You have a presentation scheduled in Zoom – a common sight since 2020. But as it’s a pretty new phenomenon, you’ve probably seen it done badly more often than not (we certainly have..). How can you avoid that from happening to you? Don’t worry: The Online Scientist is here to help.

Use our tips and tricks to avoid the most common blunders when presenting in Zoom, and to enhance the success of your online talk! If you get comfortable with it, you will probably enjoy presenting online just as much as you do in an auditorium full of people.

Design a clear and beautiful presentation

Just like with any other presentation, the success of a Zoom presentation starts with the preparation. This is so basic and important that we’ve written an entire book on the subject: Cause an Effect. Were you planning to design slide after slide with bullet points that you’re going to read out loud? If so, we can almost guarantee that your audience sneaks off to check Twitter or the news. Use the tips from our book to come up with a good story and nice slides without too much text. Or: present without PowerPoint slides if you can.

eBook Cause an Effect Creating better science presentations - The Online Scientist
Our e-book on presentation design.

Prevent accidental faulty clicks

No, this is not about your audience clicking away from your presentation. This is something that could happen to the best of presenters: instead of clicking the right arrow for the next slide, you click on the END button that takes you to the end of your slide deck. Awkward! A solution for this is to use a remote control for your presentation, even when you’re at home (we like this remote control by Logitech for example). It ensures that you don’t have to rely on your keyboard, and that gives peace of mind when you’re telling your story.

Be up to date and unavailable

Make sure that you’re up to speed technically: install the latest Zoom update in time for your presentation. But then, close all the tabs of your browser and other software running on your computer: an e-mail pop-up or calendar notification is not very professional…

Same goes for your phone: put it in flight mode, so you can’t be distracted nor disturbed during your talk. Finally, take care not to select the time of your Zoom meeting for any deliveries!

Put your phone on silent, and close all other programs.

Check your Zoom settings

Take your time to explore all the settings in Zoom – maybe you’ll run into something useful (and no.. we’re not talking about that feature that gives you blue lips, new eyebrows or a Santa hat). Useful functionalities are background noise reduction, lighting effects for your camera, or whether or not you want to enter any Zoom call muted and with camera turned off to see if it all works. By the way, it might be good to do this periodically, because new and handy features are added all the time.

Check your Zoom settings.
Unless you’re participating in an informal online pub quiz or funky team building activity, don’t use funky video filters…

Test your audio and video

This is also quite basic: your presentation will be better if people can see and hear you properly. Thankfully, you can test your audio and video quite easily on the Zoom website:

Make sure bad audio or video can’t distract from your story

Are the webcam, speaker and microphone you have in your laptop of sufficient quality? Maybe it’s possible to increase the quality of your audio or video by using an external webcam and/or microphone. If you have online meetings more regularly, a headset, lavalier microphone or even a studio microphone might be an investment to think about. If you’ve heard more than once that you should speak louder during online meetings, then definitely take this into consideration.

Check whether you’re presenting during a meeting or a webinar

If you’re invited to present but don’t organize the meeting itself, it’s good to check the format of the event. Is it a Webinar (during which you have no interaction with the audience besides the chat function) or is it a Meeting (during which the audience can participate actively)?

Furthermore, it’s good to check how the event is set up. Is there a waiting room so that everyone enters the meeting simultaneously, or do people enter whenever they join the session? In the latter case it’s good to have a first slide up that shows information about the meeting. Another question is who will take care of the questions in the chat? Are you doing that yourself? Or do you interact with the meeting host who does it for you?

Which options for interaction are there? Is the chat turned on? Will there be break-out rooms? Does the audience have access to hand raise, reactions, annotations or whiteboard? It would be a waste if you’re counting on a whiteboard, and the setting isn’t turned on.

Change your Zoom screen name

Another thing you can change in the settings. Nobody is logging on to see ‘Karen’s iPad’ speaking! For extra clarity you could add “Speaker” behind your name to make sure people know right from the introduction who you are and that you are the one presenting.

Change your name! Nobody wants to see a presentation by ‘Karen’s iPad’

Arrange proper lighting

Find two lamps, preferably lamps that you can adjust the brightness of, and that provide diffuse light. Put them on either side of your laptop or camera, or, if you only have lamps with direct light, aim them at the wall you’re facing while presenting. This setup will ensure that you are well-lit from two sides, without sharp contrasts or shadows. An easy alternative option is to turn up the brightness of your second screen; this will also light up your face a little (tip if you do this: find a yellowish website or image to show on that screen, so the light will be softer than a bright white Google Search homepage for example).

This is way too dark! And not the right angle.

Put your camera at eye level

As you can see above, it looks odd if you’re looking down at everybody while presenting. It’s not a very flattering angle for your (double) chin, and your background will only be interesting to ceiling fans. If you put your webcam at eye level you look at your audience and not down on them – not just unflattering but also not a nice sensation for the viewers. Even better is the next tip:

Present standing up!

Your energy levels are much higher when you are standing up to present. Consider the opposite: can you imagine doing a live presentation from a chair? It’s not professional nor engaging to watch a slouched speaker. Be inventive: if you don’t have a standing desk, shelves or cupboard, put a crate, stool, block or stack of books on your desk and put your laptop on top of it! But don’t forget the tip about eye level. If you’re not able to present standing up, you can boost the energy level of your talk by using your hands.

Present standing up for a high-energy presentation.

Standing up looks much better, and proper lighting makes it easier to see!

Check your internet connection

You’re trying to wrap up your talk with a closing statement that sweeps everybody off their feet, but….your connection falters. What a waste of momentum! To prevent this, it’s best to connect your computer using a cable instead of WiFi. If this is not an option, free up your connection by making sure your housemates aren’t using Netflix, putting your phone in flight mode, and turning off WiFi-heavy appliances.

Clean up your room!

Any speech can lose some of its luster when there’s a pile of dirty laundry in the background. Our rooms are not spotless – we’re only human – but when we present, we look for flattering angles not just for ourselves but also for the room. We turn the camera towards a wall, where we’ve created a little scene with plants and a colorful painting. An entirely white wall may seem ideal, but we think it’s a bit boring. A featureless wall reminds us of a badly designed dorm room, which is not what you want to associate with the star of the meeting! Nothing wrong with a bit of smoke and mirrors… But:

The ideal background is one that doesn’t distract from your talk.

Do you have pets? Make sure they can’t just come in (or scratch the door for ages trying to get you to open the door). A goldfish might be the only exception to this rule (do trim its nails beforehand).

Pros and cons of virtual backgrounds

If it so happens that you’re presenting from your daughter’s room in front of pink unicorn wallpaper, a virtual background might be something to consider. Zoom has a few backgrounds available, but so does Canva. Or perform a search for copyright-free “Office backgrounds” on Unsplash or Pexels. Do check if the setting doesn’t end up providing a very unnatural perspective; it looks a bit strange if you’re not sitting behind a table, but in front of it:

What’s going on? Are you sitting on the table?

Don’t pick a tropical island or NASA photo as virtual background – unless you actually are a surfer or astronaut (respectively).

Watch out though: virtual backgrounds have one MAJOR disadvantage. If you’re not sitting in front of a green screen or very uniform background, or if the lighting is insufficient, then it will look very strange if you move your hands. Just look at the video below. If you use your hands as much as we do during a presentation, it’s not really an option without distracting your audience.

Don’t use virtual backgrounds if it makes your fingers disappear!

Dress to impress (like a professional)

Wear your nicest clothes, it’s as simple as that. We don’t get that many opportunities to show our best side anymore, so it’s most likely a welcome break from the eternal sweatpants/onesie situation. Show off that power-suit, that nice dress, the excellent jacket! It helps to choose clothes that contrast with your background. Go easy on the jewelry though, because dangling earrings, necklaces or a bracelet scraping the desk scan make quite the ruckus (especially if your microphone is also on there).

Share the right window (the most common mistake)

By now, you have probably encountered a presentation during which the speaker made the error of not sharing the PowerPoint Slide Show, but the editing window including the notes. It’s quite sloppy and – worse – distracting. Besides that, it made the slides smaller on screen and therefore harder to read.

How to prevent this? When you go to Zoom and select ‘Share screen’, you see all your open tabs and windows. This is where it often goes wrong: you accidentally select the PowerPoint presentation without it being in presenting mode.

So, make sure you put your presentation in presenting mode FIRST (using F5 or F8 or a similar button). Then go to Zoom and share your screen. If you do it like this, you see three options for PowerPoint (as shown below). There is a subtle difference: one is your editing window, one shows the presentation notes, and one is called PowerPoint Slide Show. This last one is the right one; it shows your presentation in its entirety.

Make sure you share the SLIDE SHOW, and not the editing window!

Organize your windows and screens

When you turn on your PowerPoint presentation mode, it automatically maximizes your PowerPoint window to fullscreen. But then you don’t see Zoom anymore, so the chats and participants are hidden and you can’t see what everyone’s doing. This can be very annoying if you’re not prepared for this.

It’s good practice to organize your windows and screens so that they are next to each other (you may have to make the windows smaller for this). Do this right after you start to share your screen, perhaps during the introduction. This allows you to simultaneously see your presentation including notes, the participants’ video (or yourself if you like), and the chat. Now you have a complete overview of all that is important!

If you resize all the windows and put them next to each other you have an excellent overview.

Make use of the handy features in PowerPoint and Zoom

Since you can’t use a real laser pointer when presenting online, you could use the laser pointer function in PowerPoint instead. You can even highlight text, or write in your presentation while you’re presenting. Keep in mind though, that if you think you really need a laser pointer to do your presentation, the real problem could be that you have too much text or data crammed on your slides…

Use the features in PowerPoint to point out or highlight items or text during your presentation.

Note that highlighting, pointing, and writing in your presentation is also possible in Zoom. If you have shared your screen, you see the “Annotate” function in your view. If you unfold that, you see all kinds of options to draw or write on the screen, or to highlight information. In the example below, you see how you can use stamps to put little hearts in your presentation. And your audience can do this too! It’s a really nice feature to use in interactive exercises (for example: use those heart stamps to vote for a correct answer or favorite design). It’s a great way to keep your audience engaged too.

Interactive presentations are appreciated more!

In our workshops, we use Annotate so participants can rate visualizations with arrow stamps and give hearts when a design principle is used correctly.

Plan for low-threshold interaction

Tell your audience at the beginning of your presentation whether you have time for questions at the end. Do you prefer interaction at the end? Remind them during your presentation that they can put their questions in the chat. This puts your audience at ease because they know you will deal with their questions, and also allows you to get going with the questions right away when you’re ready, instead of awkwardly waiting for the first question to pop up.

If you prefer to have more feedback, you can ask the participants to react during the presentation using the available icons (clap, thumbs up, heart, smile, etc). Compared to a live talk there is very little visual feedback to go on otherwise, so this might be good to have, but to be honest it can be distracting too.

Another kind of reaction can be found in the “Participants” menu: f.i. Yes/No replies, hand raise, thumbs up/down, coffee break icons. You can use these for creative moments of interaction to keep your audience attentive (though actual coffee might work better sometimes)

Wrap up with a call to action

What do you want people to do after your presentation? Do you want them to follow you on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram? Do you want them to use a hashtag? Do you have a book, workshop or course you want them to purchase? Whatever it is – let them know!

So, NO slide with that 3D guy with the red question mark (or his confused Clipart colleague – you know who we mean!). It doesn’t add anything for anybody. If you have a round for questions, put your name, social media handles and/or website on screen, so that participants have the time to write it down.

At the end of the day (or presentation), what do you want people to do or remember? End with that!

If you have a presentation that you give more often, and you know from experience that there are more questions than time to answer them, you can give your audience a hand-out PDF afterwards. In the hand-out you can put the most frequently asked questions with answers. It’s also good practice to share a website on which you collect all the tips and resources from the presentation. Announce this at the beginning, so that participants don’t have to take notes. Note: it’s not advisable to share the slides from the presentation, because they were (or shouldn’t be) designed as hand-out, but as a visual support for your spoken words.

Why Zoom is (or can be) so much nicer than a live presentation

If you consider the options, online presentations using Zoom are a really nice development. You have your notes at hand, and you can set it up so that you feel most comfortable and supported. You also have more options for interactivity online, and it also provides a lower threshold for those who are uncomfortable in the spotlight; they can just ask a question in the chat. It allows for people from all over the world to see you speak, and you can do it from the comfort of your own home. We don’t all relish in the attention of being center-stage in a huge auditorium… Although the downside is that the informal drinks afterwards are much better in person.

Are you ready to start making beautiful slides as well? Then buy our e-book on designing clear science presentations for just 10 euro!

Curious to see what else you can learn about making great presentations? Check out our workshop series where we inspire you to design beautiful presentations and write better stories.

About the Author: Liesbeth Smit

Liesbeth combines her knowledge of science communication, technology and design to explain difficult topics to a wide audience. You can use her practical tips immediately in your (poster) presentations to create a bigger impact. She developed dozens of websites, infographics and animated videos, and regularly gives workshops about design at The Online Scientist.

Search for more scicomm tips: