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The Art of Remote Storytelling

Virtually presenting your creative ideas and telling engaging stories can be limiting and challenging. Most people observe passively and multitask in the background adding to your frustration. Is there a way to get noticed and replicate the in-person experience remotely, influencing and winning the audience? Don’t sweat, I’ve done the leg work and have got you covered. 

Calling out the audience in the room.

The medium of communication may be different, but one element remains unchanged: people. And, since the dawn of time, people have loved telling and listening to stories. Ironically, filmmakers have mastered the art of telling people stories on a screen! Imagine if Hollywood directors and editors, the likes of Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrik, were guiding and helping you execute a virtual presentation. 

Park yourself in a comfortable chair, kick your feet up, make some popcorn. Let’s dive into the 3 acts of preparing, delivering and closing virtual presentations like a boss (cue drum roll).

Prepare.

Tell a story without slides.

If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this article, it’s to stop prioritizing your PowerPoint slides and focus your efforts on content and storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, professionally designed slides are a great tool, but no one cares if you spent 3 hours selecting the perfect sans serif font and shade of incarnadine on the cover. How many big-budget production-heavy movies can you think of that tanked at the box office? My point precisely. Your audience will remember the story you told and how you made them feel. 

Begin by thinking like a movie director and an editor. You’re taking the audience on a journey from point A to B, so be surgical and omit the riff-raff. Zero in on what emotions you’d like people to experience during and after the meeting. Ever come out of a full-day session feeling charged up and ready to tackle the world or come out of a 30-minute rant and felt drained?

Apply the simple three-act story arc to your presentation with a beginning, middle and end. Open by drawing your audience into your big ideas. Think of this as your hook point. Next, why should they care, and what will be the reward at the end? Heck, spice it up and throw in a plot twist. Five-finger discounts, anyone? 

Get into your audience’s head.

We love talking about ourselves, our process, our charts, our projections, our slides and spraying the room with our industry lingo. I’ve been there, guilty as charged.

In your next meeting, flip the switch, think about your audience’s experience – their needs, fears, challenges and what drives and excites them. Use their words and lingo. Win them over emotionally, and they’ll rationalize analytically. 

For example, even before the meeting day, level-set your audience expectations by adding the high-level schedule in the calendar invite, just like a snappy movie trailer. 

Your first assistant director or moderator

If possible, get someone on your team to help moderate and scribe. From giving others screen sharing permissions, muting guests (we’ve all been there) to scribing and noting action items, a moderator can help keep the conversation on track. This way, you can remain focused on storytelling.

Deliver.

Warm up the crowd. Get ’em stretching, literally.

Empathy reels them in. Depending on the time of day, duration of your scheduled meeting and context, use the first few minutes to make small talk (ice breakers) get people out of their chairs to stretch, drink water, eat something or use the bathroom. You don’t know how their day has been leading up to your presentation—ever heard of Zoom fatigue? By having empathy for your audience, changing their physiological state, you’ll make them far more receptive to your ideas. 

Use these initial minutes to share your meeting structure and set some simple ground rules. A few examples include: 

  1. People should say their names before they speak. 
  2. Have attendees drop their questions in the chat window to be addressed at the allocated time of the session (your first assistant director can help prioritize them). 
  3. Set roundtable checkpoints with key decision-makers to ensure they get a chance to speak. 

By doing the above, you keep everyone engaged and add transparency to the conversation.

Help people imagine. Think like a sound designer.

You ranted for an hour, and towards the end, during QA, one could hear the crickets in the hollowing silence. Can everyone hear you, and are they listening? Someone famous once said, “people see with their ears.” To keep your audience engaged, speak in a clear and balanced voice. Limit talking to short bursts of one to two minutes. Pace yourself and take deliberate pauses to emphasize specific points. Ever heard Obama recite a speech? Sprinkle in anecdotes and experiences. Nostalgia can be even more powerful than memory.

Remove any audio distractions (do the best you can with your situation): mute cell phones and other electronics, schedule your child’s trombone practice in the next room before or after your meeting. Sound about right?

Technology is wallpaper. Ten tips, tricks and hacks!

Your tech and production should work comfortably in the background. Here are some simple tips in no specific order. 

1. Stick to the technology you know well or, better yet, learn what your audience uses.

2. Despite preparation, there could be unforeseen hiccups. So be prepared to go without your slides. 

3. If you’re using Zoom, when setting up your meeting, select the “Mute upon entry” option. This ensures you avoid disrupting the flow of your presentation.

4. Turn on your camera and frame yourself. Sit bang centre of the screen and have the camera be at eye level (throw some books under that laptop). Have the light source be in front of you, so your face is lit up properly. Occasionally look into the camera. 

5. Get that sweet podcast voice. Connect an external mic to improve the fundamentals in your voice and reduce the echoey sounds. 

6. Clean up your background. Get rid of laundry or any distracting elements. Zoom backgrounds are great, but keep it simple and avoid overdoing them. 

7. Connect and use a secondary monitor so you can have easy access to your notes, chat window and any additional presentation materials ready to go.

8. Practice and test before. You can also start the meeting early with your moderator to iron out any issues. 

9. Be mindful and keep meetings short. Schedule multiple if necessary. 

10. Consider the different time zones when scheduling and send passwords in advance.

Close.

Give people time back in the day. 

Take deep dives offline, being mindful of others. With the help of your first assistant director (moderator/scribe), share notes, action items, next steps, roles and responsibilities etc., immediately after the meeting while it’s still fresh in everyone’s mind. Then, schedule a follow-up (include movie trailer).

Remember, your story will make or break the presentation. Be ready to scrap your slides. Have empathy for your audience, keep it short and sweet – staying razor-sharp focused on their experience. And finally, no one can read 12 point font on your slides, bruh! 

By Paul Syng

PSD is a multi-disciplinary design practice based in Toronto. The studio focuses on a problem-solving approach that can take any form or function.