August 30, 2012

How virtual presentations can help your live presentations

I learned how to use a teleprompter yesterday. It was easier than I thought it would be in some ways; in other ways, it was harder. The easy part was following the words and not getting behind. The teleprompter operator was masterful at follow my speaking rate, so that I could just do what I do naturally and he kept up.

The hard part? Keeping the warmth and connection in my presentation while my eyes were forced to remain in constant contact with the written words!

My preferred presentation format is always live. The more people in the audience, the better. I love the interaction, the energy, the connection.

But as speakers, we can't always have a live audience. Sometimes we're creating video, podcasts and webinars, all forms of media that lack a visual connection to an audience. It's important to get practice in all of these, as the skills you develop when speaking without an audience can enhance skills you already have for speaking to a live audience.

When speaking to a video camera, I can imagine that I'm speaking to one person. I don't have the distraction of reading at the same time. Whether speaking conversationally or reciting a memorized script, it's easy (for me) to imagine that one-on-one connection.

However, add in the distraction of reading words while attempting to sound and look relaxed, natural and conversational, and it's a whole new ball game. It wasn't at all like reading from a piece of paper and looking up at the audience from time to time. My entire focus had to be on the screen with the words, as though that screen held the faces of my audience. And those words were written by me, in my own voice. I can only imagine how much harder it would have been if the script had been written by someone else.

Most of the time, I felt like I was on a roll and really feeling the words and the connection with my imaginary audience. But a few times I started feeling disconnected, almost like I was floating outside my body. I could hear myself saying the words, but had lost the feeling behind them. I had to refocus several times, bringing my body and mind back together; the intense level of focus necessary really surprised me.

The best way I can describe it is that it reminds me of going to Mexico, and even though I've always been fairly comfortable speaking Spanish, finding myself at a whole new level of communication. The amount of concentration required for speaking and listening to Spanish all day every day was exhausting! It used parts of my brain that I'm positive had never been activated.

I'm sure the more familiar I get with using a teleprompter, the easier it will be, much like how my communication skills in Spanish became much more fluid over the week I was in Mexico. But it was a much more complex activity than I had anticipated. It was the ultimate in multitasking.

So how can the process of creating video, podcasts and webinars help you with your live audience skills?

1. Voice

Speaking into a microphone requires an extra level of vocal variety. Especially in an audio recording where your audience only has your voice to guide them, without facial expressions, gestures or movement, you have to step up the color in your voice to keep them engaged.

Practicing your vocal variety in this setting can translate into more interesting vocal variety in your live presentations.

2. Energy

When you aren't seeing your audience, you can feel disconnected and a little lonely. Without the audience's facial expressions and body language to feed off of, it can be hard to come up with the necessary energy to keep the virtual audience engaged. This is where you have to dig down and find it within yourself to create the energy you need to keep the audience connection alive -- even when you can't feel that connection.

Next time you find yourself with a low-energy or early-morning audience, you'll have a greater ability to dig into yourself to find the energy you need to fuel your presentation while your audience gets warmed up.

3. Focus

There's a level of focus required when you're speaking to a mic or video camera that is different than when you're with an audience.

Your audience helps direct the presentation; their smiles and interaction, questions and body language help shape the way you deliver your message from the stage. It's a natural form of interaction that can be almost effortless with practice and experience. You just don't have to try as hard to stay focused and keep your attention with them, because you are in the moment, and in the same room.

Without the live audience, your focus must remain tightly fixed to your content, your delivery, and most importantly, your intention. The emotions you want to bring to the presentation, the gestures, the facial expressions, the tone of voice -- all of these things must be consciously and actively engaged. There is no one to give you feedback in the moment. You must make constant adjustments based only on your own perception of your performance.

This kind of focus can be very helpful in live presentations, when you've gained the ability to concentrate on what you're doing and saying at the same time as reading the audience and moving in the appropriate next direction -- without even consciously thinking about it.

Getting out of your comfort zone, as I've said before, can be scary and tiring. But it's critical to stretching and growing as a speaker. I highly recommend working with a professional videographer and learning to use a teleprompter. It can only make you better in front of a live audience!

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