Language tips to grab the attention of your online audience
With the presentations shifting to a virtual format and looking ready to stick around even after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended, many people have found it difficult to speak only to a webcam lamp. One of us (RG) recently gave a virtual talk at an international meeting at the end of a long day of presentations. Not being able to see the audience, she didn’t know if people were paying attention, checking their emails or playing on their phones. In this feedback vacuum, maintaining entertaining and engaging behavior becomes a challenge.
One way to maintain engagement is to pay attention to your language use. We both have experience in this area: VF is a sociolinguist who for 25 years has been studying how speech relates to identity and bringing to linguistic research how and why we say the things we do. RG works in the area of adult learning and leadership development, and mentors faculty members on how to enhance their virtual presence during presentations.
It’s not always clear how the small language choices we make affect audience engagement. Here are some ways to improve your virtual presentation style based on language research.
Throw some questions
Muting your audience doesn’t make for sparkling conversations, so it’s helpful to remember that questions are powerful language tools. Most people, having been trained in the rules of conversation since they were children, know the idea that questions call for answers. So, find several points in your presentation where you can invite verbal comments – for example asking your listeners to share relevant experiences, or checking out what they know about the topic in question.
It may take longer to get a response than in a non-virtual space, so don’t worry about how long it takes for audience members to respond (you might be able to bring in a participant who you know has would be comfortable getting things done). Even if your audience needs to be silent, asking rhetorical questions and pausing for a few moments helps get people thinking about your topic and its relevance to them.
A lot of people may have questions or ideas, but don’t want to speak in front of a virtual crowd, so encourage them to use the chat feature (and don’t forget to check it out).
Vary your vocal pitch
When we’re face to face, we often rely on gestures, eye contact, and body movements to keep things interesting. Our ability to incorporate this additional communication layer into speech is diminished when we are just another face on a computer screen.
This is where the voice can become an asset. When we rely a lot on reading notes or explaining points on slides, we forget to sound excited about what we are saying. Studies show that speakers who vary their tone are perceived to display more happiness and emotion1, so it’s an easy way to keep an audience’s interest and communicate their enthusiasm on a topic.
People who read books aloud to children probably already know how to do this. Try to underline parts of your presentation to remind yourself to underline it in a varied tone, or use a high pitched tone when asking any of these rhetorical questions.
Ums and uhs are OK
Filled pauses, such as the familiar “ums” and “uhs” that pepper speech, are a sign of cognitive effort. In other words, they come out when we are seriously thinking or researching what we want to say. Giving a presentation involves more cognitive processing than just casual conversation. Studies show ums and uhs increase when speakers take on a directive role, use complex words and sentences, or discuss abstract topics2: all aspects inherent to virtual presentations.
Psycholinguistic research shows that full pauses are surprisingly beneficial from a listener’s perspective, even though speakers often try to avoid them. When information is preceded by a full pause, studies suggest that listeners have better memory and remember that information.3,4. In other words, reluctance tells listeners to pay attention to what’s to come.
But using too many filled pauses can also lead to the perception that a speaker lacks authority and credibility. So while being prepared and familiar with what you plan to say will minimize your ums and uhs, don’t be too concerned if a few do – they might actually help your audience remember what you are doing. said.
Communicating enthusiasm and excitement helps keep people engaged, thus avoiding the dreaded fatigue of video conferencing or, worse, a frozen audience. In addition to varying your tone, you can also judiciously use words called intensifiers – “very”, “really”, “incredibly”, “so”, and “absolutely”, for example. Intensifiers communicate intensity: why just describe something as “important” when it could be “extremely important”?
Multiple studies in communication research show that the use of intensifiers increases the perception that a speaker is certain and in control (see, for example, ref. 5).
Use less ‘like’
Speech markers – such as “you know”, “good” or the ever popular “like” – are words that help us keep the conversation cohesive or highlight important information in a manner somewhat similar to breaks filled. They give listeners subtle clues as to how to interpret what we are saying. But some speech markers, especially “like,” are more familiar than others, especially across generational divisions. While younger speakers often say “like” at the start of a sentence or use it in place of “about”, many speakers still consider this inappropriate in a formal context.
Including certain words, avoiding others, modulating the pitch of your voice, and actively engaging with your virtual audience can keep them engaged and take your oral presentation skills to the next level.
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