Virtual presentations that work

Executives at Fortune 100 companies are directing their organizations to conduct more meetings using e-conferencing software (eg, Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro, WebEx). Technical communicators are concerned that the limitations of the medium will severely diminish the effectiveness of their presentations. They want to be prepared to develop and run electronic meetings that are engaging, interactive, and motivating.

I believe that it is not the medium that creates a convincing communication; are the communication strategies used. Electronic meetings have several inherent drawbacks (eg, lack of visual feedback, more difficult social interaction), but there are also strengths (eg, the ability to collaborate over long distances without time limits). Flexibility and creativity allow technical communicators to duplicate all the benefits of a physical meeting in a virtual meeting.

Here are a lot of helpful ideas for hosting virtual meetings.

Gain attention

Start your virtual meeting with a thoughtful introduction. Introduce yourself and, if time permits, invite the participants to introduce themselves. Ask them to share background information, including professional and personal hobbies and interests. Post your photo and, if possible, photos of the participants. Use innovative methods to collect and share participant background information (for example, match unique experiences with the appropriate participant).

Set relevance

Survey participants to determine their background and interest in the topic. Use a wide variety of media. These can include animations, background information, current events, cartoons, articles, questions, quotes, and thought-provoking stories.

Submit information

Incorporate the same types of multimedia presentation that you would use in a face-to-face presentation. Use different types of media such as text, graphics, animations, video and multimedia presentations, illustrations, diagrams, schematics, models, audio presentations, and concrete objects. Constantly refer to the meeting schedule you presented at the beginning of the presentation and provide content summaries throughout the session. Present information in short chunks and in a logical flow while varying the pace and format every five to six minutes.

Incorporate compelling communication strategies that include:

o Storytelling

o Guest speaker presentations, which can be virtual

o Simulations

o Analogies

o Assignments

o Case studies

o Discovery learning

o Examples and not examples

o Experiments

o Graphic representations

o Suggestions and hints

o Ideas

o Mnemonics

o Games

o Physical models to portray relationships

Support your main ideas with graphics whenever possible. Keep the information simple, especially if you are using PowerPoint. Be careful with colors, whitespace, and fonts; limit the use of different fonts and colors.

Tell the participants what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you have said. This should be easy as you have a lot of media to play with. You can set the stage in a multimedia presentation, then present the topic through a whiteboard presentation, and finally review the topic in a discussion using chat or a voting feature.

Allow participants to download documents instead of distributing them. Be sure to use PDF files, as they display and print more predictably than other document formats. Use the board as you would a flip chart. Point, highlight, draw, and write on the board. Check out websites and other resources; use them as valuable sources of information, references, and exercise materials. Present information from another point of view (for example, customer, competitor, user, and engineer). Anticipate and prepare for questions from participants. Construct job aids that distill relevant information.

Conducting demonstrations

Use case studies related to real life situations. Ask participants to explore controversial issues. Ask participants to share their own experiences related to the content.

Show photos or video presentations of demo highlights and use drawing and text tools to highlight and label. Use screen sharing to demonstrate computer applications and drawing tools to label and highlight sections of the screen. Select examples and activities that reflect the environment in which the participants will apply their new skills.

Facilitate practice

Incorporate practice to maintain participation and interest. Assign participants to groups and ask them to collaborate on specific tasks. Group size should not exceed four participants. Assign and rotate roles within each group to ensure exchange and cooperation. If applicable, summarize activities conducted outside of the meeting. Encourage animated presentations of no more than five minutes in length. Encourage the participants to use the board. Use case studies, role plays, and simulations that mimic real-life activities.

If participants cannot interact with actual systems, provide links to training databases or test sites. Show participants’ screens if you want them to demonstrate their use of applications or share information as part of interactive exercises or demos.

Instigate and manage discussions

Open discussions with a provocative comment. Brainstorm by asking a key question on the board or in a chat window. Conduct structured discussions including a proposed discussion outline. Keep the discussion ongoing by clarifying the topic of the discussion and the topics you hope to cover. Manage discussions closely. Use the microphone, the whiteboard, the chat window, or email as the medium in the discussion. Give students “interesting” roles during discussions. Always end discussions by reaffirming the objectives of the discussion, summarizing the results, and noting how the results relate to the next topic.

Evaluation of the participation of the participants

Use frequently asked questions in surveys to check understanding, wake up participants, determine their level of participation, or determine the position of participants on particular issues. Ask clear, relevant, short, and challenging questions. Use the poll feature to ask multiple choice or true / false questions and see how many participants selected each option. You can save these results for yourself or share them with all participants. Include questions with a degree of difficulty that matches the level of the audience. Avoid feedback that is brief or abrupt. Participants can interpret these comments as angry. Have the groups use assessment materials and tools located in a shared folder to complete internal exercises (for example, complete customer service transactions in a variety of situations).

Develop and perform exciting and motivating activities

Create a constructive conflict or “creative abrasion” by:

o Ask key questions

o Represent other points of view

o Explore the content in a new context (for example, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the author used the metaphor of a farm to illustrate the dangers of unbridled capitalism)

Extract positive results from difficult situations by:

o Direct the question to the group

o Ask the group for solutions or methods to find solutions.

o Call specific participants to help

Build suspense by creating activities (eg, discussions, games) where the results are not predictable. Also feel free to change the rules while the activities are still in motion. Do this by using chats, targeted emails, and multiple shared folders to provide different rules and instructions to different groups.

Encourage participant collaboration by creating group activities. Allow groups to communicate through chat areas or emails. If you’re daring, you can have the groups set up their own virtual meetings to work together. Be sure to assign a leader for each group.

Good luck and enjoy!

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