The hybrid work guide

Why “owning the screen” is the new “owning the room”

Ganda Suthivarakom

Oct 10, 2023

Giving a presentation to an audience is such an important modern skill that even elementary school students are being tasked with practicing with their peers. But what happens when those presentations move to video? Many of the tips that make sense when your goal is to “own the room” are irrelevant when you don’t share the same physical space as your audience.

Being charismatic and captivating in a virtual space requires attention to different details. An in-person presentation requires attention to your audience, technology that helps the whole room hear you, and an outfit that projects the right tone. But an on-screen presentation requires us to learn new ways of capturing the audience’s attention and getting their feedback in real-time.

In this guide, we’ll share what it means to “own the room” when you’re a public speaker, how standard video conferencing services block the speaker’s ability to connect with audiences the old-fashioned way, and how you can use new technology to “own the screen” to stay connected with your audience during an online presentation.

How great presenters “own the room”

Natural charm and being comfortable at the center of attention can help, but listening and sensitivity to others is just as important in giving great live presentations. Here’s how great public speakers “own the room.”

They tell stories to connect. Good stories anchor great speeches because authenticity helps an audience relate to the speaker.  In his book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, Chris Anderson says, “Great speakers find a way of making an early connection with their audience. It can be as simple as walking confidently on stage, looking around, making eye contact with two or three people, and smiling.” He encourages people to speak conversationally—even before large audiences.

They engage the audience with visuals. Every picture tells a story, so great presenters are intentional about what they share and when they show an image. Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen, advises people to make images large, singular, and full-screen whenever possible so that the visual supports an idea rather than distracting from it.

They involve the crowd. Speakers often start by asking the audience to answer a question with a show of hands. This shows the crowd they’re being addressed directly and gives them a connection between their experience and the topic being covered.

Another way to involve the crowd is by reading the mood of the room and making adjustments. In “10 Tips for Improving Your Public Speaking Skills,” Harvard extension instructor Marjorie North advises speakers to adapt to feedback from their audience. “Gauge their reactions, adjust your message, and stay flexible.” When a section of the presentation lags, a good presenter can cut longer sections down and integrate those edits into their next performance.

These skills are handy when you’re presenting in-person. The problem is that video conferencing platforms aren’t designed to allow the same kind of sensory feedback you get when you’re in the same room.

Video production teaches us how to direct attention

Attend any conference and you can easily tell who the speaker is—they’re on stage, mic’d up, and all eyes watch them even as they advance slides on a screen behind them. They own the room. Audience members can let their gazes drift around the room if they feel fatigued, but a powerful, engaging speaker can capture and hold attention.

Compare that to most video meetings. Most attendees are relegated to a small postage stamp-sized rectangle in a perfectly uniform grid. Some of their cameras may be turned off. Once a speaker takes the lead, they share a presentation that takes over everyone’s view with a full-screen slide. Attendees are then shoved to the side and muted, making it difficult to gauge the mood of the audience.

This skeuomorphic translation from conference room to video conference builds walls between participants and the speaker, cutting connections that would be made in real life through sound, eye contact, and feedback.

Now consider video production of a talk like those from TED or Masterclass. The camera focuses mostly on the speaker, but there are occasional, brief interludes from the visuals projected behind the presenter, or an equally short pan to the audience to share their reactions. The producers center the story on whatever is the most compelling and interesting visual in that moment. Multiple camera angles give the eye a variety of things to look at and give the audience a sense of the event, not just the speaker’s slides.

Professional video producers curate what the viewer sees by playing with perspective, text, and ambient video to bring the audience into the room. While most of us don’t have the advantage of a professional audio/visual team for the average video meeting, you can take some of these tricks and translate them into live video with mmhmm.

How to “own the screen” to stay connected to your audience

When you watch a professionally-produced video of a speaker or presentation, you would never get 20 straight minutes of the slideshow going on behind them. So why should your next video call look that way?

By overlaying yourself on top of your slides, and designing each scene, you can create the effect of owning the room without replicating it exactly. Stephen Ballot, Chief Product Officer of  heycar, told us that being on video with mmhmm makes his presentations feel three-dimensional. “With mmhmm, I can express myself as I would in-person, where I feel comfortable leading the room,” he said.

Here’s how to incorporate screen-design thinking into your next presentation:

Tell better stories by spotlighting the speaker. With standard screensharing on video, you take yourself out of the picture, which makes it harder for audiences to connect with you. With mmhmm, you can be at the center of the screen while you share, so your audience can see all of the nonverbal communication which is so crucial to storytelling.

In Leading from Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Managing Remote Teams, David Burkus suggests that speakers train themselves on how to make eye contact on video calls. “Don’t make eye contact; make camera lens contact…When you’re speaking, look straight at the lens of the camera.” This one small change can help your audience feel that you are speaking directly to them, even if it means taking your eyes away from the video conference window.

Use scene design to help your visuals make an impact. Go with full-screen visuals when they punctuate your point, but hide them when they are no longer needed. With mmhmm, you can switch seamlessly between centering the speaker and going full-screen with the visuals. You can also move yourself on screen to point to things and draw the viewer’s attention where you want it to go.

Get the audience to actively participate. Be intentional about breaking the wall between you and the audience and move from passive viewership to active participation. Switch backgrounds and visuals to create a mood and set the tone for your presentation. With mmhmm, you can also use backgrounds from the Activities category to have everyone participate in a vote by moving their avatar around the screen.

“I have clients who spend 7+ hours a day on Zoom or Teams. My sessions with mmhmm are different. They are more engaging – and more fun,” consultant Beth Collier told us. “I can post an image as a prompt for discussion, use colorful backgrounds, or post a GIF in response to something someone says.”

Joe Kwon, an executive coach and mmhmm user, agrees. “What I've come to realize, and mmhmm is a large part of this, is with some thoughtfulness and no small amount of preparation, you can do things on a screen that are in some ways ‘better’ than you could do in person. For example, participate in real-time surveys or word maps and broadcast the results, get chat side discussions going, etc.” he said.

With a few smart design choices in a hybrid video that utilizes background, perspective, visual variety, and activity, every virtual space can become a space to inhabit. Own the screen with mmhmm the next time you want to make a connection with your audience.

Make your videos more engaging with less effort: Our free mmhmm-ready PowerPoint and Keynote templates help put you and your content on the same screen, elegantly. Download the free mmhmm-ready presentation templates.