so much more than uncluttered slides, professional attire, reading the audience, and responding to the organizer’s cues.
So, help your speakers play around with their technical and physical setups. Have the practice session at the same time the person is going to be speaking or as close to the time of day as possible and in the same location/position they plan to present from so you can see the natural lighting conditions and curate the background. Where is the person going to sit? Where will the laptop/camera be placed? Do you need to raise or lower the camera to eye level (recommended)? Is there adequate lighting? How is the mic quality? More on this below.
In addition to individual practice, have a live dress rehearsal in the days before the event. Don’t just do a run through with your team and AV/production; try to get as many of your speakers as possible to participate. For one, a rehearsal helps curb anxieties all around. It also reveals any missed issues on the speakers’ end (ex. blocked ports) and gives everyone a sense of flow.
Craft the shot.
Don’t know much about webcam and lighting optimization? That’s fine. There are plenty of online resources and examples of do’s and don’ts you can share with your speakers. Some advice you might include:
- · Whether standing or sitting, the camera should be at eye level; try a stand or stack of books to elevate your laptop or webcam
- · Eye contact: When presenting, look directly at the camera (not at yourself)
- · Framing: Make sure there’s adequate headroom
- · Backdrop: Explore potential backgrounds. You might use a company branded one or position yourself in front of some aesthetically pleasing (not too loud or bold) art or plants. Wherever you are – at your desk in front of a bookcase in your home office, for example – organize/de-clutter the background to keep the focus on you. Remove any mirrors or reflective surfaces. It’s okay to let some of your personality shine through!
- · Lighting: Natural light is ideal so, if possible, position yourself facing a window (not behind you!). Use what’s around you: What lights do you have (desk, floor lamps, etc.)? Having one light in front of you and another to the side will create a fuller light profile. Try different things (ex. remove the lamp shade, move your laptop a few inches this or that way) and record yourself using Zoom or the actual recording software being used for the event to get the look ‘just right.’
- · Attire and body language: Wear distraction-free clothing and maintain good posture; slow down and don’t sway when you speak.
- · Distractions: Turn off all devices and apps (do not disturb mode is fine, too)
You may realize during this practice that the speaker would be better off pre-recording their presentation. That’s fine! For our event, we had speakers practice by recording a short video bio. This worked to introduce them to the tech and adjust their setup, while showing us which speakers were most comfortable giving a presentation through video.
Bad connections are a major source of annoyance for virtual attendees, so make sure your speakers have enough bandwidth. Let speakers know what counts as a reliable Internet connection (at least 10 megabits/second download speed and at least 5 Mbps of upload speed) and ask them to run a speed test. Rehearsing will help uncover those with poor-quality Internet, but you still may want every speaker (if possible) to have a backup device and hotspot ready in case of network issues. Give speakers enough time to upgrade their router if necessary; connecting via ethernet as opposed to Wi-Fi is another option.
Have some room in the budget?
Virtual isn’t going anywhere so it might not be a bad idea to invest in a few home studio kits you can use for multiple events. It’s a lot to ask speakers to upgrade their own tech, so consider purchasing plug-and-play equipment you can send to every speaker (and host), either on loan/rotation or as part of a gift bag. What to get (in order of importance):
- · Audio: Don’t rely on a built-in mic (especially for older PC laptops) if you don’t have to. There are relatively inexpensive USB mics like the Blue Snowball ($50) or the FIFINE T669 ($62) or even JOUNIVO JV603P ($18 on Amazon). Other brands to check out: Neat Microphones, HyperX, Audio-Technica, Shure, CAD Audio. Bonus: AirPods work better than most wireless headsets and allow speakers to feel untethered from the computer while presenting.
- · Lighting: An inexpensive ring light or LED kit can go a long way. Phillips Hue bulbs are great, of course, but can be expensive; Wyze bulbs are a cheaper option with basic color correction. Things to look out for: You want soft, bright and color-correcting. Specs-wise, look for a CRI score (color rendering index) as close to 100% as possible.
- · Video: Just type “best HD webcams for working from home” into Google and you’ll find a number of articles created since the start of the pandemic. One webcam on everyone’s list: The Logitech C920 HD Pro (under $100 on Amazon). Play with webcam settings, too!
Look for equipment that’s easy to set up, and don’t forget to ask your AV team for their recommendations.
Lastly, have a backup plan.
Even the best platform can succumb to technical difficulties when hundreds or thousands of people attempt to log in at once. Tell your speakers what to do in the event the platform goes down: How will you communicate with them if you can’t do so through the platform? How will they know when the issue is fixed? How will the agenda be impacted? Etc.
While attendees and sponsors may be eager for the return to face-to-face events, you’re going to find that many speakers prefer virtual and will price themselves accordingly. Luckily, it doesn’t take much – clear communication of best practices, adequate prep and a few key investments under $100 – to improve the quality of your virtual speakers.