Category Archives: Delivery Skills

Video Conferecning and Eye Contact

Link: A methodology to improve eye contact

When we are presenting using a webcam we want to be able to replicate what we see and do live i.e. gestures, body posture, facial expression and eye contact. This is not easy. We can to a certain degree control what we do, but we can’t control what our audiences does.

A lot of the presenting we do today in VC requires us to do a whole range of different tasks while presenting. We have to manage the technology, monitor the chat room and manage our software, which requires us to to be hands on and close to the computer. We do similar things when presenting live, but we can move away from the technology when we are done.

The advice that follows is taken from research on working one on one with a client, but I think we can still take some lessons from their findings. (Grondin et al. 2020)

The context for these guidelines is that we want the audience to see as much of us as is practical and for us to maintain eye contact as best as possible. We are going to assume that we are giving a presentation that doesn’t require us to have a lot of interaction with the technology. Either we just have to load it up and click through some slides or we have someone else doing that for us.

We can easily deal with all verbal and nonverbal elements by positioning ourselves so that we have our torso and head in shot. However there is one nonverbal, eye contact, which is our biggest challenge. What follows are guidelines for setting up our webcam so that we give the impression we are making eye contact with everyone in the audience. You can click on the link here for the whole article with pictures.

  1. Use a gooseneck webcam mount to position the webcam upside down and inside the monitor frame
  2. Use the application settings to flip the image so you are the right way up.
  3. Sit 130cm away from the camera
  4. Position yourself, either sitting or standing so that you are looking very slightly down at the camera.
  5. Preferably use a headset with a microphone. Relying on the webcam microphone from 130 cm probably wont give the best results.

When I was installing my gooseneck I noticed you can have the camera (logitec C920 in my case) the right up, but it protrudes a long way out, verses having it upside down where it sits closer to the screen.

This will work perfectly when we are communicating one on one. Because in essence we have positioned the camera just above the eyes of the other person. So when we speak we have the comfort of looking at someone not the camera. However because of the position of the camera the other person feels as if we are looking at them straight in the eye.

I think it works well for groups also if the platform we are using allows us to highlight an individual. If it doesn’t then its just a little more challenging because we will be directing our thoughts to the camera only.

Until technology like Microsofts i2i is launched we are going to have to use more practical solutions like the above.

How Not to Choke Under Pressure – Public Speaking

Missfire #1 #2 #3 KaBOOM!

Conquering the fear of public speaking from Scatterbrain by Henning Beck.

The perfect storm of presentation poor performance presents itself when

#1 we focus on every single step making the very thing we don’t want to do top of mind,

#2 worrying so much about non-performance that we forget why we are there and

#3 letting our emotions run riot to the extent we would rather be dead.

And don’t forget we are doing all this under the watchful eye of an audience who are distracting our brains further!

So what can we do?

We need to realise that our brains stress response is doing exactly what we want it do.  It’s just that sometimes we are either pumping too much fuel into the engine or not enough, which results in under performance. It’s this realisation that is important.

The next thing we can do is practice under pressure.  So if we are rehearsing, rehearse without stopping – just keep going, errors included. Think about it, if you are presenting in front of an audience you cant just say “sorry I made a mistake I need to go back to the beginning”

Don’t learn your presentation word for word. If you miss out a phrase or a word you may become distracted and send your presentation into an abyss. Instead break your presentation down into main messages or key phrases and then link them together.  It’s much more interesting for you and your audience.

If your fear is failing in front of an audience, then Henning Beck suggests “you should try to visualise the pressure situation  as intensively as possible before it takes place….You should then play out the various scenarios in your mind in order to break down your fear of them”

One last helpful point Henning makes is not to cover up mistakes. If you lose your way, let the audience know, regain your place by checking your notes and then continue. For example, say “I may have jumped an important point let me just check my notes” or “I’ve gotten off track a bit, let me just see where I am”.

In addressing the fear of public speaking we need not only strategies for developing, designing and delivering our presentation,  just as importantly we need strategies for when our brain misfires!

How Not to Choke Under Pressure #3

Mental misfire #3 “The Over Excitement Trap” from Scatterbrain by Henning Beck.

Most of us have felt this over excitement at some stage of our careers – typically when giving a presentation. Here our autonomic nervous system is getting our body ready for the fight, flight or freeze response and pumping a cocktail of chemicals through our body including adrenaline.

But what causes our body to respond in this way? Henning Beck suggest that it’s the thought of either punishment or reward that contributes to this response. The reward might be winning an account or pitch and interestingly the higher the stakes the higher the error rate. Beck goes on to say “one of the most violent forms of punishment is social rejection.”  People are afraid of what others might say.

There are two things we can do here.

First, realise that this excitement or pressure is a good thing – it’s getting us ready to perform. Hans Selye said “it’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”  Likewise Susan David says in her book Emotional Agility, “We own our emotions, they don’t own us.” So we need to turn the table on this over excitement and realise we can mange it.

However as Beck notes “too little pressure and we perform just as poorly as when the pressure increases tenfold.” So rather than trying to rid ourselves of the excitement all together just pare it back enough so that we are more focused. 

One way we can pare it back is to practice paced breathing. If you don’t already, practice paced breathing everyday and before your event. Paced breathing is simply gently breath in on a count of 4, hold for 4, breath out for 4 and repeat for 5 or 10 minutes.

The effect of this breathing is it will balance the autonomic nervous system, so we can become more focused and alert and less over excited!

How Not to Choke Under Pressure #2

Mental misfire #2 The Distraction Trap from Scatterbrain by Henning Beck.

Whilst a small amount of distraction is important to help engage the subconscious in a step by step process, such as in sport when you are kicking for goal, this doesn’t work so well when we are undertaking complex tasks such as an exam, test or interview.  Here we need all the brains energy to focus on the task at hand and any anxiety we experience robs us of that energy.

Beck suggests we “combat the anxiety directly by simulating the pressure situation in practice, thus growing accustomed to it.”

For example in an interview rehearsal you create the pressure by allowing yourself only one attempt at an answer. The key however, is to make sure you are observed, that you have one or a couple of people play the role of the interviewer. This observation is incredibly distracting and creates the pressure we need in a safe environment.

So going over and over something doesn’t help as much as rehearsing under pressure.

How Not to Choke Under Pressure #1

I’ve just started reading Scatterbrain by Henning Beck, and in his chapter called Blackout he offers a number of strategies for helping us to avoid “choking under pressure”. He calls them Mental Misfires and here’s the first one:

Mental misfire #1: the step-by-step trap.

When we rehearse something over and over and imbed that process into our subconscious why is that when we go to perform we mess-up?

It has to do with our observant and operative systems of action. Our operative system embeds the process and our observant system scans the environment for obstacles. When we are about to perform the observant system starts looking for things that can go wrong – so guess where our focus goes? To help this to not occur Beck suggest the following:

“If you find yourself concentrating too much and thereby tensing up under pressure, it might therefore be wise to try distracting yourself a little with something else. Pause and look out the window briefly, let your thoughts drift to something else, recall a pleasant memory, play it through and linger for a few seconds and then, as you turn back, don’t concentrate on your task deliberately but simply act. Just as my athletics coach always said to me: ‘Henning, you think too much.’ Such a criticism is offered far too seldom in the modern world.”

Beck, H 2019, Scatterbrain : How the Mind’s Mistakes Make Humans Creative, Innovative and Successful, Sydney : NewSouth Publishing.

Image: Rawpixel

Problems Presenters Face #6

Being Dynamic

Being dynamic is a relative term. We don’t all have to present like Anthony Robbins or Bill from marketing who blows everyone away each year at the annual conference. But we do have to present to our full ability and tailor that to each of our audiences. For example if you take the communication model from Bolton and Bolton we have four styles, expressive, amiable, analytical and driver. We are a combination of all four styles, but one is more dominant than others. Here are some rules to follow:

  1. Know your style
  2. Know when you overdo your style.  Analyticals become too detailed, Amiables become too modest and seen as weak, Drivers are too pushy and Expressives skip all the detail
  3. Know the style of your key audience members.  This is not always easy, but if you do some research you should be able to get some insight.
  4. Make sure you know what the other styles feel like.  For example if you are highly analytical, know how your extroverted self-behaves. You may not use that style very often, so you may need to let it out of the box before you use it.

If you try and utilise your different styles, your audience will recognise that you are being authentic and your version of dynamic.

So here are some practical things you can do.

  • Play to your strengths – have a look at Hans Rosling’s presentation – a great example of how to be passionate about analytical data.
  • Engage with you audience by asking a direct question or two, don’t make them too hard and make sure you give them fore warning. For example you might say “Bill I’d be interested in your views on this topic in a minute”  then ask a question after you have covered the material you wanted to discuss.
  • Do an activity. For example Kelly McGonigal asks her audience to count backwards under pressure to demonstrate how a study was conducted.
  • Make eye contact with everyone and don’t forget to hold it for about three seconds (see the separate post on eye contact)
  • Practice using a more conversational style, as if you were having a friendly one on one conversation with someone for the first time.
  • Use gestures. Sticking your arms out to the side and saying welcome isn’t hard.  Something else happens when you do this – you voice and face change. This is because the emotion typically follows the action (psychologist/philosopher William James). For example you place you hand below your knee and reach as high as you can to describe the extreme’s of a stock market.
  • The same goes for movement. For example, you might start on the left of the room and say 10 years ago we started here (and explain the situation) then continue to take two steps at a time pausing after each and explaining along the way your journey until you reach your destination.  By which time you will be on the right side of the room.

So remember in order to be dynamic, be yourself and stretch yourself to your limits, after you have rehearsed them of course.

Problems Presenters Face #5

Using Notes

It’s not whether you use notes, it’s how well you use them.

Whether you are asked to do a presentation at the last minute or you’ve had a month to prepare you can apply the following principles. We are going to assume here that the presentation is important.

Have a set of notes prepared that are typed up, double spacing and a large font such that if you glanced down to your notes at desk height you could read them. You can either type these up word for word or just have key messages that you elaborate on.

It’s useful to have a script so that at a later date you can review exactly what you coverd. However you would never read the script word for word whilst presenting. Instead you would highlight key words or phrases and link them together.  This way it sounds more natural and engaging.    This also means that you only have to remember the key words or phrases and not the whole thing.

Cue cards are ok, however they are typically a technique  taught at school, so if you decided to use cue cards then be aware of the impression  you are creating.  Having said that, I have seen speakers at TED talks use cue cards.

If you are using notes laid out on a desk or a lectern follow these steps.

  • Have the pages numbered, typed up, single sided, not stapled and using the formatting outlined above.
  • As you finish one page slide it across the desk or lectern so that you have a two-page spread – you can then see at a glance where you are going and where you have been.  This is the technique news readers use for their backup notes in case the auto cue stops working.
  • When presenting, firstly look down, take the key message in look up without speaking, make eye contact with someone and then speak.  After you have covered off that message, look down without speaking take the next message in, look up, make eye contact and speak.

This technique can also be used for cue cards however you are only going to have key messages written on the cards and of course you would move the cards from the front of the deck to the back.

Now this method sounds very clunky and robotic, but with practice you will be able to make it your own by smoothing out the technique so that it looks natural and you look comfortable. If you spoke whilst reading your notes a few times in a presentation would it matter? – probably not.  Our goal here is not to lose our connection and nonverbal feedback from the audience.

Problems Presenters Face #4

Eye Contact

Eye contact is one of the most powerful communication tools we can use, and when used well demonstrates friendliness, openness and trust

The key to using eye contact well is it’s not about having a staring test with your audience, it’s about control.

We may want to use less than the other person, the same or more.  How much we use will depend on our situation. This involves the distance from the audience, cultural differences, the type of material we are presenting to name a few.

Interestingly, Chen et al. 2013, found “that the common efforts to look into the eyes of a persuasion target and demand that this person return gaze may be counterproductive to changing hearts and minds.”

Eye contact of course is two way, if someone asks a question you need to hold eye contact for about 70% of that interaction

So here are some do’s and donts

Don’t

  • Avoid picturing your audience naked as it takes your focus off what you are meant to be doing. (and it’s just weird)
  • Don’t fix your gaze at the back of the room. You want to connect with the audience, not the wall.
  • Don’t look between people’s eyes.  Eyes can give you feedback, noses don’t.
  • Don’t Stare. Holding eye contact for an entire thought (unless it’s about 3 seconds) could feel like it lasts forever.
  • Don’t make eye contact with people who are obviously uncomfortable receiving it.

Do’s

  • Hold eye contact for about 3 seconds.  If they are at the back of the room you can increase that to 5 to 6.
  • Connect with people, make them feel like you are having a conversation with them.
  • Plan your eye contact, give more attention to the decision makers.
  • If you are finishing a sentence, thought or idea hold eye for another couple of seconds before dashing back to your notes or launching into your next point.
  • Start using the appropriate amount of eye contact from the beginning.

If you find yourself struggling to use eye contact, then practice.  Ask someone you know to give you a score on how often you use eye contact well. Then build on it, one presentation at a time.

Chen, F, Minson, J, Schöne, M & Heinrichs, M 2013, ‘In the Eye of the Beholder: Eye Contact Increases Resistance to Persuasion’, Psychological Science, vol. 24, no. 11, p. 2254.

Problems Presenters Face # 3

How to Start a Presentation

The way you start a presentation will be determined by your situation. Is it the Monday morning team briefing, the presentation of your research at a global conference or the annual Christmas party? Irrespective of the event, you need to do three things.

  1. Work out who the audience is and what their expectations are.
  2. Decide on what you want your audience to think and do differently at the end of your presentation and
  3. Decide what you want your audience to think about you at the end of the presentation.  That is, think about what impact your presentation will have on your personal brand.

Ok, so once you have conducted your situation analysis, you can then start to think about your opening. Here are just two examples.

Example 1. Formal, good for an audience who likes structure.

Sequence & PurposeExample
Welcome Make people feel comfortable, do any housekeeping, manage expectations and if necessary, establish any credibilityi.“Hello, thank you for our time today my name is……I have a short 20 minute presentation and I’m happy to take any questions along the way”  
Creative (always optional) Tell a short story / relevant joke / show something.  Designed to grab the audience’s attention Must be relevant and usually developed after you have written the rest of the presentation(Project the old woman/young woman image.) “I would like you study this image for me” (wait 5 seconds) then ask “who saw an old woman, who saw a young woman who saw both? This image can be seen in two or more distinct ways and I would like to talk to you about…(transition to next element: topic)
Topic People need to be clear on what you are going to cover“….how the mind interprets events differently”
Objective What’s in it for the audience – why should they listen to you.  This is different to the objective stated in the situational analysis, which is about what you want to achieve.“Out of today’s presentation I would like you to see the value of getting the views of others to help solve problems”
Agenda Give the audience some signposts – where are you going to take them how will the objective you just stated be achieved“We are going to talk about three topics: How we all interpret things differently Why this is a good thing and how we can leverage this in our interactions with each other to get better outcomes

i Have a look at the TED Talk given by Siegfried Woldhek, he builds credibility a little way in, not straight up front as we have suggested here.

Example 2.  Based on Andrew Abela’s SCoRE method. Designed to engage the audience very quickly.

Sequence & PurposeExample
WelcomeThanks everyone, I have a 20 minute presentation and invite discussion as we go.
S. Situation. The occasion for this presentation: something that everyone in your audience will agree on:Our recent employee survey which you have all seen, stated very clearly that we have become very closed to the ideas of others.
Co. Complication. A problem that the audience has  The problem this creates is a lack of communication across departments which results in conflict and as we have seen recently errors that are affecting our bottom line.
R. Resolution Your contribution to solving this problemThe solution I am proposing is to improve our communication by utilising the collaboration Software “Slack”. 
E. Example An illustration of your contributionHere’s an example of what I mean.  Slack helped HubSpot scale its award-winning culture by improving communication and collaboration with Slack.”

This very direct start to the presentation is designed to grab the audience’s attention, wasting no time and driving them to action. What follows the last example is another series of CoREs which identify the audiences problems and addresses them one by one.

How not to start a presentation

Chris Anderson in his book The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, tells a story about how not to start a presentation:

“In the first TED I organized, one of the speakers began, “As I was driving down here wondering what to say to you …” There followed an unfocused list of observations about possible futures. Nothing obnoxious. Nothing that was particularly hard to understand. But also no arguments of power. No revelations. No aha moments. No takeaways. The audience clapped politely. But no one really learned anything.

I was fuming. It’s one thing to underprepare. But to boast that you’ve underprepared? That’s insulting. It tells the audience that their time doesn’t matter. That the event doesn’t matter.”[1]

So think carefully about how you start your presentation and always respect your audience.


[1] Anderson, Chris. TED Talks: The official TED guide to public speaking: Tips and tricks for giving unforgettable speeches and presentations. Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle Edition.

Problems Presenters Face #2

Venue and Technology Problems

Venue and Technology issues will never go away, no matter how hard we try.  So here are some ways to prevent a disaster.

Have a backup. Have your presentation on your pc, in the cloud and on an external device. If it’s not backed up three times, it’s not backed up.

Have a spare laptop with the presentation loaded.

If you are using a computer at the venue check whether the venue runs Mac or PC.  This is usually not a problem, however sometimes if a conference is run at a University different break out rooms may have different technology.

Do a quick run through preferably the day before your presentation making sure everything works. For major presentations do a full run through at the venue.

Be aware of the difference between standard 4:3 and widescreen 16:9 PowerPoint templates. The Presentation Company explain it like this:

A standard template is almost square, with a 4:3 aspect ratio. If you’re showing a PowerPoint presentation on an older projector, iPad, or tablet, you’ll need a Standard template. For all others projection types, including laptops, TV monitors, or modern projectors, you’ll need a Widescreen 16:9 template.

If you are worried about the technology, then make sure you have access to a technical resource either by phone or on site.

Have a technology check list.

Always be early even if you rehearsed the day before to ensure all systems are working.

A final thought on venues and technology. Given that your presentation is important and you have put in the hard work, don’t let things or people get in your way.

Where possible:

  • If office furniture is in the way – move it.
  • If you don’t want to use a lectern – ask for a lapel mic.
  • Make it clear that you will not be compromised on time because someone else ran over – negotiate if you must.
  • Make sure you can see the eyes of everyone in your audience so you can connect with them.

Finally, never assume things will be “right on the night” always check and double check. Even some of the best presenters get it wrong – just Google Steve Jobs bloopers.

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