How to Prepare Your Executives to Speak From Home

By: Rob Biesenbach
Jun. 1, 2020
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The coronavirus crisis has tested everyone’s ability to communicate effectively under less-than-ideal conditions.           

Most of us have learned to make do, and have been forgiving through all manner of challenges, from system breakdowns to webcam and mute button gaffes to intrusions from children and pets.

But the stakes are a lot higher when it’s a CEO or other senior executive addressing the media, the workforce, customers or investors. And with the prospect of on-and-off isolation periods becoming the “new normal,” expectations for some semblance of professionalism are only going to grow.

Act now to prepare your leaders.

As this crisis lifts, smart communicators are going to want to prepare their key spokespeople to deliver a high-quality virtual experience under any circumstance.

That way, when the next crisis hits (or this one returns), their leaders will be better equipped to project confidence and authority when facing the public online. This could include going to their homes (accompanied by a skilled AV professional) to upgrade their systems and even create an informal home studio.

Of course, technology is by no means the most important factor for virtual communication success. Compelling content and engaging delivery top that list. But if the visual or audio experience is sub-par, then viewers are more likely to drift off, tune out and miss the message. 

And while I am not an AV wizard, I have learned a few things over a decade of conducting and attending hundreds of virtual presentations. Here are some key priorities for a tech makeover.

Outfit your spokespeople’s homes.

• Internet connection: It all starts with a strong internet connection, and most home Wi-Fi systems simply are not sufficient to avoid the choppy audio and video we’ve all seen in online meetings.

So get them an old-fashioned Ethernet cable, long enough to reach from their home office to their router. (And install it professionally so that nobody trips over it!)

• Quality webcam: Many built-in webcams aren’t that great. The image can be dark and grainy. Consider upgrading to a quality external webcam. 

• Lighting: Most home lighting is inadequate for most webcams. The best light source is sunlight, so position their desk or chair to face a window. A window behind the speaker results in that now-familiar and unfortunate “witness protection program” silhouette.

But you can’t always count on natural light, so consider getting a simple, portable external lighting system to brighten their face.

Pro tip: If they wear glasses, then that’s going to require experimenting to minimize reflection on the lenses — even those with anti-reflective coating.

• Microphone: Distorted or tinny sound can be just as distracting (and annoying) as bad video. Get them a decent external microphone. 

• Screen elevation: The computer screen needs to be at eye level or higher, which is especially problematic with laptops. Nobody wants a view of the speaker’s ceiling or straight up their nostrils! A simple stand or shelf can accomplish this.

• Second screen: When doing a formal presentation, most video conferencing platforms only give the speaker a view of their current slide. A second screen allows them to see the chat window or even to use “presenter view” to see their notes and upcoming slides.

• Background arrangement: Do a little “set dressing” to reduce distractions in the background. If there’s a bookcase or credenza behind them, tidy it up. Choose a few tasteful objects — plant, picture frames, art, lamp, etc. Take a picture so they have it for reference.

Or you could provide a physical or virtual backdrop, whether that’s a company-branded pop-up banner or a digital image. But if you do go virtual, then a portable green screen is going to give you much better results.

I think a real background makes the viewer experience better. It gives them a glimpse of the person behind the message.

• Checklist: Create a checklist for them to use before any virtual session. Include items like:

  • Reboot the computer to improve performance and avoid crashes.
  • Shut down distracting apps and programs that chime or pop up.
  • Silence their phones.
  • Connect to Ethernet. (So few of us do this that a little instruction might be useful.)
  • Set up lighting.
  • Connect a microphone.
  • Clean up the background.
  • Inform anyone else in the home to keep the noise down.
  • Remind them to look at the lens, and not at the screen, when speaking.

Strike a balance of quality vs. ease.

Of course, you’re going to have to find a balance in the setup between creating a quality experience for viewers while ensuring that it’s one the executive will be able to replicate. 

If they don’t have a spot in their home specifically devoted to doing video conferencing, then setting up and breaking down the equipment will be onerous. Perhaps they can recruit a tech-savvy teen in their household to act as production assistant! Stephen Colbert has been doing this in his broadcasts.

Optimize content and delivery technique.

Here we’ve only covered the technical aspects of virtual communication. Obviously, there are other important factors for success. Here are a few quick tips on optimizing content and delivery technique for a virtual audience:

  • Remember that shorter is always safer.
  • Keep the structure clear and tight. Focus on what you want the audience to know, feel and do.
  • Get down to business quickly. Avoid extended “housekeeping.” 
  • Emphasize narrative and context over dry data.
  • Make it visually appealing — “death by PowerPoint” is even more fatal online.
  • Create a personal connection. Picture the people you’re talking to.
  • Crank up the energy — that means total mental, emotional and physical focus.
  • Sustain a steady, deliberate, pace — beware of “dead air.”
  • Take questions, use polls and lead discussion so it’s not all lecturing.

Take care of these things and your leaders will feel more prepared, confident and comfortable when communicating from home. And that should show up in the impact they have on their audience. 

For a complete rundown of the essentials for planning your tech, content and delivery, check out Rob’s free Virtual Presentation Crash Course.

photo credit: getty images