Appendix C: Public Speaking Online

Appendix C: Public Speaking Online

As we were looking toward this revision of Exploring Public Speaking, we realized that one area of public speaking that our readers might run into is “speaking online.” Although traditional face-to-face public speaking has a 2500-year history and thousands of research articles to support it, speaking online is a relatively new procedure. This appendix will attempt to give some guidelines for this new mode of public speaking, gleaned mostly from business communication sources such as the Harvard Business Review. The websites we used to compile this appendix are given at the end of it.

All online speaking is not created equal. You might take an online class that requires you to send a video of yourself giving a speech for a grade. You might be participating—or leading—a “webinar,” which is a meeting or presentation over the Internet using a tool such as Blackboard Collaborate, Citrix, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, or one of many other webconferencing tools. These have become very common in the educational and business world because they save a huge amount of money—employees, students, and learners can meet without having to travel to another location.

With this growth in popularity, we have a growth in problems and common behaviors, or misbehaviors, in webconferencing and thus online “public speaking.” Much of the advice on webconference public speaking comes as antidotes to the worst practices that have developed in them, which are:

  1. the audience’s multitasking (and thus not fully attending to the webinar)
  2. the audience’s being bored to death and going to sleep (which I confess to)

Both of these conditions come from the fact that the communication is mediated and that in many cases the speaker and audience don’t see each other. Even when the participants use their web cameras (which doesn’t always happen), the screen is often covered with a slide and the speaker is invisible. Therefore, the speaker has to depend on something else to address the temptation to multitask or nod off.

Preparation for Online Speaking

First, recognize that this is a different type of venue. You have two main tools: your voice and your visuals (slides).

If monotone and monorate speaking is horrible for face-to-face speaking, it is truly the “Kiss of Death” for web speaking. The key word is “energy”—an energetic voice has variety and interest to it. Since we tend to have a lower energy level when we sit, some experts suggest that web conference speakers stand to approximate the real speaking experience. This suggestion makes sense. As we have mentioned repeatedly through this book, preparing means practicing your speech orally and physically, many times. Audio-recording yourself during your practice on your smartphone or other device is a good first step, followed by critically and honestly thinking about whether your voice if listless, flat, energy-less, and likely to induce snooziness.

Second, your visuals. Most of us are tempted to put far too much text and too many graphics on the slides, and since the slides are the primary thing the audience will see (rather than your full body), the temptation is even stronger. As one expert on web speaking suggested, if your presentation in the workforce is likely to be graph, data, and information heavy because it’s all information the audience must know, send the information in a report ahead of time. We’ve mentioned before that speeches are not good for dumping a great deal of information on audiences.

Therefore, keep your visuals simple. They do not have to have lots of clip art and photographs to keep attention. One rule business speakers like to use is the “10-20-30: rule: No more than 10 slides, no more than 20 words on the slides, and no font smaller than 30 point.” Using 30 point font will definitely minimize the amount of text. Inserting short videos and planning interactivity (such as polls, which the software supports) are also helpful.

Also in the realm of preparation, avoid two other problems. Since some of your presentation might be visible, be sure your background is “right.” Many people perform webinars in their offices, and let’s be honest, some offices provide backgrounds that are less than optimal. They are either messy and disorganized or have distracting decorations. In other cases, you could be sitting in a neutral place with a blank wall behind you, but that setting can have its own issues. One writer talks about a speaker who wore a white shirt against a white background and almost disappeared.

It goes without saying that the web speaker must be master of the technology, not be mastered by it. Technology messes up. That is a fact of life. One of the sources for this appendix was an archived video of a webinar about web speaking by an expert; during the webinar, his Internet connection was lost! Even if the connection is strong, the speaker must know what buttons to push on the software. For this reason, it might be a good idea to have an “assistant” who handles the technology and makes sure it works so that you can focus on the communication.

Experts give a few other preparation tips:

  1. Make sure you will not be interrupted during the webconference. This can be extremely embarrassing as well as ineffective. You have probably seen the priceless video from the BBC of an interview with an expert on Korea. His children photobomb the interview and then the mother tries to clean up the damage. It is hilarious, but the same situation won’t be for you. Lock the door, put a big sign on the door not to be disturbed, and turn off the phones.
  2. Have notes and anything else you need right at hand.
  3. If you can be seen, be seen—use the technology to your advantage so that you are not an entirely disembodied voice talking over slides.

Finally, in preparing, think humor. Humor is a great attention-getter (see Chapter 7 on factors of attention). Cartoons, short videos, funny anecdotes, and visual humor can help you work against the audience’s temptations to multitask or daydream in a webinar. There is a limit and it should be tasteful and relevant, but humor might be one of your best allies. Plus, it might increase your own energy level and fun with the webinar.

During the Web Speech

One of the helpful suggestions from the business writers used for this appendix was to start on time. This might seem obvious, but if you have ever been in an online meeting or webinar, it’s harder said than done–mainly because participants log on at the start of the meeting rather than early and it takes a while for the technology to kick in. Therefore, one suggestion is to have a “soft” introduction for the punctual and a “hard” opening for the late-comers. The soft intro could be the fun, attention-getting one (video, interactivity) and the hard one the “this is why the topic matters let’s get down to business” opening.

It goes without saying that you as the speaker should be online well before the beginning of the meeting, and ready to go technology- and presentation-wise.

Web speaking is often scheduled for a longer period of time than a face-to-face speech, which does not add to attention level of the audience. For this reason, your presentation should include time for questions and input from the audience. However, this should be planned at intervals, perhaps between main sections of the speech, so that the audience isn’t interrupting at inconvenient times.

Going deeper, perhaps we should ask the fundamental question of purpose. What is your intent in this webinar speech? To educate? To persuade/sell? To contribute to or facilitate a decision? Something else? Everything else you do comes from that intent or purpose, just like your face-to-face speech comes from the specific purpose speech. What do you really want to accomplish from this meeting?

The other fundamental question is about your audience. Who are they? Where are they? In fact, in some cases the audience is in a different time zone! And that really matters in how a listener responds.

Other experts suggest the following:

  1. Along with standing up for your presentation, smile. People can hear a smile even when they don’t see you.
  2. Your anxiety does not go away just because you cannot see everyone in your “web audience.” Also, you might not have ever met the people to whom you are speaking. Be aware of the likelihood of anxiety—it might not hit until you are “on air.” As Ron Ashkenas says, “Anxiety in speaking is like static on the radio.”
  3. In your use of periodic questions, be specific. The typical “Any questions?-pause- let’s go on” is really pretty ineffective. First, it’s not directed or specific, and second, people need time to formulate their questions and articulate them. Even saying, “What questions do you have?” is better, but even better is to ask specific questions about what you’ve been addressing. Many times you can forecast possible questions, and use those.
  4. Remember the power of transitions. Many people think that slides don’t need transitions because, well, they change, isn’t that enough? No, it’s not. The speaker needs to tie the messages of the slides together.
  5. Verbal pauses can be helpful. Since one of the things that put audiences to sleep is continual, non-stop flow of words, a pause can get attention.
  6. Look at the camera, not the screen. You will appear more professional in those cases where the audience can see you.


As mentioned before, webconferences and webinars can go long—don’t let it. End on time. Allow participants to email you questions if needed, but don’t take advantage of people’s time by entertaining questions longer than the scheduled time. Software allows for recording and archiving, so the audience should know how to access the recording.

Speaking for an Online Class

This writer teaches an online business communication course where she requires either a face-to-face (if possible) presentation or one done online. In these cases, instructors usually want the presentation given in front of a live audience of a prescribed number of people and/or in a venue like a classroom (not the student’s living room). Many public speaking instructors do not believe this option is as good as an in-class speech, but if you are in this situation, here are some tips.

  1. Film your whole body—not just your head and shoulders.
  2. Do tech walk-throughs and make sure your camera is working well and picking up your voice.
  3. Make sure you can get the recording to your instructor. You probably will not be able to just send it through email because the file will be too big. You will have to post it to the cloud in some manner.
  4. Wear appropriate clothing. Not being in class may tempt you to wear something too informal. This might be an opportunity to go a step beyond in your clothing. Make sure, also, that it looks good on camera in terms of color and lighting in your setting.
  5. Along that line, since you probably won’t have professional lighting, get the room as bright as you possibly can, but do not point the camera in the direction of a bright light. The light should be coming from behind the camera.


As mentioned before, this subject is an evolving one. These tips and tactics should help not just avoid the major problems but also cross the finish line into an effective presentation.

Links that might help with this topic:


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