Guest Post by C.L. Fornari

In April of 2020 my speaking business had to suddenly shift from in-person talks to virtual presentations. Zoom became my new best friend. Some groups and audiences were quick to embrace this means of staying in touch, while others were slower to admit that if any gatherings and talks were going to happen, it needed to be online or not at all.

Now, almost a full year and over 100 presentations later, I’m here to record some rants and raves about how this is working for speakers, garden groups and other organizations. I can offer some green thumbs up and green thumbs down, and a few thoughts about how the seeds planted in the pandemic might grow into something wonderful into the future.

Technical Demands for Club and Speaker

Rave: Kudos to those garden clubs and other organizations who are willing to learn on the fly. When a group is disposed to let someone experienced with Zoom set up the event, send out the link, and guide the gathering, they are more likely to have a smoothly run meeting that keeps their members connected and lets everyone experience a dynamic talk that’s informative and entertaining. If a group doesn’t have an experienced Zoom administrator, they are well served to find a speaker who can deliver both the talk and the technology.

Money Stuff

Rant: When a group expects a speaker who is presenting virtually to charge less, they are underestimating the skill that’s required to deliver an engaging talk in this manner. When presenting to a live audience, a speaker gets immediate feedback and energy from the audience. The facial expressions, raised hands and vocal responses instantly tell the speaker if that audience is appreciating the talk. Additionally, the audience is seated and attentive through the talk, without the same distractions as those joining from their homes are subject to. So those who speak via Zoom or on other virtual platforms must be more entertaining and dynamic than is necessary in an in-person talk. Those who present virtually know that it takes greater energy, planning and talent to be engaging in front of a computer screen than a live talk necessitates. Virtual speakers might be presenting from their homes, but the demands are far greater.

Benefits for Organizations

Rave:  Applause for organizations who realize that virtual talks offer them total flexibility for meeting times and dates. While in-person gatherings require groups to book a venue months or even years in advance, and to lock in regular days and dates, gathering via Zoom allows an organization to have a morning meeting one month, a luncheon the next, and a cocktail hour event a month or two later. This flexibility allows those who work during the day to come to evening meetings and parents of young children to attend when the children are in bed or at school. For groups who have seen that younger people haven’t been able to join their organization, the flexibility that virtual meetings offer just might mean an influx of new members.

Attendees: You’re on Camera!

Rant: Green thumbs down for attendees who forget that although a meeting is virtual, they are indeed on camera and being seen! As a speaker, it’s pretty demoralizing to watch group members pointedly ignore the speaker as they get up to refill wine glasses, check their cell phones, and send texts or emails, all as their cameras are recording their inattention. For a speaker, this is a silent form of heckling. Attendees always have the option to turn off their cameras if they don’t want to give a speaker their full attention, yet some choose to publicly thumb their noses at the presenter who is working hard to give the audience a good experience.

Presentations Should be Adapted for Zoom

Rave: Praise is due to speakers who realize that a virtual presentation needs to be cleaner, clearer and more colorful than a talk projected on a big screen. Visuals presented to a large audience might include three or four pictures in the same slide, but for a virtual talk, viewed on a cell phone or tablet, multiple images aren’t as engaging. A virtual talk needs to be limited to one image and very few words (if any) on each slide since attendees are viewing the talk on a variety of different devices. So a round of applause for virtual presenters who are willing to totally redo and simplify oft-given talks to better suit a Zoom format. (Never has the book Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds, been more appropriate.)

Make it a Live Event Only

Rant: Many organizations ask about the possibility that a presentation be recorded so that “those who can’t attend might watch it later.” Yes, it’s possible to record a Zoom talk, but is that truly desirable? I suggest that a virtual talk should be viewed just like an in-person meeting: you have to be there. Members of an organization might be joining in from separate homes, but they are still sharing an experience in real time. Just as there is something different about watching a movie with a group of people instead of viewing it alone, knowing that others are enjoying the talk at the same time makes it all the richer. Additionally, questions can be asked and answered, comments posted, and links or references shared. A talk might be virtual, but it is still live, and there is value in that.

Reinvention for Us All

Rants and raves aside, speakers and the groups that hire them are in a time of renewal and regeneration. We have been dragged, often kicking and screaming, out of our ruts, habits and long clung-to traditions. We’ve been forced to open our eyes to new talents, technologies and possibilities. The pandemic has offered garden organizations and communicators the opportunity to plant something new and exciting. Let’s grow this together.