Published on December 14, 2020

The question and answer period in any presentation has always been a key part of measuring and enabling audience engagement with the presenter and their content. An active Q&A session tells you that your audience has been listening and interested; a silent Q&A tells you the opposite. In a remote environment, however, engagement is even more difficult to come by. You are lucky if your screen is filled with some live video, and some photos, but often, you can be staring out into multiple black boxes with names and muted audio icons.

However, there are ways that the technology used for remote presentations can allow for more dynamic presentations and sustained engagement and engagement checks throughout the session. In fact, the technology can enable audience members not typically comfortable with participating in presentation sessions, if we enable them. But we have to make sure we set up a remote environment capable of supporting audience engagement, and that we use these tools throughout the presentation.

Establish Rules For and Invite Audience Participation at the Outset of the Talk

Make sure to tell your audience how you’ll handle questions, and what you’ll be doing to respond to queries and comments throughout the talk at the beginning. Do you want to respond to questions during the talk? Or will you respond to questions only at the end? Should participants raise their hands (electronically) and wait for you to call on them, or prepare to share audio and video? Are you monitoring the text chat for questions? Do you want them to use the tools in Zoom or Teams to tell you how the session is going?

The Zoom participants panel allows audience members to vote Yes or No in response to your questions, or let you know if you’re going too fast of too slow, plus give thumbs up, down, or let you know they’ve taken a short break, among other things.
The reactions panel allows for audience members to give you emoji reactions to parts of your talks.

Telling people how you’ll respond to questions and inviting participation through other means prepares them to participate in expected and sanctioned ways, and opens the session to engagement throughout.

Use Technology Available to You to Facilitate Engagement

Remote presentation technology presents multiple opportunities for engaging your audience that just don’t exist in typical settings.

  1. Chat:
    The chat function in Zoom and other online meeting software can give you a real time feed on how people are feeling about, understanding, and engaging with your material. It can also give shy audience members the ability to ask questions and participate without having to raise their hands or voices. Some of the best remote presentations monitor their chats closely, either using an (real) assistant to dispatch quick responses (for clarification or further explanations) or to prioritize questions for you to respond to verbally. If you’re on your own, some platforms allow voting up of questions, allowing the audience to prioritize for you. The challenge is deciding what and when to respond to questions – the very best presentations have allowed for real time responses, but you need to be selective about which questions to answer, and to not allow questions to throw you off your message and timing.
  2. Polling:
    In a real world presentation, taking the temperature of the room, in terms of feelings, or in terms of understanding, is difficult. But polls allow you to do both fairly effectively and anonymously, which allows people who are often reticent to speak up to engage. You might start a talk by polling participants on how they feel, using emoji as responses, of what they want to get out of the talk, and then adapt your material to suit their needs. You might pause during the talk to ask a question to check their understanding of something you’re trying to teach, or get their opinion on one of the issues for discussion. Polls allow you to see results quickly and react – by acknowledging their positions or adapting your strategy and content in a way that meets the needs of the audience.
  3. Breakout Rooms:
    Think-Pair-Share is another method for engaging audiences and requiring participation, and might possibly be less awkward in an online environment. Use the breakout rooms features to send participants into smaller groups to discuss key concepts, questions, and issues arising from your talk; or ask them to generate examples that illustrate your point, or key questions.

Make your Entire Talk a Q&A Session

Given our remote environment, we might even consider forgoing a traditional presentation in favour of a (a) pre-screened synchronous video presentation + (b) a live, synchronous Q&A session. If planned correctly, this model can bring real benefits for engagement with the topic and speaker, by giving people time to digest and come up with substantive questions they care about.

But if you go this route, be careful not to simply reproduce your live presentation for offline digestion. First of all, reduced the content to fit into digestible portions – 7-10 minuted per video is a good heuristic. A word of warning here: a well produced, well delivered concise video is hard and time consuming to produce. Second, use the asynchronous video to prime the audience to participate in the synchronous session, by asking them questions or asking them to develop their own theories about some of the concepts or results you’re reporting on. Use these strategically in the synchronous session to invite engagement and discussion, and really take advantage of the format to create a unique communication experience.