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How to keep your online audience focused and ignoring distractions

By Haritosh Srivastav, Toastmasters International 

We’ve all been in hundreds of web meetings over the last year or so, but the biggest issue remains. The issue of engaging and retaining the attention of everyone in your audience. 

According to a survey for Prezi conducted by Harris Poll, while attending an online presentation 28% of the audience sends text messages, 27% check their emails and 17% nod off. So, the big question is how you keep audience members involved and prevent them being distracted? 

Here are some quick tips to help you reinvigorate your online presentation and keep everyone focused on the content, not the pings from their mobile: 

 1. Add Storytelling

“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today” – Robert McKee

As humans we all crave a good story. And this applies to online presentations too. Whether it is a sales presentation, a keynote speech, or teaching students, a good story will always add to your presentation.  The best stories are personal first-hand experiences. As a rule of thumb, good storytelling should follow these five steps: 

An effective story does not have to be long. It could be as short as 30-seconds. But done effectively, it can build an instant connection and rapport with your audience. 

2. Use relevant video, audio & images

We all have seen those slides with 40 lines of text – and they aren’t engaging. The great advantage of an online presentation is that it gives us the ability to easily replace text with relevant video, audio, or images. You can show a recording of an event, an illustrative picture, or play a portion of a relevant podcast. 

Here are a few useful sites that provide copyright free images and videos: 

3. Engage in Fun Games

Nothing engages your audience more than a fun game. And once again, online presentations make this easy. You can do a live audience poll or a fastest finger first or beautiful word cloud in a matter of minutes. Being fun and easy, such activity stimulates the brain enough to keep attendees from getting distracted.  

Here are few sites I personally love to use: 

4. Make use of chat

Chat features have been around a while but are probably one of the least used tools for effectively engaging your audience. It doesn’t require any set-up and is always effective at keeping an audience engaged. Not everyone likes to speak up or interrupt during a presentation and chat can really help the presenter engage with those quieter people. 

Here are some ways you can use chat feature: 

  • Do a quick dipstick survey of audience, e.g., “Please mention in chat where you are joining us from today”.
  • Ask audience about their point of view on the matter, e.g., “Do you think we should go to the next section or discuss this matter a little more?”.
  • During pauses or breakouts you can have a personal conversation with a participant and address an issue they are struggling with, without having to distract others.

A note of caution here. As a presenter or moderator, you need to keep tabs on what is being discussed or chat can have the opposite effect and actually become a distraction.  If that happens, be sure to bring the conversation back to the matter presented or restrict the chat to ‘host-everyone’ only. Most of the major online platforms have a mechanism to do that. 

5. Engage Humour

“Laughter connects you with people. It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you’re just howling with laughter. Laughter is a force for democracy” – John Cleese

We all miss those times when we used to get together in a conference room or at a convention and had a good laugh together. While online presentation does make it difficult to have those in-person laughs, there is always a place for inserting a pinch of humour to make your presentation lively. Done right, it can enhance your presentation and increase your audience retention. 

Here are a few ways you can use humour in your online presentation.  

  • . Taking yourself lightly can allow your audience to connect and relate to you. But, do not ruin your credibility by making fun of your expertise etc.
  • . Adding a funny meme or relevant joke can lighten the mood. It can be a personal picture or something you found funny online. For example, sometimes I will add a Dilbert cartoon between slides to inject some fun. Remember to respect the copyright licensing and privacy on any material taken from internet. 
  • . We have all been to presentations where there were technical issues like your PowerPoint not opening, no sound, etc. Those may be a perfect place to insert a funny line: “I have always had relationship issues with PowerPoint, I think we need to see a counsellor.” This can help to break the tension and allow you to relax while the issue is being resolved.
  •  This one might require a bit of practice, but you giving a funny anecdote or sharing a personal experience as part of your presentation can help to draw the audience to you. 

As a side note, never make fun of your audience. It can lead to awkward conversations and even ruin your reputation. 

6. Use Advanced Features

As the technology evolves, new features are always being added. Therefore, as a presenter, it’s important to check you are using the best possible features for your presentation and your audience. 

A few options to explore include: 

  1. . It can help make you look more professional by concealing all the clutter in the background and it helps act as a form of privacy if you are presenting from your own home. It can also be used creatively, for example, use the background instead of one of the slides. 
  2. Having breakout rooms allows you to increase audience interaction. For example, give each breakout room a different challenge to brainstorm. Once the agreed time is over, a representative from each room presents them to all audience.
  3. . Many of the virtual platforms allow you to broadcast direct to YouTube, Facebook etc. and it can be an interesting way to reach audiences you might not normally connect with.  

And always remember

We all have heard the phrase – ‘Practice makes a man perfect.’  And it is true; there is no better way to improve your online presentation skills than to practice, get feedback, tweak, and practice again.  Ask family, friends, and colleagues or in public speaking clubs like Toastmasters to give you feedback and suggest improvements. Once you get feedback, do a critical analysis of what makes sense and then tweak your presentation. Make sure to get as much feedback as possible.

By using these tips, as you get ready for your online presentations, you will find your future audiences are engaged, able to retain information and contribute.  And, importantly, potential distractions will be ignored.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Haritosh Srivastav is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org