Leadership Strategy

Another Brain-And-Butt Numbing Virtual Meeting? Here’s How Not To Be That Presenter


“Things are going to be different, not because of a virus, but because of what we’ve learned.” 

Those were the wise words of my colleague, Fred Luddy, founder and chairman of ServiceNow, and as every post-Covid day unfolds, his comment seems more profound.  

Among the many things that are going to be different, meetings are at the top of the list. CEOs are learning that they don’t have to fly across the country to put in face-time, sales teams are adapting to a fully digital customer life cycle, and large-scale conferences, once the domain of bustling conflabs in the convention centers of Las Vegas or Orlando, are now entirely virtual. 

And, of course, we’re all participating in a lot of Zoom meetings.

In a recently released working paper, researchers at Harvard Business School studied the impact of Covid-19 on collaboration at work. Studying over three million knowledge workers in 16 major cities, they found an almost 13% increase in the number of meetings per person and an over 13% increase in the number of attendees. Interestingly, they also found that the average length of meetings decreased by about 20%. 

The findings make sense from what you’ve likely experienced. But despite the fact that we’re spending less overall time in meetings, I’m betting the same burning question is on everyone’s mind: Is it time well spent? 

Back-to-back Zoom meetings can be painful, but they don’t have to be. In fact, virtual meetings are essential to get right. For the foreseeable future, communicating online is how classes will be taught, sales pitches will be made, and how board meetings will be held. Given that the vast majority of meeting presenters struggle to hold our attention even offline, this new digital norm means we all have to up our game. In fact, “Zooming” shifts everyone who occupies one of those little boxes on the screen from a mere participatory role to that of a presenter. 

Peter Finnegan, CEO of Communiqué International, a Dublin-based advisory firm that specializes in preparing leaders for all kinds of communication situations, has a framework that offers some help. He says that much of the gap between what we expect to achieve when presenting versus what is actually achieved comes down to one basic principle: 

“Effective communication,” as he puts it, “is not just about the transmission of information, it’s about the creation of understanding.” 

3 Key Questions Every Presenter Should Ask

Now that we’ve shifted from participants to presenters, Finnegan offers three questions every Zoomer should work through before taking to the virtual stage:

1. How can I make what I’m about to say the most important and relevant thing this audience can hear? 

You must give your listeners a compelling reason to not just half-pay attention, but to actively engage with you. What you say should seem so important that they have no choice but to be perched on the edge of their seat, pen in hand, wanting to take in your every word. 

The way to do this is to identify a point of resonance with your audience. There will be thousands of thoughts fighting for attention in their minds—what can you say to tune them into your frequency? What will strike a chord with them? Don’t think about walking a mile in their shoes; rather, spend a minute in their hearts. Open with a point that resonates exactly with what they’re feeling in that moment. 

Rather than thinking of a presentation as an opportunity for you to speak, or say what you want to say, instead remember that your role as a presenter is to add value to your audience. Your primary objective is to take people on a journey and to shift their mind from point A (where they were before you spoke) to point B (where you want them to be afterwards). 

2. How accessible are my messages and material to my audience?

In other words, how much work does your listener have to do in order to pick up what you’re putting down? You make your presentation accessible by giving deliberate thought to the language you use, the concepts you include, the logic you deploy, and ultimately the value you provide. If your listener has to work to string together confusing logic or is left scratching their head about how you arrived at your conclusion, then you haven’t done enough of the upfront work. 

I can’t count how many board presentations I’ve sat through when a presenter launches into a rambling voiceover to slides crammed with barely legible data or nonsensical bullet points. Maybe the dots connected in his or her mind, but that doesn’t matter if they’re not logically connecting in the mind of the listener.

Worse still is when this was served up as pre-read so your audience has wasted their time trying to decipher your message, only to resign themselves to the fact that it can’t be understood without a voiceover. While that may be an easy (read: lazy) way for the presenter to prepare, a poorly structured deck without thought for the audience’s journey of comprehension is a waste of everyone’s time.

3. What about this presentation is memorable?

When coaching his clients on how to make presentations memorable, Finnegan doesn’t advise them to focus on a particular number of points, rather, he puts them through what he calls the “cup of coffee” test. 

Before putting pen to paper, he asks presenters to imagine giving a presentation to a group of colleagues and the following day, picturing a scenario where, over a cup of coffee, someone who couldn’t make it to your presentation asks an attendee how it went and what was said. 

This is the litmus test. What key messages did you relay that caused the person in attendance to experience the mind-shift you intended? What got them to the place where they could not only remember what you said, but found it was so engaging, accessible, and memorable that they could easily pass it along to their colleague over coffee? 

When preparing a presentation, your job is to identify those key messages that would leave a listener feeling fully justified in relaying them to someone who wasn’t in attendance. As Finnegan puts it, “take away messages aren’t enough, they have to be pass-on messages.” 

Begin with the end in mind. Take your logical, justifiable points, and then backfill each one with three essential ingredients that make them entirely understandable and memorable: facts that provide evidence of your point, examples and stories that clarify it, and insights that validate it. 

Every conclusion you want your audience to reach, recall, and relay should be backed-up and filled-in by this kind of supporting information, all of which doesn’t have to be fully remembered, but rather serves to ensure that your overarching points land and stick in their minds. 

These conclusions become the recallable moments in your presentation – unambiguously standing out like beacons in the night as your justifiable pass-on messages. 

Despite the fact that we humans have been communicating in one form or another since the dawn of time, this “Zoom age” has come about in an evolutionary nanosecond. Stopping to think about the value we bring to others when we speak was always important, but now that we’re confined to little boxes on a screen, bereft of the energy and human connection that happens in-person, it couldn’t be more vital.

So before we all lose more hours and days in brain or butt-numbing virtual meetings, let’s at least try to zoom in on a few of these basics, before zooming out on one another again.



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