Tips for Giving a Great Online Presentation

Michelle Jewell lectures on how to give a great online presentation

Job interviews, conferences, thesis defenses, and community engagement activities will be online for the foreseeable future, and likely stay even after we can all travel again. Any amount of time that you invest in practicing the art form of delivering a great online presentation is well spent, and this means rethinking how you use online conferencing software and taking advantage of new tools to engage your audiences.

A piece of wood being jammed into a circle board.
Pictured above: The process of delivering an in-person presentation in an online setting without making any changes to the format.

There are several articles that list factors that contribute to Zoom fatigue, and I argue that there’s one more: we are exhausted watching presentations that are being delivered online but haven’t been altered from their in-person format to an online-friendly version. New platforms require a new way of thinking about your audience and how best to deliver your messages, and there are several advantages to presenting in a virtual setting that we have yet to be trained on.

The below video clips are from a group discussion on “How To Give a Great Online Presentation.”. I hope that the ideas here help you rethink and retool how you present via online conferencing software to maximize engagement, and ultimately, the impact of your messages and goals. Plus – you will have way more fun.

The best online presentations have three elements in common: they demonstrate, participate, and elevate.

1) Demonstrate:

Everyone watching an online presentation has a front-row seat, unlocking our ability to put methodologies directly in front of the viewer. You no longer need to rely on diagrams – show your audience directly, in a personal way.

2) Participate:

Keep your audience’s attention by putting them to work. Identify spots in your presentation where you can bring your audience into the process, and use several different kinds of engagement tools throughout. These include Zoom polls, whiteboards, Poll Everywhere, word clouds, the chat boxes themselves, etc.

3) Elevate:

There is no rule requiring you to give a presentation from behind a desk. Teleport your audience directly to your field site or laboratory. Just bring a tripod to keep that camera steady.

Also, bring in other perspectives from across the world. Diversify the expertise!

What should I do about my background? Are virtual backgrounds OK?

There’s one question you should ask before you start to think about your background, and that’s where is the best lighting? Identify an area with filtered sunlight (i.e. sitting in front of a window) or use ring lights and lamps behind the camera. Lighting is different in every space, so finding the best light will often determine your background. Then you can decide whether to use a virtual background or leave it as is.

As you can see from my video, I’m a fan of virtual backgrounds, but I also use a green screen which eliminates most of the distracting visual defects, like disappearing hair and hands. If you opt for this, design a business-card-esque background.

If you are outdoors, make sure you camera is in line between you and the sun (the camera’s shadow should be pointing at you). If it’s not, you are likely side or backlit, and that could be distracting for your viewers. Keep in mind that the sun moves! Your well-lit spot might be great in the afternoon, but different during the time of your presentation.

How much of myself should be in the frame?

I suggest the waist up for two reasons:

    1. You’re not too close to the camera,
    2. This allows people to see your enthusiastic hands!

There are several articles and studies on the psychology behind talking with your hands during a presentation and you will want to keep your hands in the picture, even in a virtual setting.

How to get comfortable talking to a camera:

It is natural to feel uneasy talking to an emotionless piece of glass with the same enthusiasm as you would have speaking with a colleague. A few tricks I have seen are putting googley eyes next to the screen or a picture of someone you admire. Speaking to a camera does get easier with practice, so volunteer often to talk in other, low-stakes Zoom calls.

Some other tips and tricks:

  • Audio is the most critical element to your presentation – and not all microphones are created equal! Make sure you test the quality of your microphone with a buddy before giving your presentation to be sure it doesn’t crackle or squeal.
  • Set your camera at, or just above, eye-level.
  • Take advantage of my pillow trick for dampening echo:
  • How you sit can make a big difference! Give the seated-Superwoman-pose a try:
  • Pop in strategic videos/GIF slides to give you a break from speaking. These breaks are great to re-center yourself, take a drink, and pause for your audience to digest what they have heard so far during your presentation.
  • Log in to your presentation using two devices, one being your “main camera” and the other being your “demonstration camera.”

And last but not least, have fun!  If you are having fun giving your presentation, then your audience is far more likely to be having fun watching it. Good luck!


Michelle Jewell is the Department of Applied Ecology’s science communicator and co-lectures AEC 495: Applied Science Communication every Spring semester.

One response on “Tips for Giving a Great Online Presentation

  1. Adel Serag says:

    Great work and fruitful ideas, I learnt a lot from you ;0)

Leave a Response

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.