The rules of virtual engagement: Author Q&A with Karin Reed and Joe Allen

While virtual events are standard in 2021, these technology-driven meetings still present a steep learning curve for meeting professionals whose jobs and lives were so driven by human interaction in the past.

The new book Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings Work, co-authored by Emmy Award-winning former broadcast journalist and C-Suite on-camera coach Karin Reed, with leading scientific expert on workplace meetings Joe Allen, Ph.D., offers a step-by-step manual for making remote, on-camera meetings work to help increase productivity and profits.

The book is Reed’s second and Allen’s first.

ConventionSouth recently spoke with the authors about the ‘rules of virtual engagement’ and, more specifically, how to provide feedback to people who need help catching on to the new way of doing things.

How do the rules of virtual engagement apply to people who are presenting at webinars or virtual conferences?

Joe Allen (JA): Essentially, presenters at webinars and virtual conferences need to fully embrace the technology features to engage their audience in their presentation. Since people are participating through an electronic device, they are more likely to multitask via cyberloafing (the actions of employees who use their internet access at work for personal use while pretending to do legitimate work). As such, it is imperative to include them in the presentation. Use polling features or ask them to respond to a prompt in the chat. There are many other tricks to keeping the audience engaged, and since you can no longer ‘work the room’ and make eye contact with the crowd, these tools in the technology itself become essential.

Karin Reed (KR): When virtual, we are constantly fighting the default position of ‘passive observer’ that we’ve been conditioned to assume when using a screen. We watch television. We watch a movie. But now, we want people to become active participants and engage through screens. The key is being intentional in pulling out engagement, both directly and indirectly. As Joe mentioned, getting people to do something, like answering a poll or providing input in chat, are effective direct ‘tools of engagement’ requiring a tangible response. But you can also indirectly engage people by inviting them into your content by mentally making them the center of it. Try saying things like “Imagine the last time you did…” or “Think about a situation mirroring what I just shared.” It’s easier to hold an audience’s attention when the content is relevant and relatable to them.

How can event production teams help speakers incorporate these best practices, so the overall event looks polished? 

JA: The best way is to involve them in the development of these engagement tools (e.g. polls, questions for chat, etc.), and then take the work of implementing them out of their hands. The best conferences provide a technology assistant who monitors things throughout the session. Ideally, they also assist with pulling questions from the chat for the Q&A. The key here is making the technology as easy as possible for the presenter. Otherwise, they will dismiss it as unnecessary and lose the audience in the first five minutes.

KR: As someone who has keynoted many conferences this year, I can tell you one of my biggest stresses comes from learning a new technology platform each time—and I’m actually relatively tech savvy. However, each platform has its own nuances and, often, terminology. For example, what might be called ‘chat’ on one platform is called ‘conversations’ on another… or any number of terms. A tech check is imperative. I will make sure to ask the presenter if they prefer to drive the slides and if the deck includes any embedded videos. I have had several instances where the platform did not allow me to share computer audio. My slide decks typically include videos with sound. For one client, I had to simply drop all my video illustrations, which did diminish the overall production value of the presentation and made it less engaging. For several clients, I had to upload the video files separately and create show notes with roll cues so the producers could play them for me.

What is the best way to approach speakers who are struggling to present professionally with suggestions for improvement?

JA: Take some of the tasks out of their hands. Put the control of the mute-all button, the screen sharing, the polling, and other collaborative tools into the hands of a technology assistant. If that doesn’t work, provide training to presenters on how to use the software/technology. Too often, we assume technology literacy, only to learn the person doesn’t know their way around once in the platform. If they are resistant to change, gather feedback on their behalf from a session or two. If the audience confirms what you already know, they will be more likely to respond to the feedback.

KR: It is critical each virtual presenter attends to their own personal production value, which means how one ‘show ups’ on the webcam. Focus on four things: audio, lighting, background, and camera framing.

Ensure the audio is crisp and clear, and don’t just rely upon your built-in laptop microphone. It might be just fine, but the acoustics in your room can greatly affect audio quality. A room with hardwood floors, high ceilings, and no curtains can result in audio that sounds very echoey and hollow. Consider another option that might allow for a more focused sound, like a headset, earbuds, or a lapel microphone that connects via USB. Make sure your face is well lit and you are not sitting with your back to a window. You want your audience to easily be able to read your facial expressions so you can communicate your message more fully through your nonverbals.

Pick a background that is uncluttered and not distracting. It doesn’t need to look like it’s straight out of Better Homes and Gardens, but you do want to make sure there’s nothing behind you that will pull focus away from you, the speaker. Create a little depth to your shot. Make sure there’s several feet between you and whatever is behind you, whether it’s a bookshelf or a wall with some framed artwork.

Lastly, set up your webcam so it is at eye level. If you are using your laptop, don’t keep it low on your desk. Put it on a stack of books or a box that will allow you to draw a level line from your eyes to your camera lens. The camera should also be pointing straight behind you and not up. If you can see your ceiling in your shot, that’s a dead giveaway that your camera is angled up.

Karin Reed is a former anchorwoman who transitioned into coaching executives in the art of communicating on camera over the last decade and a half.

Joe Allen, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology at the University of Utah and a scientific expert on workplace meetings and organizational community engagement, with more than 100 published articles in academic journals. He is also director for The Center for Meeting Effectiveness.



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