In the beginning of anything that’s new, we tend to apply old paradigms to the new medium. Usually, though, we grow into the new medium, figuring out which ideas work and which need to evolve to meet the unique qualities that the new medium brings.
Webinars are at that point.
It is time to put on our critical thinking caps and re-evaluate “best practices” holdovers from other forms of communication or developed despite evidence to the contrary.
A webinar is “45 minutes of presentation plus Q&A at the end.”
If you open a word processor and start to write, what style of writing should you use? It depends, obviously, on whether you’re writing a poem or technical manual or essay or <fill in the blank>. The software is the tool or the medium, not the style based on purpose and audience.
Likewise, web conferencing is a medium (like a telephone or television). It’s not a content/communication format for inspiring, educating or influencing.
Better: Start with what you want to do, then use the medium accordingly.
The nature of real-time communication is different for a keynote presentation versus a sales demonstration offline. It should be online, too.
This, by the way, is why vendors like Citrix have GoToMeeting, GoToWebinar and GoToTraining. Different configurations of tools help you optimise your online communication based on purpose. If you’re doing webinars with GoToMeeting or training with GoToWebinar, you’re not doing it wrong, per se, but you are missing out on opportunities to optimise the experience by using the best tool for the job.
Start your webinar with “housekeeping” and notifications
Audiences are there to hear a presenter, and the purpose of an introduction is to essentially answer two questions: “Who is this person?” and “Why should I listen to him or her?”
There is still value in giving instructions about what you want someone to do, but there are two problems. One, the majority of folks don’t need to be told what to do (they can figure it out), and two, a third of your audience will be a few minutes late and miss your instructions.
Better: Get to the content quickly and then give instructions as you go.
Example: Ask a question with an instructional clause such as, “What’s your favourite breakfast? Share with the group in the Chat Pane on the right-hand side of your GoToTraining viewer.”
Tip: Need additional evidence that audiences aren’t all enthralled with how you kick off a webinar? Read this.
Use a poll to engage your audience
A poll is a great feature of web conferencing, but consider this:
If I was in front of you in an in-person setting and asked you to put up your hand and then you figured out I was just “engaging” you by getting you to do something, you’d be offended.
Polls themselves aren’t engaging. But thought-provoking questions are very much so.
Better: Start with a great question.
A great question might be multiple choice and suitable for a poll. But it might be better with chat or with a hand up or check mark. Heck, it might just be a powerful rhetorical thing you do like Sir Ken Robinson in the most watched TED talk of all time (watch for how he uses, “…am I right?”).
Post your slides to SlideShare or equivalent
If I said you’d get more mileage out of your TV show by posting the visual without the soundtrack, would you consider it to be a complete communication? Uh, no.
I don’t care which application you use to create something (even PowerPoint). If something can be read without your verbal narration, it’s a document.
I get the point of content marketing (like this great blog). I get the value of sharing in multiple places in multiple ways and at multiple times. But even though you create something once, changing where you share demands some optimisation for the new place and time.
Better: Share recordings.
If you want to post your slides or other document, then optimise them for being consumed without your audio track.
Make your slides “visual” with a decoration
Hats off to Reynolds and Duarte. Their brilliant works have fueled new consciousness of the importance of communicating visually. But as one eye-tracking study found, “decorative” images on slides actually make the eyes go back and forth from image to text more as someone attempts to understand how the image is relevant to the text.
Better: Use great visuals to enhance understanding, tell a story and improve persuasion.
Design communication, don’t decorate.
Don’t have any dead air
This is a holdover from radio. To be fair, you don’t want dead air in radio because people will think there’s something wrong and go looking for another station.
In a webinar, however, you’re not limited to audio – there are visual and interactive elements. It’s okay to see part of a movie that doesn’t have dialogue, right? Or what about an instructor who has asked delegates to work on something in a participant guide?
Better: Plan and deliver a holistic experience that takes into account all sensory, cognitive and social elements.
Plan to host Q&A at the end of the webinar
If you raised your hand during an in-person seminar, in most cases you would probably expect acknowledgement if not a response. But that’s what we see in webinars (web seminars) all the time. Why?
Teachers of professional presentation skills (myself included) will tell you that in most cases you shouldn’t end a presentation with questions — not if your goal is to leave an audience on a positive note and strong final call to action.
Better: Plan a strong ending and call to action.
If it helps, plan your presentation in chunks and take questions at the end of each of those chunks. In other words, give yourself permission to pause along the way. This will not only break things up and enable you to close with a bang, but delegates’ questions will be answered sooner after they’ve asked them.
The bottom line
If you’ve exercised any of the above “best practices that might not be,” give yourself some grace. You’re not necessarily doing it wrong.
Perhaps, though, your opportunity is to think more critically and, with a little self-development, keep growing on your path to becoming a webinar rock star.
Your audiences will thank you. I promise.