face-to-face vs facelessness (or how to avoid the void)

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Hello and welcome to our ongoing series on “things to remember when presenting online”.

Last week’s post (about getting technicalities right) ended with the possibility of having to turn off your video while making an online presentation, and the fear of talking into an unreceptive void.

In this “real-room vs zoom-room” scenario the crux is really “face-to-face vs facelessness”. It is a proven fact that the human face is the most engaging of communication devices and the most crucial of business tools.[1]

To quote from Rachael E. Jack and Philippe G. Schyns’s The Human Face as a Dynamic Tool for Social Communication – “As discussed in behavioral ethology, psychology and engineering, communication is the act of information transfer, in which one individual sends information that modulates the behavior of another, thereby reducing uncertainty”

When you switch off your video as the presenter, the “act of information transfer” loses one of its most vital aspects – the expressiveness of your face, and as a result, the entire burden of transmitting information, modulating behaviour and reducing uncertainty falls on your voice.

Is that cause for panic?

We believe not (as much as you imagine!)…

There are a few simple things you can do to make it easier on your audience to stay with you – despite losing the comfort and contact of seeing your face via live video:

  1. Keep a slide handy with a photo of you. Choose the photo well: it should convey the right expression – not too formal nor too casual, a close-up shot that captures your personality best – so that even with your video off, the audience can see you on screen and feel that they are connected.
  2. Enhance your vocal presentation skills. Which simply means, treat yourself as if you were a voice-over artist by practising, recording yourself on your phone, replaying and understanding what your flaws and strengthens are on the vocal front. If you speak too fast, slow down. If you tend to have too many filler sounds like ‘um’ and ‘er’ those will be magnified online and come across as uncertainty and doubt – and create a negative impact on the audience that is listening to you. If they could see you, they would get other cues that conveyed you were “thinking aloud” rather than “fumbling for words” – so do take the trouble to hone this aspect of your articulation.
  3. Train your voice to carry the right emotions. As Professor Paul O’Higgins, from the University of York, points out: “We can now use our faces to signal more than 20 different categories of emotion via the contraction or relaxation of muscles.” With video off, you need to think about what emotions you can bring into your voice. Conviction, urgency, persuasiveness, believability, honesty – all of this will count.
  4. Make it interactive. In a real-room presentation, it’s fine to have your entire presentation play out over the allotted time of 20-25 minutes and take questions only at the end. However, online, with the video off – there’s a very real danger of losing your audience as they drift off, to check their emails, read their texts, answer the doorbell – any number of distractions. If you state at the outset that you will be having some fun quizzes, or snap polls as you go along, you have a better chance of gauging whether your audience is with you. Encourage your audience to send in comments on the chat, and pick those up for discussion using the handy white-board facility.
  5. Prepare extra material. This follows from the previous point. It involves doing a bit more work, but it’s worth it. Create a bank of material for interaction: which could include brain-teasers, quotations, extracts from relevant literature, even videos that can be shared.
  6. Have a presentation buddy. This can be hugely helpful. So that even while you are the one verbally walking the audience through the presentation, you have a “helper” who can aid you by sharing his or her own screen while you speak, and also manage the white-board. This takes the burden of anxiety off you so you can focus on conveying your points clearly, and keep your mind free and focused on the vibe in the zoom-room.

And that’s the point we’d like to conclude this post with – even a virtual meeting room with video-off can have a “vibe”!

You can sense it, even if you can’t see your audience, or hear them. If there is a blank silence, you will know it. The more comments and questions that you encourage via chat, the more scope for white-board discussions where you can visualize key points raised, and your own responses. You can save the chat for future reference and way forward. You can make the entire meeting personal by acknowledging the people who participate by name, and thanking them individually. And finally, at the end before you part ways, you can say goodbye with a smile in your voice.

In other words – all the usual “tricks” of a real-room can help prevent the zoom-room from becoming a tomb-room!

PS. Speaking of slides, experts say that online presentations need MORE slides than offline ones – simply because in real-space you would be filling in the gaps with your on-site explanations… With your video off, and only your voice on, you need to ensure your slides are even more dynamic and impactful than ever to avoid seeming remote. More on this – next week!


[1] See Rachael E. Jack and Philippe G. Schyns’s The Human Face as a Dynamic Tool for Social Communication to understand this in greater depth:  “One of the richest and most powerful tools in social communication is the face […] With the advent of the digital economy, increasing globalization and cultural integration, understanding precisely which face information supports social communication and which produces misunderstanding is central to the evolving needs of modern society (for example, in the design of socially interactive digital avatars and companion robots). Doing so is challenging, however, because the face can be thought of as comprising a high-dimensional, dynamic information space, and this impacts cognitive science and neuroimaging, and their broader applications in the digital economy”