How to Make a Real Connection With a Virtual Audience
Research suggests we can still connect at a deep level when presenting online.
Posted February 2, 2021
Many of us give presentations as part of our work, whether we’re walking colleagues through a deck of slides, leading a team meeting, or speaking professionally to a large group. And these days, many of our presentations are to virtual audiences. For people already used to working in distributed teams, it’s business as usual. But to those of us less familiar with the virtual world, online presentations can feel a little stiff and incomplete without an in-person audience. It's easy to wonder whether it’s even possible to make a strong connection with an audience that isn’t in the same room as us.
The good news is that research suggests the answer is a cautious “yes”—but to be a compelling virtual presenter it helps to understand what’s really happening in people’s brains when a speaker and listener connect effectively, since it gives us clues on what we need to do to replicate that connection in virtual space.
First of all, researchers have found that successful communication between human beings is associated with increased synchronization in their neural activity.1,2 That is, when a listener hears and understands what a speaker is saying, similar areas of each person’s brain are engaged. Likewise, researchers have found more alignment in activity in the brains of people who choose to cooperate with each other, rather than compete with each other, when they’re asked to play a game that presents both choices.3 So when we say we feel on the same wavelength as someone else we’ve connected with, it’s not just a poetic phrase. It’s a measurable reality.
And across all the studies on this topic, emotional contagion seems to emerge as a key driver of this neural synchrony through communication4 - so, a listener picks up the speaker’s emotions, their brain automatically mirrors that emotion at least a little, and that shows up in similar activity in a range of sensory and attention-related brain areas.5
When we’re speaking to an audience that’s live and in person, we can sense this syncing up. We feel the energy in the room, and we know our own emotional state can project itself onto others. If we are excited and committed to what we’re talking about, we know our message is likely to land better than if we’re lukewarm in our tone. Emotional contagion is a big part of how we make a connection with the people we’re speaking to, whether we’re aware of it or not.
But how much of this is really possible remotely? Isn’t it basically impossible to make that kind of emotional connection through a disembodied screen?
Actually, the evidence on the scope for emotional contagion online is better than you would think. Even when a person is lying in a brain scanner merely listening to an audio clip of someone else telling a story, researchers see emotional transmission between speaker and listener.5 Just watching the same video clip4 or listening to the same music6 as other people is enough to create measurable emotional synchrony. Even text messages can sync people up across virtual space. Researchers have found emotional contagion even in remote teams that communicate only via text.7
And for most of us presenting online, we’ve got a little more to play with than that. We have eye contact—or at least the appearance of eye contact that comes from looking squarely into a camera. Eye contact has been found to spark emotional connection even when it’s on screen.8 We’re wired for this from an early age—even newborn babies pay more attention when someone looks directly at them,9 and infants show more synchronization of neural activity with adults who look into their eyes.10
All of which to say, it’s both worthwhile and possible to make an emotional connection through our camera, even if we’re not actors or comedians. But how can we seed a kind of emotional connection in a way that doesn’t feel forced or phony? Here are some practical suggestions:
- Show slides as needed, not as default. You want to make sure that people have plenty of opportunity to focus on your face or your voice, if you want them to feel meaningfully connected to you and your ideas. If you’re tempted to hide behind a presentation during in-person meetings, it’s of course even more tempting in the virtual world where many platforms maximize the size of your slides and minimize (or even remove) the speaker window when you share your screen. So, start without slides if you can. Share your slides only when you need them, then hide them when you don’t. That probably means getting more fluid in switching the “share screen” option on and off throughout your talk. It might also mean you bring fewer slides to a meeting—and that’s no bad thing.
- Bring out the human content of your stories. Even in conventional settings, we know that using examples of real people makes a point more likely to stick, because we’re such social creatures that including even a small amount of social information has been found to make a message easier to remember.11 So even if you’re talking about the benefits of an improved procurement process, where the “story” is mostly a financial case for change, it’s helpful to give a specific example of how a smarter way of buying widget X will (say) free up budget for Y, which will benefit person Z in a positive way. And if you can visualize person Z as you talk about them, you’ll likely put more emotion into your voice without even trying—and that will hold people’s attention and connection more firmly still.
- If you’re on video, really look into the camera when speaking. You’ve probably heard this dozens of times, and you may have nailed this—but it's striking how many smart professional people haven’t set themselves up for success on this point. Always know where your live camera is. Do whatever you can to draw your eyes towards it. Maybe put two Post-it notes either side of the camera, with big hand-drawn eyes or the words “LOOK HERE” written on them. Or print a picture of a loved one and stick it next to your webcam as an added incentive to draw your gaze (that’s what I do). Shrink the size of the video window and drag it to be as close as possible to your camera. For important presentations, I use a tripod that puts my webcam at natural eye level. It’s worth it.
- Check in with your audience. The emotional connection doesn’t have to be just one way, with energy flowing from you to your listeners. One benefit of using online meeting platforms is that it’s fairly simple to ask people in the audience to tell you about their state of mind. Even in large groups, I have found that you can invite people to type one word in the “chat” box that describes their mood or whatever is top of mind for them, or do a little poll to ask people to rate how they feel about a topic. In smaller groups, with a little practice, you can use the collaborative whiteboard function to get people to write a word or two that captures what they’re thinking and feeling.
Online presenting is never going to feel exactly the same as in-person speaking, but with these techniques, we can still hold an audience's attention and have them care about what we're saying—and perhaps ultimately reach more people in our pajamas than in our power suits.
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8. Hietanen JO, Peltola MJ, Hietanen JK. (2020) Psychophysiological responses to eye contact in a live interaction and in video call. Psychophysiology, Jun;57(6): e13587.
9. Farroni T, Csibra G, Simion F, Johnson MH. (2002) Eye contact detection in humans from birth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jul 9;99(14): 9602-5.
10. Leong V, Byrne E, Clackson K, Georgieva S, Lam S, Wass S. (2017) Speaker gaze increases information coupling between infant and adult brains. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dec 12;114(50): 13290-13295.
11. Mitchell JP, Macrae CN, Banaji MR. (2004) Encoding-specific effects of social cognition on the neural correlates of subsequent memory. J Neurosci., May 26;24(21): 4912-7.