Look Into My Eyes – Presenter Tips for Virtual Event Hosting

Leading broadcaster and financial commentator Susannah Streeter who has anchored flagship business news programmes on TV and radio and hosted major summits, conferences and events, around the world, provides us with advice on becoming a virtual presenter.

Susannah Streeter, TV presenter, keynote speaker, event moderator, event host and MC

From an early age, we’re told to look people in the eye when we’re talking to them. But it’s easier said than done when we’re all trying to communicate remotely.

We’ve all had to sit through Zoom or Teams meetings, staring at the top of someone’s head while they read from their copious notes, but the presenter whose focus is fixed just below eye-level is much more common and can be even more disconcerting.

It’s a natural enough reaction. Even if the speaker isn’t reading from their notes on screen, their eyes are drawn to their audience, the other participants faces, usually just below the barely visible camera, which can come across as a somewhat vacant gaze.

We’ve become used to it for informal chats. But if you’re hosting an event or making a virtual presentation, it’s vital you try to maintain that direct-to-camera engagement as much as you can. The audience want to feel that you are talking to them. If you can look them straight in the eye, they are much more likely to stay tuned.

Years of presenting TV news have made staring right into the lens easier for me, by force of habit, even when there’s a busy studio full of distractions behind the camera or occasionally rowdy members of the public, when out on location. But it feels like a very long-time since I enjoyed the luxury of an autocue.

It’s not easy, even for TV professionals, to stay focused on the tiny cameras hidden in the screens of our phones and laptops, with their notoriously forgettable indicator lights. While I usually use a separate webcam to provide the quality of image required for big corporate events, it’s not exactly conspicuous.

Silicon Valley wouldn’t be Silicon Valley if it hadn’t already found a technological solution to this problem the rest of us didn’t even know we had six months ago. “Gaze correction” software has been deployed on some high-end video conferencing platforms and uses AI to adjust the appearance of our eyes, to make it seem as if we’re looking directly into camera.

It sounds like highly sophisticated red-eye reduction, but similar “gaze tech” software was recently launched with Microsoft’s Surface Pro X. I’m sure it will be a while before such technology is universally deployed so, in the meantime, we’re left with some tried-and tested home hacks:

Phone first – The camera on your phone is usually far better than the one in your laptop and the smaller distance between lens and screen will keep your eyes closer to where you want them. A tripod is a must though, to get your phone up to eye-level and keep it steady.

Not too close – People often sit too close to camera for video calls and this exacerbates the wandering-eye problem. Sit further away so that your head and shoulders are in shot and you have a little headroom, though not too much.

Eye-level – “…is buy level”, as they say in retail. If you have to use your laptop, elevate it on a handful of hefty books to bring the camera level with your eyeline. You might only need a couple if you’re my height.

Visual reminders – Apparently, our brains quickly become blind to the little indicator lights designed to tell us the camera is active, so use a sticker or circle around the camera to draw your gaze back into line.

Keep notes close – If you need notes, position them as close to the lens as possible, either by elevating your laptop or tablet just behind the phone or webcam, or by opening them in a window that you can position close to the top of the screen and your desired eyeline.

Keep a backup to hand – The fallibility of autocues has taught every TV presenter that a hard copy of scripts is essential. We may not have autocues to fail on us, but there is plenty of technology, so be ready to reel off a quick summary should the next presenter fail to appear or your notes evaporate before your eyes.

Like most things in life, there is no substitute for preparation. We’re all going to be meeting and presenting like this for some time to come, so we’d better get used to it.