What makes a great virtual speaker?

  • Virtual Content
  • Engaging an Audience over Zoom
  • Take-away value

Virtual Content

In 2020 the world changed for events and keynote speakers. We connected by Zoom, where looking at dozens of other people in “gallery view” became the norm. If you think about the role of a great keynote speaker it is to change the lives of his or her audience. I’ve done this dozens of times in front of thousands of people – the audience becomes alive with energy, the collective excitement, anticipation, and the noise of hundreds of people gives an excitement that is tough to match. 2020 changed all that. The same canned pitched won’t work over the digital platform. 

If you are looking for a keynote speaker for a virtual event, or you’re trying to be a virtual speaker the first thing you have to realize is the content has to be different from a live event.  In addition the presentation has to be more authentic than ever before. It can’t be a pitch, a rehearsed show. 

After my first few virtual events I realised that surprise, the unexpected and a sense of wonder have to be happening every two or three minutes. That’s a lot different than in person where you can take an audience on a journey because they are truly present, a speaker can build up the tension. In person most people will shut their phone off, and be taken away in a darkened room with a spotlight on the speaker. In that environment you can take five or 10 minutes to build up to a moment of tension, anticipation and excitement. In the world of Zoom or virtual events you have about the first minute before the audience decides to check their email and get a dopamine hit from seeing if someone liked a post on social media, or they check their bitcoin balance. That means you have to craft the presentation so that every two minutes, three at the most, there is a moment of excitement. A moment a minute is a great rule of thumb.

Engaging an Audience over Zoom

There are four ways to keep the attention and engagement of a virtual audience:

  1. Being authentic 
    Online people don’t want to be pitched too. The old style Tony Robbins pumping up the energy just doesn’t work virtually. They want to connect with the speaker – they want to learn something they didn’t know before, take away something they can use tomorrow and leave saying “I’d really like to have a beer with that guy.”
  2. Cliff Hangers
    If you can tease the audience without seeming like it’s entirely planned, that works well to keep them engaged. I have often spoken about my first start-up where we ran out of money just before Christmas. I knew if the employees weren’t getting pay-checks it could mean the end of the company. And then I change tacks and talk about the terrorists attacks and leave them wondering what happened to the employees. It’s genuine, it’s exciting (hell, even I want to tell them what happened!) and it makes the story more interesting.
  3. Polling them
    Zoom has a great polling feature – so ask a question every five or six minutes. Make sure it has a point and you know what you are going to say when the answer comes back. And if it surprises you, tell them, be authentic.
  4. Surprise
    Turning the camera to show your dog sitting on the couch or the window broken where your experiment went terribly wrong is the type of thing people don’t expect on Zoom but that can really leave a memorable moment if you use it to illustrate a point.

See Patrick In Action

Patrick Sweeney giving a Virtual Zoom Talk

Take-away value

I often recommend to other keynote speakers that they have three definitive takeaways the audience will remember. Building up to those during the body of the talk, and then summarising them at the end is a great way to make sure those three points sink in.

Virtual speaking is difficult and it takes practice but most of all you have to be authentic, and look for a speaker who is authentic if you’re trying to hire someone for an online speaking engagement. When you look at their demo reel look for moments that engage the audience to provide great value, that’s how you can tell the wheat from the chaff.

If you are interested in hearing Patrick talk, get in touch today.

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