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Some time ago, I gave a 60 minutes Zoom presentation in a department seminar. I usually ask simple questions during my talks, in order to keep the audience awake. This time, about 15 minutes into the talk, I asked some simple questions and no one replied (I waited for about 30 seconds). I guess they were just not listening; in Zoom it is hard to tell.

Is there anything I can do in this situation in order to "rescue" my presentation?

Or should I just keep talking to "no one" and learn the lesson for the next presentation?

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    Can you just answer the questions yourself and move on? The other option is to wait longer for an answer, but this depends on your tolerance for awkward silences. Dec 26, 2020 at 21:55
  • @astronat Sure, I can answer and move on, but the lack of answer indicates the no one is listening. Is there anything I can do about it? Dec 26, 2020 at 21:56
  • Have you considered whether your talk is either too dense/technical for the audience or, less likely, too simple? Dec 26, 2020 at 21:59
  • @astronat How can I evaluate my talk, if the audience does not give me any clue? Dec 26, 2020 at 22:01
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    @ErelSegal-Halevi The lack of answer doesn't indicate that no one is listening. I understand that there's a popular school of thought today that says presentations should be "interactive" so that students can "be active participants in their learning" but this is absolutely not what I want from a presentation. If I'm not answering your questions, it isn't because I'm not listening. It's because I'm waiting for you to get back to presenting information.
    – G. Allen
    Dec 26, 2020 at 23:02

3 Answers 3

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Here is what I found works best in Zoom

  1. Use the chat. People have a much easier time writing questions in the chat, especially if you do as well. So if you write “2+2= ?” in the chat you’re far likelier to get answers than by asking out loud.

  2. Zoom has polls that are great for yes/no/categorical questions. A dolphin is a reptile/fish/mammal in a poll will get much more engagement than asking it out loud.

  3. Write questions on the presentation itself. Similar to (2) but for more nuanced stuff.

It requires you to adapt your style but I think will offer better results.

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In a live department seminar there are often people who are not paying strict attention. Sometimes that's because the talk is not well suited to the audience, but even good talks don't grab everyone.

The kinds of questions you know how to ask in the live presentations you're used to may not work over zoom. In a roomful of people some may be embarrassed by total silence, and speak up. Then dozers may be jolted awake. In a virtual room audience members don't notice each other. It's easier for them to be distracted, and harder for you to monitor.

If you have one or two colleagues with whom you talk about your work you might practice your talk with them, or ask them to be sure to respond when they attend virtually.

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This is, I think, a symptom of the fact that the pandemic has ruined a lot of things and trying to use older methods when teaching remotely are almost certain to fail. But like most things, students need to be taught how to learn. If you want an interactive classroom you have to work to achieve it, not assume that it will occur and certainly not to assume it will be like face-to-face instruction.

Let me tell a story, which may be apocryphal.

There once was a law professor who walked into class the first day and gave out a reading assignment. He asked if there were any questions. There being none, he left immediately.

The next day he returned, gave out a reading assignment, asked if there were any questions. No questions, so he left.

The third day, exactly the same. Readings. Questions? None! Exit.

By the fourth day the student picked up that they had to ask questions if they wanted anything from the professor.

Part of this story depends on the fact that the class was in law, and lawyers never get anywhere if they don't ask questions. But other students are also in the same situation.

That is, of course, a brutal (and not recommended) way to approach it, no matter how effective. But, you need to do something to guarantee that questions will be asked. What you do depends on a lot of things, but you need to find a way. Award points? Require questions for attendance? Something. Don't assume students know what is expected of them, or how they can best learn.

One way to approach it is to ask individuals questions when the silences occur. Do this frequently enough and the silences won't occur any more, since many students would rather ask a question than be required to answer one.

Something. Up to you.

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