Rethinking conference talks for video calls

19.27, Friday 15 May 2020

I’ve done two Zoom talks this week. I love public speaking and I aspire to be at least “not shit” in this new medium. So, some work in progress thoughts…

As the speaker, I need to see faces

Donkeys years ago Danny O’Brien said to me that the purpose of asking cheesy audience-participation questions like raise your hand if you’ve ever etc is not to connect with the audience…

Sometimes, when I’m doing a talk, I start to disconnect – it’s like I can suddenly hear my own voice. I lose my mental overview and ramble into the weeds. At worst, I freeze completely (that’s happened once). It’s at that moment that I remember Danny saying that speaking on a stage, just talking without anybody to speak with, is psychologically weird and unnatural, and you need a way to kid yourself it’s a normal conversation. So that’s when to ask the audience a question, which I then do, and it’s enough to fool my brain so we get back on track.

Ok so Zoom is terrible for this.

Because everyone’s on mute, there’s not even the feedback of ambient noise.

So, at a minimum, I think audience cameras should stay switched on. I want to see people’s faces – ideally in gallery view (that grid of thumbnails).

There’s a risk that someone will look distracted, and that’s off-putting, but I regard that as a separate problem. See below.

How about designing slides for thumbnail view?

In real life talks, audience attention bounces between the speaker and the slides. In a way, there are two characters on stage. You can play games with that.

One gag I’ve used a few times builds up over 6 slides, and I bring up each slide and read out the words, training the audience to look at the text. Then on the last slide, which is funny because it undermines me slightly, I don’t say anything, but by habit everyone reads the punchline and encounters the gag for themselves. That makes it funnier.

So you can deliberately push attention around. You can turn around and face the slides, directing attention towards them and and placing yourself with the audience. You can use a series of visually complex slides, followed by a very plain one, which suddenly leaves all that captures attention with nothing to alight on except you and your next statement, and it works like a spotlight. It can be very effective.

BUT, generally speaking, audience members look sometimes at the speaker and sometimes at the slides, and they’re entirely in charge of how and when they do that, and it’s a really good mechanism to avoid getting bored.

And they can’t do this on Zoom.

The problem with Zoom and screen sharing is that the slides take up the whole damn view and you, the speaker, get relegated to a thumbnail. (On other platforms it’s worse: you see the slides, and the speaker becomes a disembodied voice.)

The slide dominates the speaker. So

  • either the slide is information-rich, in which case a listener will look at the slide and ignore the speaker,
  • or the slide is basic (for example, a single clear statement) in which case it still grabs their attention, because it’s massive, but the listener has to stare at something boring while you make the real point.

For me, the best approach would be no screen sharing.

Here’s what I want to try:

The slides and speaker should appear in separate thumbnails. Audience members should be encouraged to click at will between the two, sometimes looking at one, and sometimes the other. Their choice.

Unfortunately I can’t figure out how to do this – as far as I can tell, screen sharing on Zoom will cause the slides to always occupy the full screen view for all call participants. Thoughts welcome.

Slides for orientation

I’m accustomed to using slides for pace and rhythm. Sure, individual slides can be for information, illustration, a counterpoint, to provide a section break, and so on. But with a sequence of slides, that’s how you control pace.

A talk needs slow expansive sections plus also rapid-fire bits to rattle through – the variety of pace keeps it interesting!

For some reason, this doesn’t work on Zoom. Maybe because, in the end, a computer screen is pretty small compared to the room the viewer is sitting in? So a sequence of slides doesn’t have enough impact to effectively set pace?

Actually it’s almost like there’s no pace at all. I feel like online talks have a kind of timelessness. The speaker drones on, the slides tick over, when will it all end…

So I’m trying to figure out ways where each slide can communicate where we are in the talk, at a glance.

Perhaps, if a talk were to have three sections, each section is given a different background colour? Headers and footers aren’t visible when you’re designing for thumbnail view.

Massive numbers maybe? One talk I did this week was organised around 8 tips (numbered), and two breaks which I announced at the beginning. This structure was given at the head of the talk. Each break had a suggested topic to think about, and then I took general questions from the text chat before resuming. (Of course these are also opportunities for people to check their email, which relieves some of that distracting tension.)

I think there might be something in this approach.

Background matters less than lighting and position

Camera at eye level. Nobody wants to look up my nose.

Close but not too close. The ideal distance is so that the top of my head is sometimes cropped out (if I’m leaning in), but my hand gestures should always be visible (hands at belly height and up).

I use two light sources: room lighting for overall brightness, and a bright lamp on one side (not pointed directly at me) to provide texture and shadow across my face. I’ve done calls where there’s a light source like a window behind me. Never again.

My background is neutral grey. For calls it doesn’t have to be, background is character, like choosing what top you wear (though your face should always be better lit than the background, to draw focus). But for talks, I think it’s important to stand out, and that means a plain background.

An opportunity to re-think how talks work

I like talks. I like hearing engaging speakers, and I like talks dense with ideas – whether these are unique and hard-won insights, or weird anecdotes.

I’ve seen some speakers who can hold my attention and the whole audience with no slides at all. I love it. I’m unable do speeches myself, but I love a good one.

My favourite talks are the ones that last 45+ minutes, especially the ones where the speaker has notes. There’s room to travel along with the speaker to somewhere new. 45 minutes is enough to build new perspectives.

When TED came along, and TEDx, suddenly all talks everywhere had to be 18 minutes long. I don’t like 18 minute talks. There’s only room for one idea. Especially because the speaker is denied notes.

I like live talks. I don’t get along with recorded talks – I don’t find them fun to watch, and I don’t like the idea of recording without an audience. I want to see the whites of their eyes. Mind you, I don’t really get on with TV or YouTube either, so perhaps it’s just me.


I find the idea of Zoom talks fascinating. What does it means to do something

  • which is live
  • where everyone in the audience is potentially multitasking
  • that includes a text chat backchannel which is visible to everyone?

Could talks get longer again, because tuning in isn’t such a commitment – the audience can be present but also checking their email?

But with new elements, and new approaches to structure, and new approaches to performance and interactivity?

No idea. Working on it.

More posts tagged:
Follow-up posts:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.