COVID and the Rise of Online Speeches

Two months before COVID-19 struck China, my wife and I took a lovely vacation to Koh Samui, a small idyllic island getaway in Thailand. As we looked out at the sunset, I recall us talking about how the coming year was going to be the best one ever. There were so many exciting activities ahead of us and we were feeling the optimism and enthusiasm that went along with our assessment.  

Then on January 24, 2020, everything changed. COVID-19 began to spread, China shut down, air travel, face-to-face meetings, business deals, and so much more began to be severely affected. And then the virus hit Europe, North America, and the rest of the world. The change came so fast and had such a devastating impact, few of us would ever have imagined this could happen. Within six months, our hope for the coming year as being the best ever was replaced with fear, uncertainty, and a sense of hopelessness. 

One of the first things that changed in my professional life was that nearly all of my live public speaking events were canceled. For a while, the dates were moved forward, but when it became clear that on-site presentations would be indefinitely postponed, online events began to take off. Within a short time, webinar presentations became the norm with this alternative approach filling the need for shared information. While it isn’t the most ideal approach, it did fill the gap.

As the pandemic has continued to unfold, I have given several dozen online presentations. While I initially found it difficult to adjust to not having an audience in front of me offering visual cues, like with anything else, I adapted. Below are some of the lessons learned during this time.

Matt giving a talk to the staff of the amazing NGO, Habitat for Humanity in Hong Kong, hosted by Tracy Tsang of T for Teams.

First, when using a webinar format, slides can be a help or a hindrance. I find with storytelling, the best way to avoid the audience being distracted is to show a simple photograph of a person or location to illustrate my story. Just the picture with no words. I found that when I used a slide with words on it, even a single simple sentence, the audience spent time trying to read instead of listening to me.

Second, an even better approach is to tell the story by being fully onscreen. This allows the virtual audience to listen to me and at the same time to watch my body language and other visual cues. For example, many studies have shown that in the process of communication, non-verbal expression can have 65% to 93% more influence than words on paper or words being heard. This means that how something is said can be more important than what is said. By allowing the audience to see me speaking, they can pick up on my passion, my emotions, and my absolute desire to motivate change. 

Finally, being able to watch a person speak is more personal. If a participant sees a series of PowerPoint slides with a tiny box at the top showing the speaker, it reduces the talk to something very ordinary and not worth watching. One of my corporate partners has this opinion on webinars:  I often sign up for webinars to get some emails done. Many of them are so boring, I listen but don’t bother watching. There is really nothing to see. I wish it wasn’t this way but it is.    

As we adapt to our new normal online, it is important to take time to find ways to ensure that our presentations are effective at truly communicating our message. 

Published by Matthew S. Friedman & Sylvia Yu Friedman

Matthew Friedman is an international keynote speaker, the CEO of The Mekong Club, and a former United Nations and U.S. diplomat. A leading global expert on modern slavery, Friedman has more than 30 years of experience as an inspirational and motivational public speaker. Check out his latest powerful Penguin Random House memoir, Where Were You? A Profile of Modern Slavery. Sylvia Yu Friedman is an award-winning filmmaker, investigative journalist, international speaker, serial entrepreneur, and advisor to philanthropists. She is the author of three books: A Long Road to Justice: Stories from the Frontlines in Asia (Penguin Random House); Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women, the only journalistic account of Japanese military sex slavery during the Second World War, and Heart and Soul: The Life Story of Pastor Augustus Chao. Sylvia is a serial entrepreneur and works with family offices in Asia and the U.S.

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