More virtual presentation top tips from Hari Patience-Davies – choosing between a virtual and real background, how to dress for virtual success and a how to guide for presenting both your slides and video feed on the same screen.

We’ve already talked about some of the practical things you can do to improve your virtual presence for presentations and speeches, but the changes you can make don’t end with getting decent lighting and lifting your computer up to prevent the illusion of a double chin.

What’s that behind you?

Immediately there’s a decision to make about whether you want to show the room you’re actually sitting in. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Webex all include functionality that allows a user to choose to blur out the details of their background or add a virtual background behind them – how to info for each software is linked above.

Now I will admit I am not the biggest fan of virtual backgrounds. In my experience the differentiation between the speaker’s outline and the virtual background can be undermined by elements such as wearing large headphones, or having frizzy or curly hair. As someone who has both large headphones and curly hair, I didn’t find I looked particularly good with a virtual background (and I worried the constant flickering as the screen tried to adapt was distracting the audience), so I prefer instead to dress my actual background rather than a rely on a virtual one.

This isn’t true of everyone (some people have hair which behaves itself), so it’s worth trying out virtual backgrounds (ideally while wearing small headphones) and seeing how they work for you.

And there are circumstances where individual vanity should be put aside and virtual backgrounds used for all. If you’re presenting as part of a team, then having everyone using the same virtual background, ideally a custom one that’s been especially designed for your team, is a great way of showing solidarity with each other regardless of how far apart you actually are in the real world.

This works nicely for team meetings, status updates, pitches – anything where several teams are on the same call and you want to be able to differentiate your team.

If you have your heart set on a virtual background and the budget to support it, you could always choose to invest in a pop-up green screen. Googling reveals many many companies selling these currently, but be sure to know the size of screen you want as it’s really easy to order something too big or too small for your needs.

Screenshot of Google search results for pop-up green screen

Keeping it real

When it comes to real physical backgrounds, take a lesson from politicians and pundits the world over and position yourself in front of a bookshelf of notable titles  – just make sure it’s not right up against your back where people can read the details of the spines of the books as that can be a distraction from what you actually have to say. It also can be unnerving to notice your audience twisting their necks to try and make out a title or author.

It might also be a good idea to move your much read copy of 50 Shades of Grey (or similar) out of shot or to a lower shelf. Don’t just turn it around to be spine in or leave a gap as the distraction to your audience of wondering just what it was you didn’t want them to see could be substantial.

If you don’t have an appropriate bookshelf, a good alternative is to sit about two foot in front of a wall – but be aware of the colour and pattern of that wall. If you have light skin then sitting against a magnolia or cream background isn’t a good look. Brightly patterned wallpaper can also be a distraction, so avoid anything that isn’t plain. Ideally the wall should be a single colour background, which is roughly on the other side of the colour wheel from your skin tone. In general, lighter skin tones do well against dark coloured walls, while darker skin tones stand out against rich or warm coloured backgrounds.

It’s hard to judge this so take screendumps of yourself (while on screen on your webcam) in front of the different walls in your home and make a decision about which one looks best – we all have different coloured undertones to our skin (peach, orange, even blue etc) so what looks good for one person won’t necessarily work for another. And don’t forget that light and camera position are also key factors when choosing a location.

Try not to have a huge open space behind you – especially if you have family or flat mates who are likely to appear in the background. If you cannot find a bookshelf or wall that works, and virtual backgrounds don’t work for you either, then your only option is to use the blur function. Blurring isn’t ideal – if people do walk into shot the movement will still be tracked – but it’s better than everyone on your call getting a front row seat to your children’s play or flatmates’ more esoteric fashion choices.

Fashion choices

Dressing for a video conference is not the same as dressing for the office or for the stage. For a start, you will most likely be sitting down, so flowing jackets, long skirts or draped scarves have a limited impact. Elaborate hair-dos and make up also have limited impact (unless you’ve upgraded your camera to something super-HD, in which case foundation at least is a must).

One thing I would avoid is showing too much skin – throughout the summer I was on many calls with people in very short sleeves and vest tops and it felt increasingly like a fashion show of beach wear.  For informal circumstances and virtual coffees with friends that’s fine, but keep a jacket nearby to put on for presentations or meetings when you’re on camera. This goes for both men and women, but is (annoyingly) especially pertinent for women like me with curvier builds. However I found that any sort of jacket (a loose black one, a tailored grey one, even a dark green cardigan with a nice collar) did the job for sprucing the most informal outfits up.

For gentleman I would advise a collared shirt rather than t-shirt, or at least a jacket over a t-shirt if collars bring you out in cold sweats. To tie or not to tie is a choice best made based on your industry and who you will be talking to – if you expect people in your audience to wear ties, then you should wear one too, but keep in mind that ties can look very formal on camera.

You could always join the conference call with a tie in place, but keep your video off for a minute or so while you check out what everyone else is wearing, and remove it and open a collar button if that fits better with the style of the group. But start with wearing the tie, then remove it, as trying to frantically add one may end up with a less impressive knot or dodgy alignment.

Ties are often patterned, and like any pattern on camera can bleed or create visual distortion that can distract your audience. As far as possible stick with plain colours or small non-garish patterns – this goes for all genders. Pinstripes are okay, checks or plaid are debatable depending on colour, large flower patterns work for some people but not all. Your clothing is a reflection of your personality, so you don’t need to just ditch half of your work wardrobe if everyone is used to seeing you in brightly coloured comedic shirts – but if you’re presenting to an audience of strangers or one that you’re less familiar with, there’s no harm in toning it down.

Keep hair neat – as I mentioned before frizzy or curly hair can cause issues with virtual backgrounds so consider that when it comes to grooming choices when you get dressed in the morning. And make up should be kept simple – this is the time for that make up look that doesn’t look like you’re wearing make up, and not for winged eyeliner (with the exception of course that if that is part of your professional look and how everyone expects you to present yourself, go for it).

And despite all the jokes that circulated in early lockdown, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wearing comfortable jogging trousers or pyjama pants on your lower body. So long as you don’t stand up, there’s no harm in it and if it makes you feel more comfortable, and therefore potentially more confident, why not do it?

Sharing your screen

Finally, you should ask yourself what is the most important thing for your audience to be looking at – is it your face or is it something else? Now this will vary depending on the type of presentation you’re going to be delivering – analysis of data requires showing the data, training sessions often require walkthroughs of systems or visible methodologies – but it’s not the case for all.

Instead most people bring PowerPoint to a virtual presentation. And the second you start showing those slides, your video feed is massively reduced in size and often sent off to a less prominent corner of the screen.

Think about TED talks. There is (almost) always a slide deck visible on screen behind where the speaker stands on stage, but the camera cuts away from their face very rarely. It’s more important for the audience to build connection with the speaker so that’s where the focus is placed.

If you have a slide deck you want people to see AND you want them to also connect with you as a speaker, you’re in a quandary. Microsoft Teams defaults to show shared slides or screens as the largest section of the broadcast and will only allow a single face to be given prominence if each audience member chooses to “pin” the speaker in place. Currently that’s not a setting a speaker can turn on.

Zoom can offer more parity of speaker/slides on screen but again this isn’t the default and your audience can overrule it. Zoom chat and other functionality also overlaps slides or speaker images, while on Teams the chat appear at the side by default but can be popped out.

Desktop showing slides and video feed - Image credit: https://www.thinkoutsidetheslide.com
Desktop showing slides and video feed – Image credit: https://www.thinkoutsidetheslide.com

One way of getting around this is to set up a custom desktop which has both your slides and your video feed side by side and then share that. I found full instructions on how to do this over on https://www.thinkoutsidetheslide.com/ so all credit to them. Check out their instructions here.

When doing things like setting up a custom desktop it really helps to have a second screen attached to your laptop, so you can keep the chat window visible to you but not your audience in order to keep an eye out for any incoming questions. So if you haven’t already invested in a second screen, and you’re someone who is spending a lot of time delivering virtual presentations right now, I would really recommend you look into it. Tablets can be set up as second screens, but often have limited functionality – so do a trial run of this set-up before you’re presenting for real to iron out any wrinkles.

TL:DR

  • Consider what your audience sees behind you – are there potential distractions in shot?
  • Bookshelves make good backgrounds. Or plain coloured walls.
  • Or you could use a virtual background (but there are some limitations).
  • Plan an outfit – block colours are better than patterns.
  • Do you want to show slides and your video feed at the same time? It’s easier to do this if you have a second screen.

Please note links do not equal endorsement.

Featured image credit – Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

One thought on “Top tips for virtual presentations – How to look good virtually

  1. You should check out mmhmm.app, it has some great features for presenting. I’ve not had a chance to try it out in the wild yet but I am looking forward to it.

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