Online Presentation Tips

As we enter the third month of the global lockdown, more and more events are exploring online conferences as an alternative to postponing or cancelling, which means more and more speakers are being asked if they’d be able to do their talks as an online session presented over a live stream.

Since March, I’ve spoken at four virtual meetups, presented six talks at four online conferences, and helped the crew from NDC turn Copenhagen and Porto into virtual events. I’ve experimented with a ridiculous amount of gear – old and new – and I’ve talked with hundreds of speakers about the challenges we’re all facing to adapt our material, turn our homes into impromptu broadcast studios, and keep on delivering great content and inspiring presentations even when we’re all locked down for the foreseeable future.

I’ve had lots people asking me for tips on this – so here it is: everything you ever wanted to know about online presentations. Well, almost everything. There’s some seriously deep-dive posts coming up about microphones and cameras, but this will get you started. :)

Test, test, test.

The absolute, cast-iron, golden rule of online presentations: Test everything. Test, test, test. It doesn’t matter how good you are in your room – what matters is what the remote audience can see and hear. Figure out how to see through your own camera, how to listen to your own microphone, how to see your own screen share. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and see how much of your content actually makes it out the other end – and then tweak, improve and adapt until it’s perfect. Every time you change anything, test it.

Rehearse your content.

This sounds obvious, but it’s easily overlooked. Online isn’t just another meetup or conference stage, it’s a completely new format. Even if you’ve done a talk a dozen times, the first time you do it remote, it’s going to be weird. Rehearse. Do your talk by yourself, in the room where you’re going to be presenting. Don’t worry about equipment yet – this is about content. Rehearse until you can deliver your talk flawlessly, to a blank wall that doesn’t laugh at any of your jokes or raise a hand for any of your questions. If you can handle that, you can handle anything that a virtual conference is going to throw at you.


You don’t need an expensive specialist mic to do a great remote presentation – but you will need something a little better than the built-in mic in your laptop. The golden rule here is distance. You want your mic as close to your mouth as you can get it – between 2” (5cm) and 6” (30cm) is ideal – and as far away from any other source of noise as you can. Gaming headsets, Bluetooth earbuds, a clip-on microphone, even the cord mic on the earphones that came with your phone – any of them give a better result than relying on the mic built in to your laptop.

Cameras and video.

The classic setup here is a webcam for your face and a “screen share” for your slides – and in most cases, that’ll work absolutely fine. As with microphones, you’re much better off with inexpensive equipment and a bit of know-how than spending a fortune on gear you don’t know how to use properly.

Here’s the secret. Even the cheapest webcams are good enough for a remote presentation if you give them enough light to work with. You want light shining onto your face, and a neutral background behind you. If there’s a window in the room where you’re presenting, move things around so you’ll be facing towards the window. I took these photographs using the same camera, same day, same time, same distance – the only difference is that I turned 180° between shots:



Oh, and one final camera tip… stick some googly eyes on your webcam to remind you to look at it. If you look straight at the camera. That’s your audience now, and every speaker knows that making eye contact with your audience goes a long way.

Join from a second device.

Get a second device – your old laptop, your iPad, even your phone – and connect it, as an attendee/guest, to the same call where you’re presenting. Mute it, switch off the video, and you can see exactly what your audience will see. For rehearsals, you can also run a screen recorder on the second device, and then review the recording to see how you look and sound to your remote attendees. If you’re on macOS, Quicktime has a built-in screen recorder. If you’re on Windows, there’s a built-in screen recorder hidden in the X-Box Game Bar (no, really – press Win+G, and look for the Capture window).

Note that if you’re on a slow internet connection, you won’t want two devices fighting over the available bandwidth, so consider tethering the second device to your phone to provide an isolated internet connection.

Make a pre-flight checklist.

One of the big challenges with the online format is that we’re having to present from home – which means the room where you’re presenting is also your living room, or your bedroom, and you can’t leave it set up as a live-streaming studio 24/7. You’ll do a tech check, it’ll look and sound great… and then you’ll unplug everything, put the furniture back where it’s supposed to go, open the curtains, switch the aircon back on. And tomorrow, when it’s time to do your talk, you’ll try to put everything back how it was in rehearsal – and you’ll forget something.

Once you find a setup that works, make yourself a pre-flight checklist. Then run through this half an hour before you’re due to speak, to make sure everything’s set up just right.

Connect with your audience.

Different events have done different things here, but having some kind of connection with your audience makes a huge difference.

If you’re using something like Zoom or WebEx to deliver your talk, see if you can get attendees to join the call directly, mute their mics, switch their cameras on, and be your live audience. You won’t be able to hear them, but if you enable the “gallery view” so you can see their faces, it affords a certain amount of live interaction – you’ll be able to see people laughing, raising hands, that kind of thing. If you’re streaming via a platform like YouTube or Twitch, you won’t be able to see any of your audience, but you can interact with them via chat. Get the YouTube chat window up where you can see it, keep one eye on it whilst you’re speaking, and respond directly on the stream – “hey, I see a question in chat from Carol about accessibility. Hi Carol! What I’d do is… {answer}”

For larger events, a hybrid approach works well, especially for keynote talks which might have many hundreds of attendees. Invite the other speakers to join the call directly, and run a YouTube stream for everyone else. The speaker gets a tame audience of tech-savvy nerds and some decent Q&A and interaction, and the rest of the attendees tune in via the YouTube stream and ask questions via chat.

Bear in mind YouTube and Twitch can have a bit of latency – anything up to 20 seconds – so you’ll tell a joke… n response… then 20 seconds later you’ll get a little flurry of laughing-face emojis in the chat. It’s weird, but you’ll get used to it.

Stand up, dress up, remember biology.

You know your desk. You sit there, day in, day out, alt-tabbing between Slack and Visual Studio and Twitter and Amazon and Facebook and Stack Overflow – and since the lockdown, that’s also where you play poker with your buddies, where you sing happy birthday to your niblings… and now you’re going to sit there for an hour, giving your absolute, undivided attention to an audience you can’t see or hear? That’s gonna be on tough gig before it even starts… so mix things up a bit. Get your webcam up on a tripod, or a bookshelf, or, hell, put a chair up on the table and put your laptop on the chair – and stand up. Standing up changes your posture, it changes your voice, it keeps you focused on the fact that whatever else is happening around you, you are on a stage right now and people all over the world are watching you do your thing.

On the day you’re presenting, dress up. Dress like you would if you were doing this for real – shower, do your hair, makeup if that’s your thing… hit that call looking like a million dollars, ‘cos even on the ropiest connection in the world, a few hundred thousand bucks will make it out the other side. It’s also a good way of persuading your brain that something special is happening and this isn’t just another pyjama day in lockdown.

Finally, remember that you’re going to be presenting for an hour. Your brain doesn’t quite get this. Your brain thinks you’re at home, where the bathroom is right down the hall and you can always pop to the kitchen for a snack or a glass of water… but you’re not. You are at a conference, on a stage, with hundreds of people watching you. Now is no time to take a toilet break – so go before you join the call for your talk. Eat a snack, make sure there’s a glass or two of water within easy reach (having a coughing fit during a talk is bad enough at the best of times, but right now it’s a really bad idea) – and be prepared to take a break afterwards. If you do it right, you’ll forget you’re at home; you’ll be 100% focused on your talk and your audience – and without the feedback you’d get from a live crowd, you’ll hit the end and you’ll crash, hard. The part where you’d normally be buzzing from the adrenaline of live performance… you’ll get that, but you’ll be in a room, by yourself, staring at a Slack chat. Give yourself some time to recover. Take a break, walk around the block, sit and drink a glass of water, decompress.

Relax. You can do this.

The transition to online events is hard. We’re having to adapt quickly, in difficult circumstances, and it’s not like you can invite a couple of friends over to help you figure this out, or organise a (physical!) meetup to talk about how to make it work.

There’s a new set of skills to learn here. There’s new tools and technology, sure, but there’s also a completely new presentation style to master – one that’s familiar to radio DJs and studio TV presenters, but completely alien to most of us over here in the tech industry. And we’re doing it in some seriously weird circumstances. As somebody put it the other day:

You are not “working from home”. You are at home, trying to work, in the middle of a global pandemic that has turned the world upside down. Cut yourself a little slack.

So relax. Rehearse, learn the tech, ask your friends to help, and get out there and be awesome.

I mean stay home. Don’t get out there. STAY HOME and be awesome.

And don’t forget to wash your hands :)