Read our new manifesto

How to give memorable presentations at virtual business events

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

Suffering 'death by PowerPoint' is as boring as listening to Coldplay. And that is even more true when hearing virtual presentations. So, it is critical for speakers to keep audiences engaged over remote talks during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

This month, the fall business event season will begin with virtual marketing conferences such as the DMWF World Forum, Marketing Festival in Prague and Effie UK Leadership Summit. Agency executives and brand marketers making the rounds should learn online speaking’s best practices because they are different from presenting in the physical world.

In this column, I offer my insights and then interview fellow professional keynote speakers and other experts on how to present virtually. So, grab a glass of rosé and take a seat. We’ll have an online toast while you read.

Always deliver an emotional experience

First, a general rule. People do not attend events solely to learn information – they can do that by reading papers or watching videos at home for free. People go to conferences to network and have emotional experiences. (That is why I predict that business events will return to normal once the pandemic is over. The desire for in-person connections will always exist.)

When I first started to speak professionally, I experimented with different tones and styles. Personally, I found what works best by studying some of the best rock concert performances and then emulating what elicits the greatest emotional responses from the audiences.

Starting in the late 1980s, the Pixies alt-rock band made songs that often followed the formula of 'quiet-LOUD-quiet'. A soft and engaging introductory verse primes listeners and “sucks them in” before exploding into a hard chorus. The pattern repeats. Just see this 2014 performance of the song Gouge Away. The song first explodes at 2:16.

The Pixies greatly influenced Nirvana. But the general quiet-LOUD-quiet approach can be seen in the live performances of others as well. Evanescence did the same in 2004 with Bring Me to Life – the first LOUD part is at 2:03. See Styx during this 1996 performance of Come Sail Away at 2:12.

The best business presentations are just different types of public performances.

“Human states do not change like the flip of a switch – they build. We don’t flip from build to excited – the excitement builds. The music matches the pace at which people’s state transitions,” Daryll Scott, director of human technology at the London-based neuromarketing agency LAB, told me.

“The most inspirational of speeches follow the same format. They begin gently with storytelling to connect with the audience before delivering the key message. [Presenters should] meet the audience where they are, and build their enthusiasm for your message.”

How to engage audiences at live events

In 2015, I gave a talk on publicity tactics at BrightonSEO in England. I walked on stage and then slowly looked around silently at the thousands of attendees for dramatic effect. Then, I told a soft, simple and emotional story about a pizza place owner in Philadelphia.

Long story short. He encouraged people to buy slices in advance for homeless or hungry people in need. Each slice would become a post-it note on the wall. Anyone could enter, take notes off the wall, and get the food. No questions asked. That was the quiet part.

Then, the LOUD part. I show how that act resulted in major local and national press attention and that – for the purposes of the BrightonSEO attendees – also created many of the natural, authoritative backlinks that Google likes for SEO purposes.

In 2019, my media planning keynote began with a splice of the 1980s Bananarama music video for Venus and a 1990s ad for Gillette’s Venus brand that used the song. That was the quiet part.

Then, the LOUD part came when I walked on stage, made a joke that referenced the campaign to get everyone laughing, and then explained how that advertisement informs marcom today. I ended on a quiet note by walking off stage and then playing Gillette’s modern Venus ad campaign, which is inspirational for many women today.

This year, my recorded, virtual keynote on true brand purpose starts with a quiet play of an inspirational promotion for the Fearless Girl statue. Then, the LOUD part comes when I criticise State Street Bank for reportedly discriminating against female employees while being the sponsor of the display.

The talk goes back and forth between quiet and LOUD by playing 'brand purpose' ads and then explaining how those specific companies are being hypocritical. And then, the biggest LOUD part comes when I explain what companies can actually do to help the world.

“The art of successful communication, be that through music or words, is storytelling,” Aoife McGuinness, neuroscience consultant at the HeyHuman communications agency in London, told me. “Stories have the power to absorb an audience and take them on a neurochemical journey from the cortisol released during the building of tension [to the] the dopamine released from the resolution of conflict [to the] oxytocin released from the human connection.”

The pros and cons of virtual talks and presentations

But what do these ideas mean in the coronavirus environment of today? Business events have obviously needed to adapt in the short-term even though the long-term marketing changes after the pandemic will likely be negligible. But there is still original, added value in virtual speeches themselves. The medium itself can help the message.

On stage, speakers have only themselves and whatever media they include in their passive, one-to-many presentations. However, virtual talks allow for more audience engagement than just the standard Q&A sessions at the end of traditional events.

“The challenge for online events is to develop the community that in-person events naturally create,” marketing author and speaker David Meerman Scott (no relation) told me. He cited the performance and Q&A with musical group Black Violin during Skillsoft Perspectives 2020 in May as an example.

“Through the native tools built into virtual event platforms, attendees can chat with one another, live, as a speaker is presenting. After a talk, virtual meeting rooms help people who share common goals to collaborate based on the information they just learned. The interactive tools of presenting virtually have the power to bring an audience together in ways that being in a big room cannot.”

Over the past few months, digital futurist Brian Fanzo has been writing and podcasting on the best practices for virtual speakers.

“When you are able to strip away the mechanics of an offline presentation and focus on the core values, goals and vision of a talk and structure it for virtual, you are able to discover endless opportunities that wouldn’t normally work offline,” he told me.

“These things include answering questions throughout a talk, integrating live guests or surprise influencers for 3-5 minutes worth of insights, being able to use real-time polling to shift the direction of your content, providing actionable links the audience can open on separate tables, [and having the] ability to mute the audience while also being able to use overlays, 360-degree images and broadcast-style format instead of slides.”

Still, the main disadvantage for presenters is that it is extremely difficult to “read the room” when the room is virtual.

“When I’m moderating a panel, it’s harder to get the panelists to really respond to each other and feel conversational. And it’s hard to get a sense of the audience and what they’re interested in,” CNBC senior media correspondent Julia Boorstin, who is based in Los Angeles, told me.

“With a great panel, you could feel the audience lean in and see how the energy shifted after an insightful or funny moment. I think people have adapted, but it’s different. With anchoring, which I’ve been doing for [the tech news program] Squawk Alley, I really miss the ability to communicate with co-anchors off camera with little hand signals or body language. It’s fun to get to interact with my colleagues remotely, but it’s not the same!”

How to transition to speaking virtually

For those who are new to presenting at virtual events, Fanzo has developed a formula that he calls the '4 Es'.

Create an Environment in your studio or home office and within any given virtual platform with which you are comfortable. Educate the organizers and audiences before and after events so that everyone is clear on the expectations and what the speaker will do. Think first about what Emotions you want the presentation to invoke and then decide how to leverage technology to do that. Have Empathy for the organisers and attendees so that you can pivot as needed either between or during events.

“Don’t try to repurpose your offline presentation virtually, as it will fail 99% of the time,” he said. “Rather, strip out the mechanics of the offline talk and identify the key insights, stories and takeaways and ask yourself ‘How can I reinvent how this information is presented using the 360 degrees of virtual possibilities?’ If you tell a story offline, maybe create an animated video to include in your talk to deliver that element.”

Meerman Scott added: “Don't think of it as a theatrical performance like an in-person speech. Think of it as interactive cinema. It's all about audience interaction.”

How to create a home office virtual studio

In marketing, one common question is what to keep in-house and what to outsource to agencies. That dilemma is also relevant to virtual presenting because speakers face the choice of creating home studios or hiring production companies.

Creating a virtual setup is time-consuming and comes with a one-time sunk cost that can be expensive. Getting a professional producer saves time but requires a payment for every speech. Personally, I hire The Hive Studio here in Tel Aviv for my virtual speeches because they take care of everything from the background to the cameras to the boom microphone overhead to my makeup to any post-production editing. I just show up and talk.

But for those who want to set up a virtual in-home studio, Michael Balyasny, chief executive of event tech company Attendify, has some recommendations at MeetingsNet for AV products that are not too expensive.

Boorstin also has some practical advice. (See her recent interview with Vanessa Pappas, the new interim head of TikTok, for an example of her studio.)

“I was suffering from terrible back and wrist pain, so I got a proper office chair and elevated my laptop with a stack of books,” she said. “My Padcaster camera, which is a souped-up iPad, is elevated so no one has to look up my nose.”

“On an even bigger stack of books, I elevate my iPad, which livestreams what’s airing on CNBC in real-time so I can see what’s happening without looking away from the camera. I try to turn on as many lamps as possible to make sure I’m not blasted with light from above – a couple lamps at eye level can be a game changer.”

One of Boorstin's most important recommendations: lock the door to prevent any children from entering the room, and kick all pets out in advance. (I concur. During a recent virtual home recording for an event for The Drum, one of my cats kept trying to attack my laptop.)

How to engage virtual audiences

No matter how interesting the material or how famous the person, the worst thing an in-person speaker can do is to stand behind a podium and read from notes.

The emotional responses that people want from presentations largely come from the physical aspect of speaking. Walking around a stage and making eye contact with different sections of the audience. Knowing how the right gesture or facial expression at the right time can deliver a point or land a joke. (These are things that I practice relentlessly while rehearsing at home before travelling to events.)

However, virtual events eliminate the physical movement – and that is partly why it is so difficult to keep listeners engaged. People are just talking heads on screens. (And not the cool David Byrne kind.)

“The big problem is that most virtual event speakers who simply try to recreate the stage experience in a physical event don’t have experience with virtual audience interaction,” Meerman Scott said. “They miss ways to use the online tools to develop interaction between people in real time.”

One thing Meerman Scott does during his talks on the use of fandom in marketing is ask people to type something they like into the chat feature. As people’s fandoms scroll across the screen, he reads some out loud to get the audience involved from the beginning. Other interactive tools include real-time polling, Q&A and breakout rooms for discussion afterwards.

“I think it’s valuable to acknowledge the weirdness of the fact that we’re all at home. If there’s a noise or interruption – better to acknowledge it rather than ignore it,” Boorstin added.

“I’m getting more comfortable joking about the challenges and opportunities of this time, and I think that can help liven up the screen time. And while this is always true, I think it’s particularly important to be hyper-focused on what people are saying, so questions can directly follow up rather than sounding rote.”

The beginning and the end are the most important

The other Pixies song formula – the inverse LOUD-quiet-LOUD that was the name of a documentary on the band – might be better for virtual talks today.

According to Dr Thomas Zoega Ramsoy, founder and chief executive of the consumer neuroscience company Neurons in Denmark, the beginning and the end are the most important parts of presentations.

“If you look at the audience attention, comprehension and memory, the pattern is high-low-high,” he told me. ”We tend to be more focused at the beginning and the end, but less in the middle. We also remember less from the middle.”

After all, people sometimes drop out of virtual presentations in the middle and return later.

“So, one learning from concerts could be that we could compensate by boosting the middle of the talk to also boost attention and memory,” Ramsoy added. “That would be a good way to take inspiration from concert patterns and neuroscience.”

“Boosting the middle of the talk” is easier during virtual events with the numerous online tools that speakers can use to keep audiences engaged. But whether you are presenting live or from a home studio, I would still not take inspiration from Coldplay.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive column for The Drum contributed by global keynote and virtual corporate speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis