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?
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.