The Masked Presenter: Challenges of Being Live and In Person

In addition to being a Turpin trainer and coach, I also teach at a couple of different colleges in the Chicago area, and I was asked to teach a class just before the start of the semester—in person. I was elated. Since the start of lockdown last year, I’d had four sets of students that I’d never met face-to-face, and I was getting tired of teaching sitting in my office chair at home. When classes are in person, I never sit down: I’m moving around the room, interacting with the board or the screen, and checking on student work over their shoulders—whether classes are an hour long or three. I rely on facial expressions to convey that a student may want to rethink an answer or to let them know they’re working toward an insight. That’s all really challenging to replicate remotely, so when the request came in, I jumped at it. Now, a few weeks into the term, I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Zoom.

Friends, I am here to tell you that it’s not at all been what I’d expected. A lot of what the Turpin team has been blogging about for eighteen months—how to engage remotely, how to manage slides, how to conduct productive Q & A, how to lead and have hard conversations when mediated by a screen—got easier as I practiced with Zoom. What I didn’t count on when going back to the classroom was that a) my in-person presentation skills had gotten a little rusty with the focus on remote, and b) there’s fallout from the pandemic that has made in-person engagement a lot different. In thinking about all of this, I realized that there is a lot from my classroom experience that applies to business presentations as well, so if you have an in-person business presentation on the calendar, this is for you.

Challenges and Solutions of Returning to In-Person Presentations

Here are a few of the things I’ve experienced as I’ve pivoted to being back in a real classroom. I hope that as I identify challenges and develop solutions, you’ll find ways to employ them in your work life.

Talking is harder

I’m in a standard-size classroom with twenty students, which means I have to project my voice to the back of the room, where both the diligent and the dozing choose to sit. I wear thick, chemically treated cloth masks or KN95 masks to keep myself and everyone else safe. These masks are good at containing the virus and even better at muffling sound, killing my otherwise rather good diction and requiring me to repeat myself often. Have I mentioned that my class is three hours long? And that we’re not allowed to drink in the classrooms anymore?

By the time I was done teaching my first couple of classes, my throat felt raw, I had a tickling cough, and I couldn’t push beyond a conversational volume. My voice is still very tired at the end of class, but here’s what’s been helping:

  • If you have a break, take it. Find a safe place by yourself and take your mask off. Just a few minutes of unmasked breathing feels amazing.
  • Hydrate before you talk or present. If you keep from getting thirsty, you have (I know, it’s gross) more spit to work with, which keeps your throat lubricated even as you’re sucking in dry air through your mask.
  • Throat-coating tea. There are a few different brands widely available. Look for slippery elm bark and licorice root in the ingredients to be sure you’re getting the right thing. It’s soothing as much for being warm as for the ingredients, and it seems to calm the tickles I’m left with after too much mask-talk.
  • Don’t talk if you don’t have to, especially after you finish presenting or talking for a long time while masked. Simple rest is so healing.
  • Frozen things, like juice pops, feel wonderful, too. And it’s a nice reward for having braved the outside.

Engaging with your audience is different

Turpin teaches two core engagement skills when we do presentation training: eye contact and pausing. Being masked and in-person changes how you manage these skills. I’m going to tell you upfront that the way to engage is to employ both skills in tandem. Let the strengths of one make up for the weaknesses of the other when you’re masked.

Pausing

We spend a lot of time in presentation training saying, “Pause to breathe!” Well, most of your time talking while masked is spent pausing to breathe because breathing becomes so top-of-mind and purposeful. The challenge is making those pauses multitask while you are sucking air into your lungs.

  • Take a minute to look at your audience. Here’s an opportunity to employ eye contact in a purposeful way or to ask if everyone is tracking with your content.
  • If you’re standing, move around the room a bit to change the focal point for your listeners. Then reestablish eye contact with those you are now closer to.
  • Finally, acknowledge to your audience that your usual patter will be slower. You can even thank them for their patience. When it’s their turn to talk, they’ll be in the same boat, after all.

Eye contact

This is harder than expected because pre-pandemonium, when you made eye contact with an audience member, you were making face contact. Yes, we encourage you to really look into your audience member’s eyes for a few seconds, but while you’re doing so, you are also seeing whether they’re smiling, frowning, yawning, looking perplexed. You get a lot of information from those moments of focus on a single person’s face.

When everyone is masked, eye contact is reduced to, well, just the eyes. And depending on mask placement, it might feel like a struggle to even really see a person’s eyes. Keep in mind, too, that I’ve never seen my students’ whole faces, so unlike with family or friends, I don’t have a memory of what the rest of their faces look like when their eyes crinkle or widen a certain way. This was one way Zoom was great. Yes, we were reduced to Brady Bunch squares, but at least we could see people’s full faces and even upper bodies to be able to read their body language and facial expressions. Masked and in person, the solution is to make eye contact slower and more deliberate. Really use the room and use those pauses to make sure everyone has regular moments of feeling included. This is easier than you might think because of what I’m going to talk about next. You need it as much as your audience does.

It’s lonely under your mask

This may sound strange, but it turns out that it’s as important for me to know people are seeing my face as it is for me to see theirs. Smiles, nose-scrunches, perplexed frowns are all hidden, which means I’m cut off from one of my main ways to communicate. I don’t feel seen, and that makes it harder to connect with my audience. Therefore, I really lean hard on eye contact and meaningful, room-sweeping pauses to make myself feel better and more engaged. It’s a challenge, but it’s so helpful.

Facial expressions have to be replaced by something else

Another bit of fallout from my being hidden behind a mask is that while I still make the same facial expressions, I also have to remember that no one can see them. If a student is at the board working on editing a sentence, in the past, I’d count on them seeing me raise my eyebrows or tilt my head to let them know there was one more error or that maybe that comma should be a semicolon. I can still do those things, but without the rest of my face to contextualize that single gesture, I’m afraid I just look bizarre at best, menacing at worst. So I need words or at least sounds. A “hmmmmm” to accompany the head tilt or an “almost . . . “ to go with the raised eyebrows goes a long way.

I also have to watch my tone of voice while facilitating a class. I love using bad dad jokes, puns, and gentle teasing in the classroom, and I’m learning how much they rely on facial expressions to land. A deadpan tone is hard to make work when students can’t see the face that goes with it, so I have to make sure I sound as smiley as I feel in those moments. It requires changing some long-embedded habits, but it’s worth it to connect with my students. One of the biggest things I miss about Zoom is the ability to crack a joke and then crack a smile and know that my students understood it all.

Watching a faceless person takes more energy

I’m also realizing that it must be incredibly difficult for my students to stay focused when all they see are two eyes and a field of fabric rather than a whole face. I’m learning that I need to change up what we’re doing more often. Instead of lecturing for 45 minutes, I’ll come up with small exercises every 15-20 minutes that a) allow me to stop talking for a bit and b) give students a chance to engage with something other than my mask.

Oh, and the school gave us masks with those clear plastic mouth windows in them. Definitely not a solution unless you’re teaching a film class on the creepy and weird.

Still a lot to learn

I’m sure that as the semester progresses—and if we don’t have to return to remote learning—I will encounter new challenges and have to find new solutions. Watch this space for more, and in the meantime, good luck with your own return to in-person presentations and meetings.

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About the Author: Barbara Egel

Barbara Egel is an experienced trainer and presenter who has worked in a variety of fields from qualitative consumer research to children’s multimedia publishing. In each of her roles, Barbara has specialized in helping people get comfortable in situations that, at least at first, are uncomfortable. This includes helping fiction writers get comfortable writing code and enabling marketers and product developers to talk directly with their customers. Most recently, Barbara was Vice President at Primary Insights, Inc., a boutique qualitative research consultancy. She currently is on the faculty of Harold Washington College in Chicago, where she teaches writing. At Turpin Communication, Barbara is a workshop coach and was the developmental editor of The Orderly Conversation. She has degrees from the University of Illinois and Northwestern University.

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