COVID-19 didn’t create the need for online meetings, but it sure made them the de facto meeting choice. My company already had a culture of conducting Zoom calls with video off, and as we slid into the pandemic nosedive of 2020, we didn’t really update that policy. Thankfully, blissfully, I still take meetings makeup free and wearing my favorite college T-shirts (is a 2009 “Jimmy Eat World” T ever too old?).
My typical work wardrobe might be on hiatus, but the pressure and fast-paced project deadlines at work are not. I’ve still routinely presented to senior management, VPs, and colleagues all over the world with video off.
Here’s what I’ve learned about rocking the presentation and getting that coveted nod of approval—I can’t see it, but I can feel it—all with video off.
Stop the Scroll
You! Yes, I’m talking to you. Just because they can’t see you doesn’t mean you should be distracted. How can you expect to show up and dazzle when your mind is entirely elsewhere? Rule number one for your presentation is to put your phone in another room. Sounds harsh, but research has shown putting your phone face down on the table still distracts you. Even if you’re waiting for your turn to speak, you’ll want to avoid the urge to scroll and try to stay present.
Next, how do you stop their scroll?
Make Your Audience Care
You’re presenting to busy people. Period. With video off, VPs and other colleagues are free to answer emails and scroll throughout the meeting. You can counteract the gravitational pull of their inboxes by making it clear that your presentation affects them and their teams.
Don’t be afraid to call people out by name. If you’re in a large meeting, people may not be tuned in unless their name comes up. Use the agenda or list of meeting attendees to brainstorm ways to tie your presentation to their areas of interest and responsibility.
This strategy came in handy when I was presenting a key IT topic to VPs from IT, operations, and facilities. Rather than focusing on my technical details, I made sure to interject lines like, “And John, this is why operations should care here.” After hearing other presentations, I could also tie back to those on the fly with statements like, “Just like Joanna mentioned earlier…” This engages the audience by reinforcing the importance of—and connections to—topics they already care about.
If you’re not comfortable calling senior-level colleagues out by name, simply say, “And this is why operations should care.” It will still make them prick up their ears and turn their attention to you.
Bring the Energy
Take advantage of no-video situations to hype yourself up. Without video you can be as bold and confident as you want without worrying what it looks like because no one can see you.
Stand up. Don’t be afraid to gesture widely, point at the screen, and use exaggerated facial expressions. They can’t see you, but that doesn’t mean they can’t feel your emotion. You might’ve heard you should smile while on phone interviews to convey warmth and excitement, and the same applies here. Use the lack of video to feel powerful and deliver your words confidently with volume.
During one meeting, there was a moment when a colleague cut me off, and I was fired up. Rather than downplay this, I brought that energy into my presentation. I would never point at someone in a room, but on Zoom without video I was pointing and fist pumping. If you have fun, the rest of team members are much more likely to have fun with you. And if you bring your energy and enthusiasm, they’re much more likely to respond with similar energy and get on board with your ideas.
Know Your Audience
Research shows that an audience’s evaluation of your performance is largely dictated by their own sense of what looks good or correct. With video off, this shifts to what sounds good. And a lot of that has to do with expectations: Is your audience expecting you to start with small talk? Or cut to the chase? Are they expecting a formal presentation or an informal discussion?
I was once in a meeting where other presenters failed to follow protocol: They didn’t use standard presentation templates or give clear recommendations that senior management could easily digest, and frankly the VPs were not having it. I kept to a more standard format, and made sure each of my recommendations was clear and simple. By following these unwritten guidelines, my presentation was given glowing reviews, while others were told to step it up.
Innovate with your thoughts and ideas, but stick to the format they’re expecting. If you’re unsure, ask the meeting host to describe what that looks like, including visuals, time allocation, and takeaways.
Use Your Voice to Run the Show
In one meeting I had with video off, two department managers were at odds. I was the one presenting, but clearly subtle messages were being exchanged with their pointed questions. I made the mistake of not answering a question fast enough or with enough gusto to dispel doubt. My voice wavered. I crashed and burned during this meeting, and my manager reminded me to “convey more confidence.” The kiss of death.
Never one to stew, I doubled down on my delivery for my next big meeting and crushed it. Research from Stanford indicates that vocal variety—which includes elements such as volume, rate, and cadence—helps keep an audience’s attention. So during my next Zoom call, I highlighted important points with heightened excitement and volume. When I was setting up a key analogy, I slowed down and repeated crucial phrases. This let me own the presentation and lead attendees to my conclusions.
It pays to practice out loud. Open up a Zoom meeting with video off and record yourself going through your presentation. When you play it back, listen to your voice. Is it clear? Are you speaking slowly enough to highlight the important points? Are you changing up the volume and tone of your voice to keep things dynamic and interesting? If you find yourself droning on without enough excitement to snap someone out of their scroll, it’s time to reevaluate.
Once you’re happy with your voice, you can even automatically transcribe your audio to use as a script for your presentation.
Get to the Point—and Leave No Room for Interpretation
When relying on only your voice and perhaps a few images, it pays to be clear. Fancy graphics and extra-lengthy discussions are not your friend here.
Case in point: I was presenting to senior management comparing two different options for investment opportunities. Return-on-investment calculations should be straightforward, right? Math is math. But there’s always subtlety behind the numbers. I could have shown elaborate charts and tried to explain every last calculation for five whole minutes, but I would have lost them to their scroll. Instead, I preemptively said “This value differs from the other. And let me tell you why…”
In meetings without video, it’s particularly important to be super clear and avoid ambiguity. Don’t assume they’ll connect the dots. You can’t read the room, and people can be doubting you and you have no way of knowing unless they ask a question. Even when people aren’t asking questions, it can be helpful to say, “You may be wondering…” and go on to answer your own question.
Think through each of your key points ahead of time and determine where someone could have an objection—and prepare your own “you may be wondering… this is the answer” speech accordingly.
Whether you routinely leave video off or a glitch forces you to pivot, make the most of your time. Bring your energy and hit your key points with clarity and—though you may not be able to see it—your audience will be nodding along in approval.