Today’s traditional college-aged students are tragic experts at online presentations: they spent a year, or more, staring at Zoom listening to heroic teachers attempt some level of normalcy admist COVID. We say “listening” because many had cameras off. Some, like certain members of our families, were in bed under the covers, sometimes conscious, sometimes not. This is maybe a case where 10,000 hours does not apply. Time in saddle – unpracticed, without reflection and feedback, does not lead to skills. It can lead to bad habits.

The ability to deliver communications online is a core skill in today’s working world. We don’t mean formal presentations, only. Communicating in a meeting with 10 other people, all appearing like Brady Bunch family members in their little squares on the screen, requires technical dexterity, emotional intelligence, and compelling executive presence. How to interrupt someone gracefully when you don’t have body language to signal your intent? Or juggle raised hands, questions in chat, and screen sharing the correct window selected from two, 4k monitors? Underpinning all of this, of course, are the core presentations skills of storytelling, paced delivery, the avoidance of non-words, body language, and document design.

Despite its increasing importance and relevance, however, a recent report reveals that many higher education institutions aren’t incorporating online presentations into their curriculum. The 2023 Pan-Canadian Report on Digital Learning Trends in Canadian Post-Secondary Education sheds light on what technologies are adopted (and neglected) in higher ed. Among polled options, the adoption rates ranged from 1% using Virtual/Augmented Reality to 75% using one-to-one video chats for faculty-student meetings. In the middle of the pack, at 39%, were “student speeches or presentations online” (for further analysis see this post from On EdTech+).

Underutilization of online presentations in higher ed was disappointing, pre-COVID, but not unsurprising. As McDougall & Holden (2017) put it: “Oral presentation skills are considered essential workplace skills and are therefore highly valued in higher education. However, research into this aspect of adult learning is limited, especially in the context of distance and online education.” Before COVID-19, higher education could perhaps assume that their recent graduates would have time to learn on the job, absorbing the mores of their chosen industry and company through observation and playing supporting roles. But with 50% of US knowledge workers spending half their time working remotely, online communication skills are crucial to worker success and advancement (numbers hard to come by, but this number feels right from our observation and this work from MIT Sloan).

This isn’t just about formal presentations. Amazon, famously, largely bans PowerPoint presentations in favor of dense written documents that are read, in silence, at the start of meetings. Whether sharing a presentation or document, the challenges are similar. Presenters must make eye contact with a camera lens, not a person. They need to watch for small physical cues from their audience, handle Q&A that can come in multiple forms (while presenting in Microsoft Teams your boss is messaging you on Slack while a colleague calls out a correction in a separate Teams chat…), and think about pacing, word choice, and all the conventions of business communication. They need to make sure their tech is optimized and their environment professional (blur that background if you’re sitting in a bedroom!).

We built the Annotate PRO Feedback Builder, and Presentation Skills Edition expert feedback content library, to help increase the quality and quantity of feedback students receive when communicating – online or in person. By organizing pre-written, customizable comments instructors (and peers) can give feedback at the speed of a live presentation. For example, notice how we kept up with Elon Musk’s presentation as he unveiled the Cyber Truck:

With the Feedback Builder, instructors can easily combine multiple pieces of feedback into one cohesive block of content that can be personalized, then copy/pasted into the preferred communications method. Or instructors can use AP to add feedback directly into the school’s LMS, leveraging the 260+ detailed comments in the Presentation Skills Edition Library. Regardless of tools and approaches, we need to better prepare students for a world of virtual meetings, where tactical skills (moving easily amongst Teams, Meet, Zoom, and Slack), visual design (charts, slides), and speaking skills (pacing, word choice, eye contact) can help a new graduate stand out to leadership and earn opportunities to grow in their chosen field.

References

McDougall, J., & Holden, H. (2017). The silence about oral presentation skills in distance and online education: new perspectives from an Australian university preparatory programme. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning32(2), 163–176. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680513.2017.1316187

Morgan, G. (2024, February 18). Interesting reads this week. On EdTech Newsletter. https://onedtech.philhillaa.com/p/interesting-reads-20240217

YouTube. (2014, April 14). How to avoid death by powerpoint | David JP Phillips | tedxstockholmsalon. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iwpi1Lm6dFo

Walsh, D. (2023, June 29). How many Americans are really working remotely?. MIT Sloan. https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/how-many-americans-are-really-working-remotely

Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint in meetings. his replacement is brilliant | inc.com. (n.d.-b). https://www.inc.com/carmine-gallo/jeff-bezos-bans-powerpoint-in-meetings-his-replacement-is-brilliant.html