Effective presentations online

Published on 7 Oct 2020


Below is an overview of some advice and guidance for presenting online effectively. 


When doing a presentation - either digitally or in person Corvin et al (2018) argue that it is important to reflect on the purpose of the content. What are the central goals of your presentation? Once you’ve identified these, frame your presentation based on these goals? Begin with the end in mind by clearly defining your presentation goals before developing content and activities. Consider what you, as a presenter, want to accomplish. You may want to encourage your colleagues to think in new and different ways or to create an environment of collegiality. It is good to understand your audience’s likely goals, interests, and professional identities before designing your presentation.


Think Science (n.d) argue that the first and most important rule of presenting your work is to know your audience members. If you can put yourself in their shoes and understand what they need, you'll be well on your way to a successful presentation. Keep the audience in mind throughout the preparation of your presentation. 

By identifying the level of your audience and your shared knowledge, you can provide an appropriate amount of detail when explaining your work. For example, you can decide whether particular technical terms and jargon are appropriate to use and how much explanation is needed for the audience to understand your research.


Plan interaction

In order to keep your audience engaged, it is recommended you build some interaction into your presentation (Visme, n.d). With the average focused attention span of humans hovering around 5 minutes, you should get your audience interacting by planning some form of interaction every 4 to 5 minutes. This can take many forms, like a question, a poll, or a white-boarding session. Whiteboarding is the placement of shared files on an on-screen shared notebook or whiteboard. Whatever you choose, just make sure you plan and prepare ahead of time.


The Presentation Training Institute recommends that when creating a Powerpoint presentation you should consider the “10-20-30 Rule.” In practice, this means that:

  • 10 slides are the optimal number to use for any presentation.
  • 20 minutes is the longest amount of time you should speak. (Your whole presentation can be longer with time for interaction.)
  • 30 point font is the smallest font size you should use on your slides.

The reasoning behind this formula is that: 

  1. 10 Slides Forces the Presenter to Choose Wisely

It might not seem like a lot, but trimming your presentation to just 10 slides is a valuable constraint.  Most people have between 30-50 slides for a 1-hour presentation and many of the slides are filled with unnecessary content.  By limiting your slides to just 10, you are forced to evaluate the necessity of each slide and just like every other part of your presentation, if it isn’t necessary it shouldn’t be included! Selecting fewer slides also encourages the presenter to design their presentation wisely, keeping it clear and concise.

  • 20 Minutes is Ample Time to Illustrate Your Point

Much like the constraint on the number of slides, cutting down on your speaking time forces you to do plenty of editing. Cut back on the details and only include the information that the audience actually cares about. When you get rid of all the additional fillers, you focus on what is truly important and deliver a presentation with precision.

  • 30 Point Font Guarantees Readability

It is critical that your slides be readable from different devices and platforms. You might have the best material in the world but if audiences can’t read it, it does no good. Bigger is probably better, but at the very minimum 30-point font should be readable by everyone in your audience.

It’s important to remember that there is not a “one size fits all” rule when it comes to presentations. You can get away with using fewer slides during an in-person presentation because it’s easier to gauge your audience’s comprehension by their expressions or body language. Every presentation is unique but the “10-20-30 Rule” should act as a basic guideline. If your topic is more complex and absolutely requires the use of a few more slides, don’t hesitate to include what you deem necessary. Likewise, if you just absolutely CANNOT deliver your presentation in less than 30 minutes, take the time you need. Just remember that it is important to edit your presentation and get rid of any material that is not necessary. Audiences will appreciate it and you will be more apt to deliver a meaningful presentation.


Visual materials, probably in the form of PowerPoint slides, are likely to be a vital part of your presentation. It is crucial to treat the slides as visual support for your audience, rather than as a set of notes for you.  First of all, choose a design that is appropriate for your audience. A clean, straightforward layout is best for effective presentations.

Visually reinforce key points

To make sure you don’t leave your audience in the dust of confusion, Visme (n.d) argues that you could prepare a summary slide with key points covered after each section and stop to recap and take questions. Places where you would naturally stop often get overlooked as on-line presenters mistake audience silence for understanding. This is more challenging in a digital environment.

Simplify your slides

A good slide might have around three clear bullet points on it, written in note form. If you are less confident about your speaking, you can use fuller sentences, but do not write your script out in full on the slide.

As a general rule, avoid reading from your slides; you want the audience to listen to you instead of reading ahead. Also, remember that intonation can be 'flattened' by reading, and you don't want to put the audience to sleep. However, if you need to rely on some written text to explain some difficult points and calm your nerves, make sure you pause and take your time between these points; then go back to talking and not reading the next slide.

Since you have no idea what size screen your audience is viewing your presentation on (or what their connection is like), design your slides to work well on a smaller screen. Small screens can multiply already busy graphics. Animations can appear jerky or out of sync with your talk track. Keep your graphics simple and crisp and limit your animations to simple fades and transitions and you can avoid alienating any audience members.

Use purposeful movement

Purposeful movement, i.e., changing slides or using your web tools to guide your audience’s eyes to different areas on screen works in you favor. Random or chaotic movement, i.e., jerky animations, a racing mouse, or rapid transitions work against you. You should avoid using too many styles and different kinds of animations on your slides. Animations, especially random ones, emphasize the motion and not the content.

Style / presenter

Use your voice

When you remove the physical component from your presentation, your voice carries a much larger load. A monotone, unclear or hard-to-hear voice is magnified in the virtual world. As your primary communication tool, you need to make sure you are in your best possible voice (Visme n.d).

You can prepare for this by recording yourself and analysing your strengths and weaknesses, then get to work. There is plenty of advice online about how to improve various vocal issues. You can start with some simple warm-ups before your presentation. 

Embrace the pause

Under the cover of invisibility, online audiences can be very passive. As a result, presenters have a tendency to go into long monologues that only further discourage participation and encourage tune-out.  

The pause can be a great tool for giving your audience a chance to process what you’ve said, ask a question, or make a comment. There are other strategic uses for the pause as well. A pause before revealing something important can build anticipation, while one at the end of a sentence can reinforce a key point (Visme n.d).

Be flexible with your start

To avoid waiting in silence for late comers you could have a flexible approach to starting your presentation. You could have a first opening as a “soft” opening, designed to get your audience engaged without revealing too much. For example, a poll that your on-time audience can answer which leads into your topic. Whatever your soft opening is, make sure that it is a) interesting, b) relevant and c) not vital to your audience’s understanding of the topic.

The second opening is your hard opening, reserved for when everyone is in attendance. This double opening is a bit more work, but might allow for more interaction time while making sure everyone is present (Visme n.d).

Digital technologies

The easiest and most effective way to increase your visibility is to use a webcam. Despite this quick fix not all presenters take advantage of this. If you are camera shy, you can have a simple slide with your photo and credentials on it which you can show when you open and close, as well as during Q&A. The more you can make yourself visible -- and not just a disembodied voice -- the more engaged your audience will be. 

When thinking about the different technologies for presenting you can use, there is a range of available options like Prezi, Google Slides PowerPoint, Keynote. See an overview and comparison of these here and here.  

When it comes to the audience's response to different softwares, Moulton et al’s (2017) did a study on how audiences responded to PowerPoint and Prezi. They found that participants evaluated Prezi presentations as more organized, engaging, persuasive, and effective than both PowerPoint and oral presentations. This finding was true for both live and pre recorded presentations, when participants rated or ranked presentations, and when participants judged multiple presentations of different formats or only one presentation in isolation. Results from Experiment 2 demonstrate that these presentations influenced participants’ core judgments about a decision, and suggest that Prezi may benefit both behavioral and experiential outcomes. Participants’ evaluations of Prezi were particularly telling in three ways.

Before the presentation

Check all the equipment and rehearse your presentation, using the equipment you'll be using when your presentation starts. Most online advice reinforces the need to practice and refine your presentation until you are comfortable and confident (Inc n.d, Lifewire 2020). 


Curts E (2020) How to use the whiteboard in Zoom.

Flipped Classroom Tutorials (2020) How to use the whiteboard in Zoom.

Inc. (n.d) How long should your talk be?

Lifewire (n.d) The 10 most common presentation mistakes.

Manhire D (2015) How to make effective digital presentations.

Moulton et al (2017) Does a presentation’s medium affect its message? PowerPoint, Prezi, and oral presentations

Presentation Training Institute (n.d) How long should your Powerpoint really be?

Tech Republic (2006) 10 slide design tips for producing powerful and effective presentations.

Think Science (n.d) Giving effective presentations: 5 ways to present your points with power, not just PowerPoint 

Visme (n.d) 10 ways to keep your audience engaged during an online presentation

Zandan N (n.d) The science of audience engagement. Quantified Communications