The awkward thing about Zoom talks

I gave a one-hour talk to the Whidbey Weaver’s Guild on etextiles. I was excited, I was prepared, it was a good group of folks… so how’d it go?

Screenshot of Syne presenting on Zoom, with her weaving studio in the background. The faces of other participants have been blurred out for privacy.

I don’t know.

And that’s a problem.

It’d been a month since my last long-form Zoom presentation, and I forgot the most awkward part of moving from in-person to online for seminars. The near-total lack of feedback from the audience while talking.

Normally, when I give a talk, I have two threads running simultaneously in my head. One is giving the presentation. This one needs to be fairly automatic, which is why I do so much preparation and practice before hand. The other is tweaking the script and presentation performance based on cues from the audience.

That second thread is the real work, and the audience usually doesn’t even realize it’s happening, and yet it’s the most important part of being a good speaker. It’s being in the moment with a room full of people and giving them what they need from you, in real time. 

For me, it starts before I get behind the podium. If possible, I try to get there early, while the audience is settling in and just chat with folks, get to know them, why they’re at the talk, etc. Often they don’t even realize that I’m the speaker until I walk up to the front of the room. It’s a great way to warm up a room, make allies in the audience, and do some last-minute fine-tuning of your talk.

And then, as I’m talking, I have half my attention looking out at the audience, listening to their laughs, sighs, bored shuffling in their seats. Are they smiling, frowning, are they looking perplexed? This gives me the opportunity to speed up my talk, or slow it down, turn up my energy if folks are getting bored, slow down and repeat a difficult concept in different terms if people look confused, do a verbal call-back to a comment someone made before the meeting or in a question they asked to increase engagement.

If I feel I’m losing folks, sometimes I stop and ask for questions to reconnect with the audience. 

I spent a year as a high-school physics teacher, I’m not above picking a person from the audience and asking them the question directly. I do this rarely, as it can be intimidating. Mostly only if an audience swears they have no questions and yet several people look confused. It’s useful because it breaks down a barrier between audience and speaker, and once that barrier is down, folks who were holding back questions out of politeness or shyness are often encouraged to speak.

Public speaking is as much performance art as it is delivering information. And the audience is the reason that you never give the same talk the same way.

Except for Zoom…

My usual technique is to have some slides with minimal bullet points and interesting images. Then I stand in front of the slides and speak animatedly with hand gestures, riffing on what’s in the slides, interacting with the audience, etc. If you most of the time in my talk staring at the slides, I’m doing something wrong.

And yet, when I screen-share to present in Zoom, the slides take over the screen. If you can see me at all, I’m a tiny icon on the side of the screen.

Worse, I can’t look out at the audience and gauge how the talk is landing. With the currently accepted practice of having everyone on “mute” during a talk, I don’t even get laughs (or the absence of laughs) when I tell a joke. Both are useful information…

Questions, audience participation, can really enhance a talk. Over Zoom it’s more challenging. 

There three ways the audience can ask questions: typing in chat, using the raise-hand tool, or unmuting and just start talking. 

  • Chat’s a non-invasive way to ask a question. It’s a bit like being able to mind-read an audience as it can elicit questions that folks might be hesitant to ask aloud, it entices out introverts, and can even turn into a blow-by-blow commentary on your talk. It requires finesse on the speaker’s part to bounce back and forth between reading chat and talking without being too obvious about it. And depending on the chat volume, questions can scroll out of view before you see them.
  • The raise-hand tool attempts to replicate real-world hand raising, and can be effective. Especially if you build “any questions?” pauses into your talk. It helps if you have a moderator that can keep checking for the tiny blue hand icons though, cause they can be hard to spot while you’re talking.
  • Unmuting and talking is tricky because, unlike when you’re in a room, the audience member can’t see who else is giving non-verbal or gesticular signals that they’re about to talk: leaning forward in their chair, opening their mouth, etc. So you can have folks talking over each other, which is rude in many communication cultures (though not others, an interesting thing Eric and I have to negotiate because our families view cross-talk in different ways).

Which is a long way to say that during yesterday’s talk there were long segments where I could not tell at all how what I was saying was landing. It gave me an eerie feeling, like driving at night on a dark highway with the lights off. I did the thing you do in that circumstance, keep smiling, keep the energy up, and hope for the best. 🙂

Questions were the one salvation. And the in-person questions instead of chat were especially so. Which has me rethinking my whole Zoom strategy. 

I’m giving another talk on Sunday, to the Northwest Regional Spinners Association (chapter 2060) about using the scientific method in fiber arts. Instead of asking folks to hold questions until a given stopping point, I may more actively encourage questions. Including the blurting out method, and see how that goes. It’s a smaller group, I believe, so that just may work.

Or perhaps I’ll steal a presentation idea from the Writing the Other seminar I recently attended. They sparked some excellent questions and discussions by periodically stopping the talk and taking down the slides so everyone could see faces again. And then letting the awkward silence build until an audience member broke and asked a questions — which would then open the flood gates to a whole bunch more questions and some great discussions. One of the charming ways to diffuse the awkwardness of the awkward silence was that K.T.B, one of the presenters, would do a slightly (intentionally) awkward shimmy dance while waiting for questions.

You know, I’m going to try that. I really am. 

I’ll report back on how it goes.

11 thoughts on “The awkward thing about Zoom talks

  1. It helps to have a cohort to monitor the chat line and the technical details. They can let people into the zoom, give you the questions when you pause slightly or at a good spot when you would normally get question. They can also tell you if the screen or anything is off. I have seen this in presentations that I have attended and in ones I have given. Its quite challenging to do everything by yourself.

    • That is so true. It was also essential yesterday. My bandwidth became unstable. Because someone else was running my slides, I was able to turn off video and restore sound quality. It saved the presentation.

  2. It was awkward for me the first time. I got used to it pretty quickly. I realized that it only felt awkward to ME not being able to make eye contact with the audience and hear their reactions. I have taken the opportunity to be a part of the audience many times now and as an audience member it was anything but awkward. I could step away for a moment to get a snack, eat while watching, change my viewing spot to get more comfortable, pick up weights and do some bicep curls…all without disturbing the speaker or the rest of the audience. As the speaker you get used to it . As long as you have confidence in the material you are presenting, it all goes well. I already know which slides of indigenous textiles elicit gasps from an audience from having presented many times in person. I enjoy an inner smile when I show those particular slides via Zoom knowing that folks are most likely gasping but in the comfort of their homes. Zoom hasn’t given us a gasp emoji to play with!

    • That’s a great insight! I gave another presentation and kept this thought in mind.

      It’s also given me something to think about regarding things I deliver in asynchronous fashion, like books, comics, and blog posts. I never stopped to imagine “someone might be laughing at my joke, or having an ‘aha’ moment, _right now_.” It’s a happy thing to contemplate.

      Good to hear from you, hope you’re safe and finding some fun each day!

      • I am glad it was helpful in some way, Syne. One other thing I’d like to say is that I have been in the audience for a number of programs which were thoroughly engaging and enjoyable yet, at the end, I did not have a single question to ask…just a strong desire to applaud! (and I am not shy about asking questions in Zoom meetings). Sometimes the topic has been so well covered and presented that I haven’t felt the need to ask anything. Other times, there was so much information that was new and interesting to me that I needed time to process it all. The questions then come later when the meeting is over!. So, I have learned not to feel that something is amiss if questions don’t come when I finish speaking. I think it’s a nice idea to somehow make yourself available should folks come up with questions later. Because you have a Facebook presence and a blog, people should know where to find you.

        And, yes, all’s well here…thanks for asking and I am indeed finding plenty of time to play!

  3. I have done a couple of taped presentations with no audience feedback and all you can do is what you are doing – know your material and continue with the confidence that you can convey it well. My first ‘practice’ group Zoom is tomorrow – a chance for me to get more comfortable with the technology, but also for who ever wants to, to also get used to it. This is new to almost everyone and we will figure out ways to make it work. Some good suggestions here and I am taking notes. 🙂

    • It’s great to hear from you Laura! Yes, we’re all having to learn new skills around online presentations. And yet, it’ll give us more options in the future. Personally I’m loving being able to attend events and classes that I couldn’t afford to travel to.

      I appreciate you and the other teachers who’ve weighed in with presentation ideas and thoughts. In addition to the weaving community, it’s great to have a community of instructors!

      Also, I mentioned your books yesterday as part of my “learn efficient weaving” to spur innovation and experimentation. I’ve learned so much from your books and CDs (and generous online comments) over the years. Thank you!

  4. Having been at the Whidbey presentation, it is a bit out of our wheel house to talk physics. Design, yes! How to use it, see it, yes! Getting really it comes up. As an intro you can’t get into the weeds before being asked.
    For me the design portion was really fascinating . How one might step through a small project such a a dog collar or a incorporate it into a jacket from design to finish might have been more interesting. Only one person said they might be interested in doing a project. And that should be the goal. Then you get asked back to run a workshop.

    • Thank you for the feedback, and your perspective as a member of the audience. It’s helpful to hear how the talk landed.

Please share your thoughts: I enjoy your comments and feedback!