Best practice for speaking at an online event

Tips

We host and watch a lot of online events on Vito, and over time we’ve amassed a collection of simple but useful pointers for how to produce engaging and professional-looking videos from home. So we thought we’d collate them into one reference post for the benefit of both speakers and organizers who are turning their hand to online events in 2020 and beyond, and want to deliver high quality presentations which are fun and memorable.

Live or pre-recorded?

One of the most exciting benefits of running an event online is the lack of constraints. Organizers don’t need the budget to hire a venue. Speakers don’t need to take time out of their schedule to fly to a conference location. Attendees can participate from the ease and comfort of their own home. And there’s a lot you can do with video that you can’t easily do on stage.

If you have the option to pre-record an event talk, it can allow for a more polished end result, because you can shoot retakes and clean things up in post-production. It also allows you to get creative with different formats, so you can draw inspiration from YouTubers, TV and even movies. Who says you can’t have a flashback sequence in the middle of your conference talk?! One of the best ways to hold the audience’s attention at an online event is to mix things up. Pre-recorded talks can still be incorporated into a livestream, as we cover in our ultimate guide to livestreaming, and it frees you up to interact with attendees in the discussion feed and answer questions during your talk if the event format and platform will allow.

Here’s a wonderfully creative example of a pre-recorded presentation, delivered by Jessie Char at our first ever online event on Vito in March 2020:

As a conference organizer it can be a good idea to request the majority of your speakers to submit their talks as pre-recorded videos, as this can minimize a lot of unknowns on the day. You’ll be able to cue up each talk as a scene in your livestreaming software, and you’ll know exactly how long each session will run in advance, allowing you to stay on schedule. You’ll also have less chasing on the day to do to ensure that speakers are present at the call link at the right time. Finally, it allows you to attract new and diverse talent, because it gives less experienced or more nervous speakers the time and space to produce a talk without the pressure of having to deliver it live.

For emcee segments, panels and Q&A sessions, live tends to work better because you can address audience comments and questions directly. There are lots of ways to incorporate a video call into a livestream depending on what streaming software you’re using — and you can even stream a Zoom call directly to a Vito hub!

What equipment do I need?

You don’t need a lot of expensive hardware to create a video for an online event. You can get started with just a camera, microphone and a device with internet access for sending or streaming the video file.

Use the best quality camera you have access to. For pre-recorded video, a DSLR or the back facing camera on your smartphone is often a better option than a webcam. If you’re recording on your phone, be sure to set it up in landscape mode rather than portrait. You’ll want to aim for a resolution of at least 720p or 1080p for HD results. If you have access to a camera that shoots in 4K, this means it’ll be ultra HD.

If you’ll be delivering your talk via live video, there are ways to use your smartphone or DSLR camera as a webcam. For your smartphone you’ll need a USB cable and an app like Reincubate Camo and EpocCam (formerly Kinoni). To use your DSLR as a webcam, you’ll probably need an audio video capture card, micro HDMI to HDMI cable, and a USB power adapter. We go into more detail about this setup in our ultimate guide to livestreaming. Otherwise, a dedicated good-quality webcam can be picked up relatively inexpensively, which you just plug directly into a USB port for minimum fuss.

We’d argue that a decent quality microphone is almost more important than the camera you use. Bad audio quality can really undermine a talk more than a fuzzy picture can. Again, we include lots of tips for different mic setups in our livestreaming guide, but in general you’ll want to again use the best quality microphone you have access to, ideally set to stereo rather than mono. This is often anything but the built-in microphone on your computer or laptop. A headset is probably the least expensive option, but you can definitely go fancier with a USB or XLR mic.

Beyond these essentials, lighting can really raise the production quality of your video exponentially without too much expense or effort. It’s fairly simple to put together a three-point lighting setup like the pros use. For this you’ll need:

  • Key light — this is the brightest of the three lights and should be positioned to one side of your camera and aimed at your face at a 45° angle. The purpose of this light is to ensure your face is properly illuminated.
  • Fill light — this is a medium intensity light positioned on the other side of your camera and aimed at you. This makes you look evenly lit, and not like one side of your face is cast in shadow.
  • Back light — this is the lowest intensity of the three lights, and can either be positioned behind you and aimed at you to illuminate the back of your head, so that you stand out from the background, or can simply illuminate your background so that you don’t look like you’re swimming in darkness. Here’s where you can have fun with colours and different types of lighting to achieve an aesthetically pleasing result.

If you don’t have space or budget for both a key and fill light, just go with a fill light and try to position it fairly square on to your face, perhaps right next to or above your camera. The goal is to look like your face is evenly lit and not casting any odd shadows. Having some sort of lighting behind you is a good idea too, but we’ll talk more about your background in the next section.

For specific hardware recommendations, check out this video we recorded doing a tour of our A/V setups for Vito’s Ayo! event series:

How do I set up my shot?

There’s no one right way to set up your shot, but there are a few general principles you can follow to make it look intentional and even cinematic, over what people might be used to seeing on a regular video call.

Camera position

Having your camera at eye level or slightly above looks most natural. If the best camera you have access to is the one on your laptop, elevate it on some books or a riser so that you’re not looking down into it and giving your audience a view up your nose! The camera should be stable and not shake when you move. Framing wise, a good rule of thumb is to have your head, shoulders and upper torso visible, and to avoid having too much space between the top of your head and the top of the frame.

Background

Try and frame the shot so that you’re the focal point. It’s nice for the background to have some personality and visual appeal, but you don’t want whatever’s behind you to be too distracting. So this means popping any clutter into boxes or hiding it away, and maybe adding some strategically placed decorative items like a well positioned plant or a framed print.

You might want to wear a contrasting colour to the background to avoid looking like a floating head and if your camera allows, you can change the depth of field to blur the background slightly. You can also play around with lighting here to add atmosphere to the shot, for instance with subtle color-changing or fairy lights or even a fun neon sign. A speaker on one of our events even matched his lighting to the event logo!

Sound quality

It’s best to record your talk in a quiet space and turn off fans or A/C and close the windows if possible, to reduce distracting background noise. If you can add some soft furnishing such as cushions or throws, or even sound absorbing panels, to your room it will reduce the amount of echo. Consider removing any jewellery or accessories that might jingle, rattle, or hit the mic.

How do I edit my video?

If you’re pre-recording your talk, you have the option to edit it in post-production before sending the final version to the organizer. The first step is to clarify expectations with them. Here are some questions you can ask as a speaker (and information you can provide upfront if you’re an organizer):

  • What length should the final video be?
  • Are there any graphics I can or should include, and where do I find them?
  • Is there a particular structure the presentation should follow?
  • Is there a style guide for presentations?
  • What are the rules around including music or copyrighted material?
  • What format file do you need it in?
  • What date do you need it by?
  • Will any further editing be done on your end, e.g. adding title cards?

Once you have answers to these questions, you can begin to edit your video. iMovie is an entry-level app available for free on Mac that will enable you to do basic editing like trimming clips and stitching them together, adding titles and transitions, recording voiceover and more. It can be limiting for more seasoned video editors, but it does the trick in the majority of cases. An equivalent app for Windows is Movavi, but there are plenty of other options available. If these free programs are too basic for your requirements, you can upgrade to something like Adobe Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro.

To learn about the actual editing process, there are lots of free courses available on online learning platforms like Skillshare and Udemy.

How do I successfully present live online?

Again, the first thing to do is to check expectations with the event organizer. You can ask them questions like:

  • What video calling software are you using to bring me into the stream, and do I need to download or install anything?
  • How far ahead of time do you need me to be ready at the call link?
  • How will I get the cue that we’re about to go live, and will I be introduced or should I expect to introduce myself?
  • Will we run a test beforehand?
  • What will the structure of the session be?
  • How will the panel / Q&A / interview be moderated (if applicable)?
  • Will I be able to see any comments or questions that come in and, if so, how?
  • Will you need me to share my screen?
  • How can I reach you if I’m having connectivity issues?
  • What’s the contingency plan if there’s a technical mishap?

This information will help you prepare to participate live in the stream. During the test, if there is one, familiarize yourself with how the controls work, for instance if you need to mute your microphone to sneeze during the session! You’ll also want to run the audio through your headphones rather than the speakers on your computer, to reduce the risk of feedback.

We recommend doing a couple of test recordings on your own first, to make sure you’re happy with the A/V setup and quality of the output. If you’ll be delivering a straightforward talk or keynote, rather than being part of a panel or Q&A, you might also want to discuss a contingency plan with the organizer, such as having a pre-recorded version of your session available if you’re unable to deliver your talk live on the day.

If possible, on the day you should use a wired connection rather than relying on wifi. And if you’re using a laptop, connect it to the mains power so that there’s no chance of it dying mid-stream. If you’ll be sharing your stream, close down any unused apps and turn off notifications to minimize distractions. And it’s not a bad idea to have a quick glance in the mirror to make sure there isn’t anything in your teeth! (We’ve learnt that one the hard way…)

Summary

Delivering a talk at an online event can be an opportunity to exercise your creativity, learn new skills and have fun. We hope these tips will prove useful for speakers and event organizers alike, and if you use any of these we’d love to hear from you. You can tweet us at @vitocommunity.

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