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INNOVATION ECONOMY

Speaking coaches offer tips for sprucing up Zoom meetings

Videoconferencing’s here to stay. Is it time to clean up your act?

Gabby Jones/Bloomberg

No matter where you went to school, I’m betting your education did not include a course called Public Speaking for Zoom.

And yet in March, for many of us in-person meetings, performance reviews, and strategy sessions suddenly had to take place via video conference. It’s an unnatural state for many people, full of opportunities to look shadowy or shifty or distracted, or simply to feel like your message isn’t getting through as you stare into your webcam.

And the audience is often listening with their voices muted, there’s no feedback — no laughter and no applause.

In short, as a stand-up comedian might say, Zoom is a tough room to work. So I reached out to four public speaking coaches for advice. We met — where else? — on Zoom.

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SETTING UP THE ROOM

My first consult was with Rachel Cossar, founder of the Boston firm Choreography for Business, which teaches communications skills. Cossar is a former member of the Boston Ballet. “When you’re joining a virtual meeting, especially if it’s an important meeting, you want that first image of your audience seeing you to be one of clarity, and confidence, and expertise,” she says.

Lighting is important: You don’t want a bright light or a sunny window behind you, making your face look dark. “You can be as expressive as you want, but people won’t see anything,” she says. The camera lens should be at eye level. If it’s looking up at you, you loom over people, and if it’s looking down on you, you can seem childlike, Cossar explains.

Nor should you be seen as a giant Oz-like head on your colleague’s screens. “Give yourself enough space to breathe,” Cossar says. If you extend your arm out to the camera, the camera should be about six inches from the tips of your fingers, she says. And you also want to pay attention to what is in the room or on the wall behind you, because your viewers surely will.

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Cossar and other coaches say that your energy as a speaker tends to be better when you are standing, so consider setting up a standing desk in your home office. Or, if you want a temporary solution when you need to give a presentation on Zoom, set your computer up on an ironing board.

ALLOW INTERACTION FROM THE OUTSET

Rather than make your audience wait until the end to comment or ask questions, create an opportunity for interaction right at the start, speaking coach Nick Morgan suggests. (He was ahead of his time with a 2018 book titled “Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World.”) With Zoom’s software, you can create polls that an audience can respond to — and see instant results — or you can ask people for their opinions or experiences using the chat feature, Morgan says.

“I make sure that about every 10 minutes or so, I do something interactive,” he says. “If you don’t do that, then you’re just talking into the void. It’s hard on you . . . but it’s death for the audience.”

DONT BE ASHAMED TO USE NOTES

With Zoom, it can be tempting to read a speech from the screen you’re already staring at, or to use a Web-based teleprompter to scroll automatically through your script.

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When you’re reading, your speech cadence typically tells people “I’m reading this,” Cossar says. Speaking more conversationally and referring to printed notes on your desk or in your hand “isn’t something to be ashamed of.”

DON’T SHOW SLIDES THE ENTIRE TIME

When you cue up a slide presentation at an in-person talk, your body remains the same size in the room. But when you do it online, your presence is often reduced to a postage stamp on the screen, and the slides take over, says Suzanne Bates, the CEO of Bates Communications, a Wellesley training firm that focuses on leadership and communications skills.

“I recommend that you use slides only when you need them — put them up, and then take them down,” Bates says. “That way, the attention comes back to me and I can connect with the audience again.”

SLOW DOWN THE GESTURING

Trying to communicate ideas and enthusiasm with hand gestures on a video conference can seem frenetic, Cossar says. “You’re not seen as calm or collected.” Slow down your hand movements, or emphasize a point by pretending you have a conductor’s baton in your hand. Cossar says that when she works with clients, “we spend time pretending that we have weights in our hands, or that the air has a thicker texture. You have to allow each gesture to land.”

MAKE SURE YOU SOUND CRISP

It’s important to test how your home-office setup sounds with a colleague or two listening. You may want to plug in an external microphone with its own stand, or clip a lavalier microphone to your shirt, says Ethan Becker, president of the Speech Improvement Co. in Framingham. “They’re not expensive — maybe $50 or less,” he says. (Becker had an external microphone sitting on his desk — a Sennheiser E835, which costs about $100.) But if your computer’s built-in mic sounds good to others, use that.

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There’s some debate about whether it’s wise to use a headset with cups over your ears and a “boom” mic that extends over your cheek. Morgan uses a headset and says he hasn’t found another mic that offers the same sound quality.

I think they can make speakers look too much like an air-traffic controller. Bates agrees: “It’s distracting to me. I feel like I’m looking at a radio disc jockey.” Wearing gear on your head creates a barrier to being authentic, she says — it’s the Zoom version of standing behind a podium when you speak, rather than walking comfortably around the room.


‘DRESS FOR SUCCESS’ STILL APPLIES

With videoconferencing’s emphasis on the belt line on up, it can be tempting to throw on a dress shirt or a blouse and leave boxers or pajama bottoms on your lower half. But what happens if you need to get up mid-meeting to close a door or deal with an emergency? Becker made this point inadvertently during our Zoom interview, when he adjusted his camera to reveal he was wearing shorts with his crisp blue button-down shirt. He holds a doctorate and has a touch of gray hair, but for the moment he looked like a summer intern who hadn’t gotten the memo about the office dress code.

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Back in March, when it seemed we might all be temporary denizens of Zoom-land, many professionals hesitated when it came to improving their online presence, Bates says. But it’s now clear, she says, that “virtual presenting is here to stay, so we are going to have to get really good at this.”




Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner