For those of us who made our living addressing live, in-the-flesh audiences—pre-COVID—whether it’s to inspire learning, the assimilation of knowledge, or to make them laugh and have a good time, Zoom has been a mixed bag of blessings—a kind of Hobson’s choice if you will: continue to make a living doing what you do, but virtually, or find something else, to stay afloat.    

And as we’ve gradually merged into the 300 million daily participants Zoom counts as users of its platform, many of us have learned that, while convenient, the technology’s inherent drawback lies in the absence of an essential ingredient that makes traveling thousands of miles a year to share space with groups of living, breathing people worth the hassle: reciprocal energy.

It’s more than a virtual reality that Zoom can drain the energy out of even the most compelling workshops and presentations—status, skill and experience of the presenter notwithstanding—causing audiences to disengage, mind-wander, multi-task, or craft architectural master-pieces out of paperclips.

The Wharton School’s eminent organizational psychologist, Adam Grant, recently used his megaphone to vent his frustration with Zoom calls, on Instagram, lamenting the diminished returns on energy one gets back, no matter the passion one packs into a virtual session, adding that “it sometimes feels like talking into a black hole.” Something could be said about the apparent democratizing effect of video-conferencing technology, when even venerated thought-leaders question whether their message nailed the landing.   

Some of us probably experience some sort of Stockholm Syndrome, maybe even defending ”remoteness” over the real deal, pushing the convenience of reaching anyone with a high-speed internet connection at the click of a link, all from the comfort of one’s kitchen-table.   

Jerry Seinfeld, however, isn’t buying it either, opining in the New York Times about our flirtation with “remote everything.”

“Guess what’, he says, ‘Everyone hates to do this. Everyone. Hates.

You know why? There’s no energy.

Energy, attitude and personality cannot be “remoted” through even the best fiber optic lines.”

And yet, Seinfeld, here we are. As presenters we’d be smart to embrace the late LSU professor Leon Megginson’s quote, paraphrasing Darwin’s writings on evolution as “the species that survives being the one that is best able to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” That then, would be us.

So, while it’s comforting to know that Adam Grant and Jerry Seinfeld paddle in the same rough waters as the rest of us, albeit in nicer boats no doubt, there is no reason why we couldn’t weather the pandemic storm by simply adopting a few strategies that make presenting to adults online more of a win-win as opposed to a snooze-lose.

Here are some things that worked for me:     

  1. Set expectations

Right at the start, I point out the virtual elephant in the room, namely that engagement is often an issue in these programs. I remind participants that learning, personal development and growth must be intentional, and that there must be a desire and motivation behind it, otherwise it won’t happen. I also give everyone the heads-up that I’ll ask for their takeaways at the end of the session, putting a bit of positive pressure on my audience to decoct the value from our time together and reflect on how the learning could be applied to their work.

2. Work with constraint

Social media has conditioned us to pack more meaning into ever less space. Texts, tweets, status updates, posts, and, if done with a modicum of restraint, emails, have honed our ability to get a message across succinctly, which, theoretically, should serve us in trimming the fat and fluff from bloated decks and reams of data, prior to launching it all at our audience. The relatively limited time we have in Zoom engagements and other virtual forums is an opportunity to focus on what’s most important and park the rest, effectively saving us from our rambling selves, leaving only the distilled product of our knowledge for a grateful audience.     

3. Use their names

I’m often surprised by how few presenters refer to participants by name. A quick glance at the list of participants—relatively easy to access, depending on which platform one uses—makes it easy to address people with a bit more interpersonal warmth, and with that, create some much-needed emotional engagement. Using people’s names also acknowledges their presence “in the room”, counteracting a sense of invisibility and exclusion that can limit their engagement and participation.  

4. Get everyone on video

The reason is self-evident—we’re simply more present on video. As participants we know that it’s much easier to tune out or get distracted when we’re off video, while, as presenters, seeing who we’re talking to helps us avoid the dreaded perception of talking into a black hole.   

5. Bring the energy

While Adam Grant has a point in that Zoom sessions and the like seem to violate the first law of thermodynamics, we shouldn’t shrug off our responsibility to energetically engage participants, simply on account of our environmental limitations. Instead, we should muster whatever intensity and audience-focus we can—vocally, verbally, and non-verbally—by reflecting on the outcome we hope to achieve and using that motivation to amplify our virtual presence accordingly. Even if we’re not getting the same level of energy back from our audience, the lopsided returns will likely reflect our additional effort in terms of an uptick in goodwill, if not engagement. 

6. Give them “candy”

Malcom Gladwell, in one of his MasterClass sessions, shared the notion of giving his readers “candy”, meaning a startling factoid, an interesting snippet, a bite-sized thing they can talk about and easily share with others—the “fun stuff”, as Gladwell calls it. I do the same in my presentations, where I equip my participants with relevant, sometimes entertaining, bits of compelling research they can easily remember, apply to their work environment, and share with their colleagues. Making sure we balance a nutritious meal of learning and development with the right amount of candy, shared throughout our virtual sessions, improves the odds that ambient distractions don’t hijack the attention and focus of our audience, keeping them instead alert for their next dose of treats.        

7. Ask questions

We know this intuitively, from the many conversations we engage in, that whenever someone seems to care enough to ask us questions on our point of view, our experience, our feelings about something, or to learn something from us, we generally feel good about the exchange, and, by extension, about the questioner. The right kinds of questions are also a timeless method of teaching, something coaches and educators are quite familiar with, and probably the most reliable strategy to keep virtual audiences engaged and off autopilot. Whether it is to stimulate, teach, coach, or simply pique our participants’ curiosity, the answer to better engagement and receptivity often lies in the questions we ask.

8. Put yourself in their shoes

Do a gut check and contemplate whether you’d be engaged yourself by the content you’re planning to present. View your content with fresh eyes, and resolutely cut what is neither of unquestionable value nor novel in terms of fresh insights, and that wouldn’t make this particular audience better off for having spent their precious time with you. Empathy helps, and if that’s too tall an order, perspective-taking works too, and may come more naturally, accomplishing the same goal, which is a thoughtfully tailored program or message for an audience with specific objectives, limited attention spans, a propensity to multi-task, and an unforgiving attitude when someone wastes their time, or worse, bores them.

By the end of the pandemic, many of us will likely have pivoted from in-person presentations and workshops to the virtual delivery of our ideas and content, cursing all the while at the constraints technology places on us in terms of a fair and reciprocal exchange of energy and engagement with our audiences. But, be it kicking and screaming, with intention and creativity we can elevate our game and successfully collaborate with those who come to learn and grow, until we can all meet up again, shake hands, discuss our insights and experiences at the coffee-pot, more grateful than ever for the shared moments of close human interaction.