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UW Finance Transformation

HACKS & HINTS: Get rid of dry presentations and dull brainstorming sessions

UW Finance Transformation

October 26th, 2020

Trusted tactics to keep virtual audiences engaged rather than wanting to stray

Working through the pandemic in the UW Finance Transformation (UWFT) program, like elsewhere across the University, has entailed business being conducted almost completely online. From virtual meetings, key information and design workshops, team-building sessions, coffee breaks, retreats and more — and whether via Zoom viewing or Microsoft Teams chatting — that’s meant countless business hours taking place in digital spaces.

With such a robust and encompassing program like UWFT, it’s easy to have lots of important information and details to share with program team members, collaboration partners and stakeholders. But even the most competent presenter faces challenges when presenting to a remote audience. Have you wondered if your presentations are as engaging and informative as they could be?  Have you found yourself struggling to stay focused or experiencing screen fatigue?

“If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.”  -- Winnie the Pooh

Remote presentation hacks

Most of us know that reading bullet point messages off a slide is a presentation killer. Add in making a remote presentation and the task becomes very serious business to get right. There are all sorts of tactics and tools you can employ to create a presentation that will inform, inspire or motivate your audience. Here are a few tried and true hacks for virtual presentation success. 

  1. Consider your environment. What will inspire or relax you in your presentation space? What will make you more present, engaged or calm? Maybe it’s having flowers nearby or pictures of your family or your furry friend in your background. Try to limit distractions (closed door or if a shared space, a shoji screen can create separation) and set the room (a plain or warm-colored background). Best practice is to position lighting so that it’s right in front of you. Natural lighting is best. Light shining in from above or from the side can create odd shadows that distort your face. A small light to attach to the front of your computer could fit the bill. Camera position is also important. Position your camera at eye level so you can look directly at your viewers and engage them with your eyes/face.
  2. Be prepared. For a strong signal, plug  your computer directly into your modem. This is the best way to ensure you have the most stable internet connection. Check at the beginning whether the slides are readable. It’s best to switch to “Slide Show” mode or to increase the size of the image for best viewing.
  3. Think visually. “Plain-text slides are a pain to read at the best of times,” says Jason Kalivas, UWFT’s organizational change management lead. “Put an image on your slide to grab people’s attention. A graph or chart or word art that explains your idea is best (‘a picture’s worth a thousand words’), but even a meme or cool landscape can be good.” Kalivas continues, “Focus your viewers’ attention with slide animations. Not where the word art bounces, but where one row or concept pops up at a time.”
  4. Create moments. If your presentation is long, think about how you can engage your audience. A good rule of thumb is to avoid speaking longer than ten minutes without audience participation. It can also be as simple as asking participants to confirm if they understand a point (by using the participant features like a raised hand or a check mark) or a more engaging tactic like a poll or quiz. And if it's a regular meeting or series of sessions, having a theme (i.e., wigs, hats, customized Zoom backgrounds) can spark interest.
  5. Partner up. Kalivas also suggests having a partner. “Having someone else to handle the logistics of monitoring/reading out the chat comments/questions, setting up break-out rooms (in advance, while you’re still talking!) and taking notes is invaluable for keeping your flow going and holding your crowd’s attention.” This person can also double as your back-up slide presenter. They’d have a duplicate copy of your presentation in case you are unable to present visually (internet down) and must rely on your telephone.
  6.  Timebox it. “Timing out the agenda will help manage your presentation,” says Francis Sadac, UWFT’s training lead. “Remember, it will take longer to go through a presentation when delivered remotely than when delivered in person. A good rule of thumb is for an hour presentation, prepare content for 30-40 minutes to allow for questions and understanding.”
  7. Record your presentation. The benefits are two-fold: 1) your participants can replay the important points you’ve made, and 2) there’s a benefit for you as well -- you can listen to yourself and note what worked well and what didn’t. For example, in a virtual presentation you can’t use your physical presence to draw attention, so Kalivas says, “You need to learn how to ‘move’ your voice. Rising and falling intonations, faster and slower speech, repetition of points.” You can hone your skills and improve future presentations.

It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like, ‘What about lunch?’” -- Winnie the Pooh 

Remote brainstorming hints

For participants who might be less assertive in person, virtual or video brainstorming provides opportunities for them to give input and decreases the uncomfortable feeling of “all eyes are on me.” On the other hand, remote brainstorming can lack spontaneity and sometimes we aren’t at our best online. Here’s how to take advantage of this unique way to generate ideas and inspire participants to easily share.

  1. Diversity. If you can, invite a range of participants. This means folks with varied skillsets as well as extroverts and introverts. It’s effective to have a group of people that can look at a situation from various perspectives.
  2. Early expectations and preparation. Before you meet, engage the participants by reaching out to them with an email and let them know what to expect. You can also alert them that you’ll send a more formal meeting invite and any pre-reading materials. And let them know what tool you’ll be using for the brainstorm: Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc. Encourage them to come with ideas to share. To prep for the meeting, Sadac suggests, “Agree on roles at the beginning of the brainstorming session…who’ll be the facilitator, who’ll be the recorder, who’ll be the presenter during the readout if returning to a larger group.”
  3. Icebreakers. At the start of the session, have an icebreaker to loosen up folks and get camaraderie going. Recently, for example, one UWFT team kicked off a presentation with a “Show and Tell” ice breaker, where attendees had to grab something around them that was weird, interesting or had a special meaning, then introduce themselves and explain their chosen item.
  4. Practice. “Include a demonstration at the beginning of the brainstorming session to get attendees comfortable with visual tools, such as a virtual whiteboard,” says Sadac. Mural, Miro and Microsoft Teams are just a few platforms that feature a whiteboard tool.
  5. Breakout rooms. Ben Heege, manager on UWFT’s design team, who oversaw many process design workshops, encourages breaking into smaller groups when possible. “Use breakout rooms to assign a small group to a specific topic, then come back together in the full group to share outcomes.”
  6. Feedback. “Be prepared to watch for and gather responses from multiple sources at the same time,” encourages Heege. Sources for those comments include those from Zoom, chat box, virtual comments and others.
  7. Wrap-up. Make sure to leave time at the end of the meeting for participants to sort, categorize and prioritize ideas. If time permits, you can also create an action plan to move to next steps.

“Think it over, think it under.” -- Winnie the Pooh

Admin teams can also be great resources to help plan virtual meetings. According to Carmen Espanol, UWFT program operations specialist, these team members “can work with you to go over your ideas for activities and help identify and set up the logistic needs that go with them.” This can include:

  • Reviewing event logistical activities – breakout rooms, Q/A, whiteboards for brainstorming, event capture via recording, polls, making sure Zoom settings match for activities, reserving large capacity (more than 300 participants) Zoom lines
  • Sending pre- and post-meeting materials or event reminders
  • Providing day-of support (helping facilitate/monitor chat or breakout rooms)

It’s important to create audience connection, engagement, and value for participants’ time and attention. As we continue to work remotely, many of us will be called to lead a presentation or brainstorming session at some point. In the UWFT program, we’re continually challenging ourselves to improve the work we do. While our meetings may not always incorporate all these elements, we embrace these presentation principles and strive toward best practices. And we’re also mindful of the challenging times we’re in and appreciate how we can all support each other with humor and grace in our new remote worlds. We hope these hacks and hints will help you craft your presentation with finesse, energy and creativity. 

Helpful Resources:

UW Best Practices for Online Conferencing

FDM 3.0 Recording – example of effective presentation

Breakout Group Activity Template

PowerPoint Best Practices

Zoom tips and tools:

Have some hacks and hints you’d like to share? Please reach out to

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