The challenges of speaking online

One year ago, I would have never imagined that nearly all of my speaking would move online to the virtual world. Yet, the pandemic changed the world beyond recognition and forced organisations worldwide to move their activities online or face extinction. By leading the transition from physical to online meetings in my own organisation. I was able to observe first-hand the challenges and opportunities of the online world we now live in.

In this first article of a series, we will first examine the challenges of speaking online.

What do I mean by speaking online?

Here I am using the term ‘speaking’ as a shorthand for ‘public speaking’. Public speaking is the process of delivering a speech in front of a live audience on a defined topic. The key term in this definition of public speaking is ‘live audience’ and this is a crucial one for defining what speaking online is. Speaking online therefore requires a live audience and this de facto excludes the majority of video content available on platforms such as YouTube. While speakers can learn a lot from high-quality YouTube videos such as the World War Two series that I am currently watching. These videos weren’t created with a live audience in mind and interactions between the speaker and audience members take-place offline in the comments section.

By contrast, webinars, Facebook live videos and speeches or presentations conducted via teleconferencing software involve a live audience and are different forms of online speaking. Yet even then, the degree of live interactions between the speaker and the audience will vary considerably depending on the medium used.

Speaking online requires access to technology

Technology is the most obvious challenge for online speakers. But not necessarily in the way that one might think at first. Most teleconferencing software is easy to use and I’ve covered some online meeting tips here before. Access to high-quality hardware can however be more challenging if one wants to make an impact when speaking online. When speaking in-person, leveraging one’s voice and body language is all that’s needed to make an impact delivery wise.

However, in online settings access to a high-definition camera, a noise-cancelling microphone and reliable high-speed connection are all needed. Additionally, having a way to position the camera so that the speaker can stand-up and speak facing directly at the camera is desirable. Finally having a neutral background or a green screen can be useful too.

The good news here is that technology isn’t necessarily very expensive to purchase. A good entry-level HD camera can be purchased for around £30 and the same is true for a noise-cancelling microphone with a tripod. However, these are not strictly necessary and I have only used my inbuilt laptop camera and a good quality USB headset since March.

Audience interaction

The main challenge is of course being able to interact with one’s audience in a meaningful way. One of the most difficult yet impactful skill for public speakers to master to enhance their delivery is eye contact. It can be replicated online by looking at the camera, the little white or red dot, on most laptops or standalone cameras. However, by doing so one is unable to see the audience and its reactions directly. This is assuming, of course, that audience members have switched their own cameras one and don’t mind being seen; though this is in itself is far from always the case. In short, online public speaking is far more of a one-way communication than its in-person counterpart is. Because it is almost impossible for speakers to see, hear or even feel how the audience is reacting to what is being said.

There are of course many ways to overcome the audience interaction challenges brought by online speaking. In my experience so far, vocal variety is perhaps the most effective tool that speakers can use to grab audience’s attention online. Using pauses for impact and raising once’s voice can be dramatically effective online as people tend to be distracted more easily. In short, speaking with passion and conviction will always a winner to grab an audience both online or in-person. For speeches that are more informational, tools like Mentimeter or slido can introduce significant elements of audience interactions and will be especially effective in webinar settings.

Stay tuned for future posts where we will explore the opportunities of speaking online and why in my opinion speaking online will never completely replace traditional public speaking in physical settings.

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