Advice for Returning to In-Person Presenting

September 2022
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Remember what a shock it was two-and-a-half years ago to be thrown into the world of virtual presenting? It was definitely an adjustment for me, and I’ve been doing virtual for over a decade.

And now we’re living in the “in-between” — some of us back to in-person, some not and others a little of both.

I started back this spring and was feeling both eager and anxious about the reentry process. So I reached out to friends and got some great advice.

If you’re still shaking off the rust, here’s what I learned, from their experience and mine.

Everyone’s journey is different.

The cycling metaphors were plentiful. Video marketing pro Tony Gnau compared it to riding a bicycle. “I was surprised at how little the time away impacted my performance,” Gnau said.

On the other hand, Christe McKittrick, a communication expert on the faculty at Miami University, said face-to-face “felt like I was naked and riding a unicycle — overthinking each gesture, step and nonverbal that was (mostly) hidden on Zoom.”

For me it was both liberating and weird. I was relieved to be able to move about the room again, but found sustaining eye contact difficult at first.

My advice: Give yourself some grace. Your audience is likely feeling the weirdness, too, so they’re right there with you.

Practice your people skills.

Some felt awkward to suddenly be in the company of people again. (For me, large crowds were a bit overwhelming.)

Robin McCasland, a senior director of corporate communications at Blue Cross Blue Shield, found the experience “surreal.” An ambivert by nature, she said the introvert in her came back to the surface. But she quickly got acclimated by visiting with attendees one-on-one. 

Mixing with people beforehand is a great approach even in “normal” circumstances.

Heed the elephant in the room.

Obviously COVID throws a huge curveball into the mix. Social and digital media expert Paula Kiger noted that “all of the niceties that may have been a little awkward before” — whether a handshake or a hug is in order — were suddenly “fraught.” 

And story strategist Lisa Gerber said, “Can we stop with the handshaking, please?”

When I spoke at a conference with hundreds of people in attendance, it seemed everyone there was further along the curve of returning to normal, so I definitely needed time to acclimate.

If you’re uncomfortable, then keep a mask on when not presenting. Distance yourself in the back of plenary sessions. Look for outdoor dining options.

Prepare for hybrid.

Brand and alignment strategist Zora Artis advises, “Be ready for late changes,” including a last-minute switch to hybrid. 

I had that experience myself in a workshop and have now made it a part of my checklist to ask ahead of time if people will be attending remotely. (Though as Zora says, sometimes it’s a surprise even to the organizers, as attendees may have just tested positive.)

Manage the tech.

In a related note, Gavin McMahon, chief learning officer at Fassforward, says his biggest surprise was instead of connecting his computer to the screen via cables, it was now Wi-Fi/Zoom-based. I had the same experience and found logging into Webex in-person was trickier than from home. 

As always, it pays to arrive early. 

And do a tech checkup now. Make sure your accessories are compatible with your current computer, you’ve got the right adaptors and your batteries are fresh.

Make it a conversation.

Finally, a major challenge of the virtual era has been keeping audiences engaged. Smart speakers include plenty of interaction in their virtual presentations, whether via polling, the chat window or breakouts.

That same approach should carry over to in-person. Plan interactive moments every 5-to-8 minutes, even if it’s simply asking or taking questions. Audiences today want a dialogue, not a monologue. 

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