Do You Know The Differences Between Presenting Online and Presenting Face-to-Face?

Posted by Belinda Huckle  |  On July 28, 2020  |  In Presentation Training, Tips & Advice

Are there important distinctions between presenting online and presenting face-to-face, in person, in the same room as your audience?

We’ve done a lot of thinking about this recently as we are coaching business presenting far more online currently, than face-to-face, and the answer to us seems to be that there are many differences between the two, but they are mostly ones of which we are not even conscious!

However, when we do become conscious of the differences between presenting online and presenting face-to-face, we believe it really helps us get to grips with presenting online more fluently, confidently and persuasively. Which, of course, most of us are now having to do much more regularly than we did.

So, we hope our 10 thoughts that follow might be useful in helping you become a better, more engaging, online presenter.

Business woman on laptop presenting online

1. We don’t know how much we’re missing when presenting online

In his book, “Strangers to Ourselves”, Timothy Wilson notes that the brain can absorb about 11 million pieces of information a second! But it only consciously processes about 40 of these. Leaving our ‘unconscious’ brain to handle the rest. 

In a business presentation situation this means our brains are harvesting thousands of subtle, ‘hidden’ signals from and about the presenter, which we unconsciously use to form general impressions about them, such as, “She’s confident” or “He’s arrogant.” 

Most of these imperceptible signals, unconsciously processed during face-to-face encounters, e.g the presenter’s body language, are lost online – and so are unavailable to us to make many of those general impressions! (as an aside, there’s a good comparison here to tone of voice often being lost in email communication). So, if we are presenting online, and we acknowledge our audiences don’t have this ‘information’ about us (which we can’t do anything about, so it’s out of our control) it means we should be prepared to over-deliver on the conscious signals – the aspects we can control – so that we come across positively, and are as convincing and persuasive as possible. Maximise the tangible! 

One of the most tangible tools we have to make an impression is our voice. When presenting online we recommend increasing our effort to sound W.I.S.E – Warm. Interested. Sincere. Enthusiastic/Empathetic – by embracing the following tips:

  • Project volume – to convey energy & confidence
  • Dial down speed – so you don’t lose the audience 
  • Dial up enunciation – so you’re clear and punchy 
  • Remove fillers & verbal clutter – so you don’t irritate your listeners 
  • Add strong/longer pauses – to elevate clarity & gravitas
  • Strengthen light & shade – to engage/maintain attention 
  • Smile and show some personality! – to build rapport

2. Sharing is caring, presenting online

Being in a boardroom presenting to an audience can be daunting. You may feel exposed, too much in the limelight. Everyone has their focus on you. They’re paying you their attention. But, you are still WITH your audience, physically, in the same room. Sharing the same space. Sharing the same room conditions: atmosphere, lighting, temperature, people’s presence, the weather outside the window, the room’s acoustics, background noise, the fire alarm going off, building work, distractions, interruptions etc, etc. So you have many, many things in common with your audience. Normally, you’d never even pay these a second thought, but they are nonetheless important in helping to create a shared and connected experience.

On screen, you’re on your own! But this might be good. You may feel more in control. Less self-conscious. However, presenting online via your computer screen, from your home office or your workplace, to an online audience means you are physically apart. You are not sharing the same space. It is less a totally shared experience. You are alone, by yourself. And so, generally, is each member of your audience (more of this later in point seven). As an online presenter this means you need to be more aware of your audience and their differing environments. What are they having to manage/cope with in their environment and what challenges/distractions might they have? It is now part of your job to try and make them feel they are ‘with you’ and also to give them the impression that you are ‘with them’.

Key amongst the tips for achieving this is good camera technique. Try predominantly to look into your webcam and not at your audiences’ thumbnail images on your screen. This dramatically changes the connection you can create with your audience. It’s eye contact for online presenting! (more on this later in point 10).

3. When did you last buy something from someone you didn’t like?

Man on laptop presenting online

Think back to when you have ‘met’ someone new online. Did you instantly know whether you liked them or not? We think you’d probably say no.

But in person, knowing if you like someone comes almost instantly. And it’s virtually impossible not to make that immediate judgement (mostly because of the multiple millisecond unconscious impressions we form, as we mentioned earlier in point one).

And here’s the rub! One of Robert Cialdini’s “Six principles of persuasion” suggests we’re more easily persuaded by people we like. So, knowing whether we like someone or not, and/or convincing people to like us, is quite important in business. And, when we ‘meet’ online, this isn’t instant, it seems to take time. To like someone online feels much more of a conscious decision – perhaps precisely because there are fewer unconscious signals generated via an online situation (like we’ve said already).

As a presenter, here are three things that can help us become more instantly likeable presenting online:

  1. Connect through the camera (as we mentioned above)
  2. Dial up our smile to build non-verbal rapport (and so that you’re ‘in the mood’ begin smiling even before you’re on camera)
  3. Use people’s names (as Dale Carnegie said “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”)

4. Make the technology work – for us and them

Technology – it’s a facilitator and, sometimes, an aggravator for us all! Presenter and audience alike.

Of course, without technology we wouldn’t have ‘online’ at all, so whether we like it or not, we all need to try and master at least some key elements of it, to make it work optimally for us. As an online presenter if technology prevents our audience from ‘seeing us in our best light’, even if it is not ‘our fault’, it will paint a poor impression of us.

So, we need to be in control and manage it to maximise the positives. If we can address some, or ideally all, of these moving parts this will deliver a smoother online experience, and ultimately a better presentation:

  • Unstable or low-speed internet (stability of the connection and then the speed of connection are paramount and can even, if poor, convey an unprofessional impression of the presenter)
  • A poor webcam giving low quality images (compounds the above)
  • Bad lighting casting a shadow over our face (as a presenter, if you can’t be clearly seen you’re immediately at a disadvantage)
  • Poor quality or weak sound from inbuilt microphones/speakers (not being able to hear you presenting is equally as bad as not being able to see you presenting!)
  • Using a laptop that is not at the right height (this is a cardinal sin – don’t dip your head down, lift your laptop up – you need your webcam at eye-level)
  • A small screen makes things small! This is true both if we are in the audience, or even presenting, say, to a larger group (a bigger, higher-res screen is always better)

Ideally, the tech should ‘disappear into the background’. And most, if not all, tech issues have solutions or workarounds. So, search online for help, ask a friend, get expert advice or seek professional support from your IT dept. if tech is not your bag. Get the tech right and you improve the online presentation experience!

5. Authority…figures!

Another of Cialdini’s “Six principles of persuasion” suggests we tend to obey authority figures. 

Authority is far more difficult to communicate online than when we are in each other’s physical presence. In a way technology is a leveller of people. As an online presenter we are not ‘at the front of the room’ or ‘on the stage’, we are just another image on screen, like every member of our audience (the only authority ‘signal’ we really have as the presenter is that we are larger in ‘speaker view’). So, the online experience makes it harder to distinguish ‘the authority in the room’ (and not exclusively because we are all actually in different rooms!).

Again, camera position and good lighting will certainly elevate your online professionalism. In addition, pausing with intent is a great tool to use to help convey authority online (and in person), as essentially you are obliging people to wait and ‘hang on your every word’.

6. ‘Meet’ your audience to persuade them

Young man on laptop presenting online

If you think about it, we all intuitively understand that being face-to-face with someone is naturally going to be more persuasive. I am sure we can all think of some occasions when, if we have really wanted to persuade someone, we have gone to see them. We just know we can put our point across, and persuade them more effectively, seeing them face-to-face. Doing it over the phone comes a poor second. And, sending an email behind that.

So, it’s safe to suggest most of us believe persuasion might be more difficult when presenting online. But an online video meeting is likely to enable us to be more persuasive than email, and even more so than a phone call. So, take every opportunity you can to make an impact and make your online meetings and presentations matter – for you and your audience.

7. Presenting online, your audience has become your audiences

Being in an online audience means we are only a ‘remote’ and ‘detached’ individual member of the audience – there is no (or almost no) social, or common, aspect of being part of the audience.

From the presenter’s point of view, presenting to an online audience is effectively presenting to multiple audiences of one so we have to present to, and persuade, each individual rather than the single entity of ‘the room’.

From the audience’s point of view, they find it more difficult to sense what others are feeling about the presentation. There is no ‘group mood’. This can feel uncomfortable, even bewildering, for some.

So, online presentations are a challenge for each side. As a presenter we can help to create a sense of ‘group’ or ‘team’ by including lots of audience involvement, either passive or participative. Make things interactive where possible! This will generate a shared energy, enabling each person in the audience to feel an active part of the whole, rather than a passive element on their own.

8. Audience reciprocation

Another of Cialdini’s “Six principles of persuasion”, Reciprocation, can lead us to the conclusion that if a presenter has seemingly made a significant effort to prepare and deliver a good presentation the audience will reciprocate this ‘effort’ by carefully listening to the presenter and considering what he/she says.

But, presenting online seems quite different. It often appears more spontaneous and so less formal and less onerous (or less effort-full) than face-to-face presenting. It might not seem/appear to be as big a deal as we meant it to be! As a result, the audience may give the presentation less attention and due consideration.

To help overcome this, we recommend that online presenters provide some context for the audience so they understand & appreciate the significance of what is about to be shared.

9. Help your audience pay less attention when you’re presenting online

Man making notes while on laptop presenting online

Normal online screen watching behaviour doesn’t require us to stare at one spot on the screen. We may not really be conscious of this, but when we are working at our laptop browsing the web, doing emails, writing a document, creating slides, filling in a spreadsheet, or even watching a video, we are looking all over our screen. Our eyes, and our head, are moving.

But, watching and listening to a presenter online requires us to stare at their onscreen image, quite rigidly, moving our eyes, or our head, very little. This is very tiring for our brain and our eyes. So, our attention naturally wanes and our eyes drift to other parts of the screen (sometimes to other screens!), and indeed off screen to other things around our room environment. Our attention/concentration span is shorter when we’re watching and listening to a presenter on screen. When our eyes wander, our mind wanders too! 

So, when we are presenting online we have to prepare for this and help out our audiences so we can prevent it happening – give shorter presentations, and do things which help the audience to stop staring for long periods, for instance:

  • Vary what’s on screen – you presenting full screen, using slideware, or cleverly combining the two (check out our Prezi Video explainer)
  • Make slides more graphic – so the audience has to move their eyes around the slide
  • Include another medium- e.g. elements the audience has to print out and so look down to see 
  • Include audience interaction – so that people are drawn to looking at others on the call
  • Schedule in a break – if it is a longer meeting or presentation make room for one or more short or mini-breaks at appropriate times.

10. Work the camera when presenting online

This may be the most obvious, or not, depending upon your point of view!

Actually presenting online means we are presenting to a camera, just like, for example, a TV newsreader. It’s a completely different skill to presenting to an audience in person, in the same room (when we talk to an audience face-to-face we are both presenting to their face and watching their face at the same time – we can’t do this online…yet). So, we must make our camera our audience. Yes, really!

It might feel strange to begin with, but to develop as online presenters it’s important to overcome the awkwardness of doing it (practise makes perfect!). We must try our hardest to stop continually looking at the faces of our audience on our screen – because, in effect, we are not looking at them, and so we’re making no eye contact!. Instead, we should be looking at them through the camera. It may be uncomfortable for us to start with, but be in no doubt it will elevate us as a presenter because by doing so they will see us looking directly at them (and the bonus is, if we have more than one person in the audience, we are looking at everyone at once!). By all means check in on their reactions (their faces) every now and again, but present to the camera.

If you don’t believe how much of a difference this makes, try this little test. Turn your webcam on. And while looking at the image of your face on screen, take a screenshot. Save it on your desktop. Now, look directly at your webcam. And while doing so, take another screenshot. Save it on your desktop again. Then go and compare the two. See the difference!!? 😊

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Belinda Huckle

Written By Belinda Huckle

Co-Founder & Managing Director

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Belinda is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of SecondNature International. With a determination to drive a paradigm shift in the delivery of presentation skills training both In-Person and Online, she is a strong advocate of a more personal and sustainable presentation skills training methodology.

Belinda believes that people don’t have to change who they are to be the presenter they want to be. So she developed a coaching approach that harnesses people’s unique personality to build their own authentic presentation style and personal brand.

She has helped to transform the presentation skills of people around the world in an A-Z of organisations including Amazon, BBC, Brother, BT, CocaCola, DHL, EE, ESRI, IpsosMORI, Heineken, MARS Inc., Moody’s, Moonpig, Nationwide, Pfizer, Publicis Groupe, Roche, Savills, Triumph and Walmart – to name just a few.

A total commitment to quality, service, your people and you.