virtual presentations 5 hippopotamus rule

Here’s another in a short series of simple tips to make your virtual presentations, meetings and sales demos more effective. This one involves shutting up and thinking about hippopotamuses (or is it hippopotami?). Yes, I’m serious. 

One of the biggest complaints audiences have about online presenters is they talk too quickly. They insist on giving their entire presentation without taking questions or allowing comments. The result is taking in the entire presentation is like trying to drink from a fire hose. For presenters, some of the biggest challenges include not knowing what the audience is thinking (Are they dazzled by my brilliance? Are they answering email and not listening?) and not asking questions or participating. All of these challenges have a similar root cause.

Stop and listen

When we’re presenting online, it’s critical that we pause periodically, and for an effective length of time. This allows us to regulate our speed, allow our brains to catch up to our mouths, and most importantly, our audience can actually process what we’ve told them and come up with responses in the form of comments or questions.

This pausing effectively is hard to do, and that’s where the hippopotamus comes in.

When we present live, we are constant getting feedback from the audience. We see body language that indicates they understand, or might have questions, or might need a bathroom break. Online, we aren’t getting that kind of non-verbal feedback, so we tend to just keep talking. When we do ask for questions, we often don’t wait long enough for a response. Too often it sounds like this: “Any questions, greatletsmoveon.”

Why your virtual audience needs time

Your virtual audience will take several seconds longer to respond than an audience that is live in front of you. Think about what goes through your mind when you’re in the virtual audience and someone asks for input:

  • Hmmm do I have a question or comment?
  • Maybe someone else wants to go first.
  • Nobody else is going, I’d better ask my question
  • Ooops I’m on mute. Let me unmute and ask my question

Most presenters don’t actually allow enough time for all of this to happen. We are so afraid of “dead air” that we don’t give people enough time to process all of that thinking. 

In order to allow enough time, we can’t rely on our gut. So I actually count 5 seconds in my head, even if the silence is deafening. Five seconds is enough to inspire the audience to really pause, think and jump into the conversation.

Why 5 Hippopotamuses? There is a lesson there for those of us who work across borders and cultures. In American culture, there is an old trick of using the word “Mississippi” to fill a second. (One Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc). I was teaching a class to a group of Europeans and they asked, “why Mississippi?”

I told them it was just a trick to measure a second. Then it dawned on me that would make no sense outside of North America. I asked what they use, and one young man said “I say hippopotamus”. It works, it’s funny, and you’re likely to remember it. Thus the 5 Hippopotamus rule was born.

When presenting, it’s important that you build pauses into your presentation. Your brain resists dead air so you have to fill that time with something to ensure you’re really giving people time to process and join in the fun.

What are some of your best tips and tricks for great web presenting? Share them with us and our readers!

The 5 Hippopotamus Rule is just one trick you’ll learn in our Conducting Great Online Demos and Sales Calls ToolkitThis e-learning course is perfect for any professional looking to improve their virtual presentation skills.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.

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  1. After “I’d better ask my question,” I’d add the stage, “How shall I word my question?” To account for all those, I was trained to count slowly to 9 – an arbitrary number, but the point is that we need to allow much more silence than we are usually comfortable with, in order to elicit participation. Don’t fear the silence! Relax and others will fill it!

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