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The Realities of Virtual Presentations During COVID-19

*NOTE: This article is not a commentary on masks, social distancing or other COVID-19 protocols. Please follow the guidelines established by your local and regional authorities.

I’m a sports broadcaster and professional speaker and I hate “thumbnail audiences.” 

I’d rather be talking to myself.

If you knew me as a kid (or realized how much I talk to myself during the day) this might not come as a surprise.

But here’s what came as a surprise to me: it’s 100 times easier to be on live TV in front of hundreds of thousands of people I can’t see than present to a thumbnail audience.

I’d rather be talking to myself.

I’ll admit there is value in using technology to connect. Virtual presentations are the norm these days out of necessity, but you might want to reconsider the impact of those messages. For those struggling to keynote with thumbnail audiences on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or WebEx there’s a reason for that. For those who continue to schedule such keynotes as if it’s the next best thing to being in person, could you hit the pause button on that for just a second?

I’m a sports broadcaster with 14-years of experience on TV. That makes me an expert in the virtual space, because no TV audience I talk to is live and in-person in front of me. After more than a decade as a keynote speaker and corporate trainer I’m an expert in presenting on stage. 

I know how challenging it is for video and on-cam newcomers to feel connected to an audience they can’t see beyond the camera lens, in fact I’ve started semi-private coaching groups to work with those folks, but staring into nothingness in a camera lens is nothing compared to looking a screen of blank faces. 

A focused and engaged audience looks different on a screen versus in person. 

In person if you smile at your audience they smile back. In a virtual world if you smile at your audience it takes an extra half second for them to see it. They’re response is delayed. At that point you’ve moved on and missed it. Or maybe the audience misses your smile because they’re distracted, so once again you don’t get a response. And that’s what shakes your confidence as a presenter.

I don’t need the audience to applaud my message to know it was heard. I need to see their reactions in the moment. The nod of agreement, a smile, the look that tells me they’re deep in thought and the “Ah-ha!” moment that slowly creeps across the face of someone who’s just unlocked a new tool and discovered hidden potential.

Last week I presented to three different groups within 36-hours. Each group asked me to talk about presentation skills in virtual settings. One was presentation was entirely virtual. The second was delivered in person, but to only six people while all of us wore masks. The third was a private coaching session in a space conducive to social distancing at more than 6’ apart where masks weren’t needed.

I’m an expert in the material. I have more than a decade of experience with virtual and live audiences, and here’s what I’ve learned about presenting in front of thumbnail audiences.


5 Realities of Presenting to a Thumbnail Audience

  1. I rambled. I don’t typically do that. Twenty years in sports broadcasting teaches you the importance of writing tight copy and not wasting time, and yet I spent far too much time on the first three slides of my presentation.
  2. I wanted validation/encouragement/acknowledgement. I know I create and deliver quality content but when I had faces in front of me, even just a thumbnail audience, I searched for signs the message was resonating. Because of the lag time and the fact an audience shows up differently for virtual presentations I ended up stalling and rambling in a way I wouldn’t do in person.
  3. I should just trust my imagination. When I’m on TV I imagine the audience response. I don’t need to see them in real time to anticipate the happiness, excitement, disappointment or frustration they’re experiencing. I picture a specific person or group of friends reacting to what I just said on TV. That is a far easier approach to connecting with a virtual audience than trying to scan a thumbnail audience and actually read their reactions in real time. 

Focus looks a lot like anger, confusion and irritation behind a mask or a screen. 

  1. Masks are just as challenging. I love presenting in person, but I didn’t anticipate just how much masks change that dynamic. Talking to a masked audience isn’t much different than talking to a thumbnail audience. Focus looks a lot like anger, confusion and irritation behind a mask or a screen and that’s disconcerting for a presenter. Plus wearing a mask while delivering a 90-minute session is no joke. Breathing became difficult and I couldn’t maintain the pace and energy level I can in person. 
  1. All or nothing is easier. If I can see the audience I want reassurance. Body language often starts with your face. If I can’t see your facial reactions I have a hard time judging your response. If the audience is entirely anonymous, like when I’m on TV, I don’t worry about their reaction.


I’d rather talk to myself because it’s 100 times easier to deliver a compelling message when I’m not trying to cater to a thumbnail audience. 

This doesn’t mean I’m leaving the audience out of it altogether. I build in questions for audience engagement, I ask for responses in the chat box. I call on specific people to give me a head nod, a thumbs-up or a virtual high-5 during presentations.

I will continue to do that, but I won’t assume that seeing my audience members is helpful. I won’t worry about being called self-centered if I choose the speaker view versus the gallery view. I’ll stop trying to scroll through pages of thumbnails while presenting. I’ll spend less time looking for real-time audience approval and spend more time crafting and preparing a message I know will resonate with my audience.

I will talk to myself while keeping the audience in mind.

If you’re struggling in the space of virtual presentations I get it. It’s hard. In my estimation it’s 100 times harder than being on live TV. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share your message or keep booking events or continue serving your audience as best as you can right now. Keep doing all of those things. Give yourself some grace and start talking to yourself.

Looking to improve your virtual presentation skills? I do offer private coaching, small-group coaching and of course virtual training on best practices for a virtual space. Email [email protected] to schedule a time to talk. 


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