HomeSpecial ReportThe rules of engagement

The rules of engagement

In traditional presentations, a speaker is typically afforded eye contact and at least feigned interest from those in the audience. With the coronavirus outbreak essentially ending live presentations and meetings of even small groups, one risk for those turning to video conferences is whether anyone will be paying attention.

Of course, if a presenter is uncertain whether their content will hold the attention of a virtual audience, they should ask themselves whether the presentation is necessary in the first place. But even important and worthwhile presentations and virtual meetings must compete with the unlimited distractions that our virtual attendees encounter.

In an article posted recently on, Justin Hale and Joseph Grenny, two veteran presenters, identify four broad reasons to hold a meeting: to influence others, to make decisions, to solve problems, or to strengthen relationships. “Since all of these are active processes, passive passengers in a meeting rarely do quality work. The precondition for effective meetings — virtual or otherwise — is voluntary engagement,” they state.

Avoid observers

Hale and Grenny start from the assumption that virtual gatherings “bore groups into a coma.” Through studies they conducted, including one test comparing the same presentation experience to a face-to-face audience with a virtual audience, they developed five rules that lead to predictably better meeting outcomes.

These include:

  • The 60-second rule – You can’t engage a group in solving a problem they haven’t felt. Do something in the first 60 seconds to help them experience it. This could be eye-opening statistics or anecdotes that dramatize the problem.
  • The responsibility rule – People identify with a role in almost any social setting. The biggest engagement threat in virtual meetings is to allow attendees to unconsciously adopt the role of observer. Don’t let that happen. This can be accomplished by using the next rule.
  • The nowhere to hide rule – Break larger groups into smaller ones and give them problems or other tasks during the course of your presentation. Virtual attendees should have a means to communicate with one another (video conference, Slack, a messaging platform, etc.). The smaller groups can type their solutions into the chat function and a presenter can call on a few to expound on their answer. Hale and Grenny recommend that presenters provide a new problem to solve at least every five minutes. “If you don’t sustain a continual expectation of meaningful involvement, they will retreat into that alluring observer role, and you’ll have to work hard to bring them back,” they state.

Little things matter

Attention to detail reaps dividends in any presentation. That’s even truer with virtual events, says Richard Goring, director at BrightCarbon, a specialist presentation agency. In a recent webinar for SMM Connect on creating better virtual presentations, Goring advised virtual presenters to pay attention to details, including setting, lighting and audio.

Don’t rely on the microphone that is built into a laptop or use your cellphone, he says. Purchase a dedicated microphone. Wirecutter tested more than 25 USB microphones over six years and selected the best performers. They range in price from $45 to $130.

Pay attention to lighting. Sit in a bright room or set a light behind the camera to illuminate your face. You can angle and redirect LED desk lamps. Michael Hession, head of photo and video at Wirecutter, suggests bouncing the lamp light off a nearby wall rather than pointing it straight at your face.

Pay attention to position. Sit in a good chair and take a few minutes before the presentation begins to make sure you will be positioned so your face is in the middle of the screen. You don’t want to be too close or too far away. That said, an engaging virtual presentation will be designed so the slides, animation and other visuals do the heavy lifting.

View the full webinar presentation “Urgent: Moving Presentations Online” by Richard Goring at (Free registration is required.)


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Paul Nolan
Paul Nolan
Paul Nolan is the editor of Sales & Marketing Management magazine.

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