Presentations are challenging, but the virtual presentation landscape seems to make presentations feel easier. Students that have presented remotely have reported they felt more comfortable presenting virtually, because they could read from a script, they felt they didn’t have to practice as much, and they didn’t get nervous, because they were simply talking to their slides. 

The virtual format makes for a pretty boring presentation for the audience. Most guidance on how to make remote presentations more exciting involves flipping the classroom, stopping more frequently to answer questions, and focusing on discussion as much as possible. If these are things you could consider doing for your presentation, check out our blog post on remote teaching

However, for many presentations in our department and in our discipline, this simply is not possible. Either the class format requires an uninterrupted 10min presentation, or you have to defend your thesis virtually and the traditional expectation is to give a ~45min talk without interruptions. 

For these presentations, finding ways to be more engaging over zoom can be challenging. The digital platform is especially challenging for scientific presentations because there are so many distractions. Many people admit that when they sign onto a video call, they plan to work on something else while listening to the talk. So how can you get people to pay attention when they are so distracted? 

Below are some tips we’ve collected on how to make a virtual scientific presentation more engaging. 

  1. Think about the objective of your presentation and include only the visual and verbal content which supports your objectives.

    • Think about what content you truly need to include to communicate your message to your audience?
      • Plan for no more than 3 key take-aways from your presentation. Once you identify your 3 key points that you want your audience to remember, intentionally structure your presentation and voice over around those points. And keep referring back to these points throughout your presentation so you audience can follow along.
      • LESS IS MORE! This is true outside of the remote environment, but it is ESPECIALLY true over zoom. 
  2. Learn what technology is available to you so you can put your effort into connecting with the audience. 

    • First and foremost, think about your internet connectivity and the time zone you and your audience are in. 
      • If you have control over this, schedule your meeting at a time when you will have the most energy. If you can, also consider the time zone where your audience will be. 
      • Consider your internet connectivity. If it is not very stable, consider getting a hotspot, internet extender, or finding a quiet room where you can present. If you have questions about access to resources at MIT, please reach out to your department or the BE Comm Lab manager.
    • Think about what you need as a presenter. When presenting, do you need to see your audience or do you feel comfortable talking at your slides? Sometimes seeing your audience can make your presentation more engaging, simply because it is easier to show excitement in your voice when talking to someone else. Other times seeing your audience might make you more nervous.
      • If you feel comfortable without seeing your audience, still make sure that you are looking at the camera when presenting. In this case, you can minimize the participant panel to increase visibility of your screen  and present. 
      • If you want to see your audience, consider using two screens. Put your slides on one screen and gallery view of your audience on another. Again, make sure that you can see your screen and your audience without making very dramatic head movements away from the camera as this can be distracting to your audience. If you only have one screen, think about the placement of the participant pane, because it may block content on your slides while you are presenting.
      • Do you want to have access to your notes? There is a hack to use presenter view in Zoom, but you need to have two screens to do so. Alternatively, you could print out your notes. Whatever you decide, be mindful of making eye contact with your audience. 
      • Some people also like the idea of projecting their slides from one computer/account and presenting from another. It takes some choreography to get this right, but can be quite elegant with some practice. 
      • Do you need to have a laser pointer when you are walking your audience through your slides? Think about whether you want to use your mouse or a digital laser pointer. Also, remember that there is a lag when presenting on zoom, so be cognizant to move your mouse or pointer slowly and with meaning. You could also animate your slides to guide your audience through your story.
    • Don’t forget to think about how you are presenting yourself.
      • Communicating with energy is really challenging over zoom. So try to stand when presenting (and set up your camera to be at eye level). It will likely get you more excited and help you convey more excitement and energy. The one thing you have to be aware of is that your voice might sound quieter since you will be further from the mic. Here again, you might consider a second source for your sound, like logging into the meeting through your phone or purchasing an external microphone.
      • Position your camera so the audience thinks you are communicating with them or turn off your camera so you aren’t another distraction and your audience can focus on your slides. If you choose to turn off your camera, be VERY deliberate about what is on your slides (see section 4 below).
  3. Set expectations at the beginning of your presentation.

    • Give your audience a high level summary of your talk and an outline of how you will use your time together. 
      • If you are doing a thesis proposal or thesis defense, think about creating a breakout room for use in private discussions. Share this format with your committee so they are aware of when different components might happen. 
      • Let people know if you want them to have their cameras on or off. Also, be sure to mute everyone at the beginning of the presentation to limit unwanted distractions. 
    • Let your audience know what feedback you would like and how you would like them to share thoughts or ask questions. 
      • After outlining what you will cover in the talk, explicitly say what type of feedback you are looking for. Do you want guidance on next steps? Are you setting up your experiments correctly? Are you asking the right questions? Let them know what you want them to focus on as they watch your presentation and when you would like them to give feedback.
      • Let your audience know how and when they should submit questions. Do you want them to physically raise their hands, use the emoji, interrupt or use the chat box? Do you want questions throughout or only at the end? If you plan to stop throughout your presentation to answer questions, let your audience know. Then you don’t have to monitor the chat box or your audience until you are ready. If you do ask for questions, be sure to wait at least 45secs to 1min before moving on. It can feel like an eternity. 
  1. Design your slides based on many of the decisions discussed above. 

    • For many of the presentations discussed in this article, you will find the tips detailed in our Slideshow CommKit article to be particularly relevant. 
      • For virtual presentations, it is especially important to have clear messages as titles for all of your slides. 
      • It is also important, especially for talks over 20mins, to have a very clear road map that you can continually refer back to. This will help your audience follow along with your main take home message and the 3 key points or pieces of evidence you want every audience member to remember. 
      • There is also a critical balance, that is especially important in virtual presentations, between having too little or too much on the slide. Because some people only look at the slide and some people look at both the presenter and the slides, it is especially important that what is on your slide is engaging enough to follow along and what you are saying is aligned with what is on the slide. There is no formula for this, but it is especially helpful to practice your talk more times, with more people, to make sure that you get that right balance. 
  1. Practice, practice, practice. Presentations are hard. Virtual presentations are harder.

    • Practice how you will deliver key points.
      • Think about cadence, tone, and inflection. Use pauses for emphasis and appropriate transitions to relate thoughts.
      • It will be harder to get real-time feedback or derive energy from your audience in these talks. Therefore, it is critical that you have practiced delivering the entire talk with energy multiple times.
      • Your audience will pick up on your energy and confidence about what you are going to say, and that is what will keep your already distracted audience engaged.
    • Practice by yourself, practice with your friends, practice with your lab mates, practice with AI (, and practice with the Comm Lab. The more you practice, the more confident you will get with what you are saying, the more comfortable you will get with the technology, and the more you can focus on sending your excitement to your audience. 

Your presentation will be more engaging when you think about all the extra distractions and noise that exist virtually, and design your presentation to emphasize your message and objectives. Make an appointment today to get feedback on your presentation or practice with a fellow. 

Blog post written by Catherine Henry and Prerna Bhargava