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Are Good Webinars Missing in Action?

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Imagine switching on your HDTV eager to watch a show at 9. There you are, popcorn in hand, missinginaction.jpg only to find a blank screen. Then a voice comes on and says they’re waiting for a few more people to tune in, “please stand by.” Meanwhile, they offer a static page with the name of the program and a tacky graphic. A few minutes later the voice is back saying they’re going to get started, but since folks are still tuning in, they’ll wait a few more minutes before diving into the actual program. More static screens pop up, this time asking you to answer a few questions using your remote control. Four questions later, it’s quarter past the hour, and you’re starting to wonder why you tuned in in the first place.

Does this sound familiar? If you’ve logged on to any webinars recently, it probably does. In fact, the scenario I described in the last paragraph, sans popcorn, was from a webinar about doing great webinars. Over the next 45 minutes, more slides trickled by; none were in any way engaging. In between slides, the screen went blank. The voice, full of false enthusiasm, chattered on about the need for great content, an engaging personality, etc. To be honest, he sounded more like one of those slick morning radio personalities–the same sing-song style–the same Red Bull-induced zeal. Fortunately, the audio dropped out twice, so that limited the exposure.

To be fair, I’d tuned into this particular webinar because I’d just done one myself and frankly, was embarrassed by the performance. Lot’s of technology glitches, awkward hand-offs between speakers, horrible audio, etc. It’s not like I hadn’t prepared. I probably spent 5 days preparing for it. It’s not like we were using some unproven technology, I don’t want to name names, but it was one of the big ones. It’s not like I’d never done one before, I had. And it’s not like I’m an inexperienced speaker, I’ve done hundreds of lectures and speeches.

“The least they’ll accept is the best they’ve ever seen,” my husband used to say in speeches about the future of technology. Largely, that’s been true. Once you’ve played World of Warcraft, you’re not going back to Donkey Kong. Once you’ve watched HD, you’re not going to settle for less. So what’s with webinars?

While I’ve seen dozens of inspirational or motivational speeches, I can honestly say I’ve never attended a webinar that was anything better than ho-hum. Heck, I’d even settle for one that made me feel like it was time well spent.

I’ve pondered the problem some and while I’ve come to no real conclusions, here are my thoughts:

  • In spite of the big names in the business, the technology side of webinar delivery is clumsy at best. Uploading programs is pretty simple on most platforms, but voice inputs are clunky. Even prior testing doesn’t ensure the sound will be good. Some platforms don’t even give you the ability to talk to co-presenters “off camera,” before the program starts. If you’re in the habit of tuning into a webinar early, or staying late, you’ve no doubt heard speakers who didn’t realize or have forgotten this. Oopsie.

  • With all of the unknowns, why aren’t more people pre-recording webinars to get them just right, and answering questions live?
  • The voice and methods you use as a speaker, doesn’t work on a webinar. Pregnant pauses that create anticipation at live events, are dead air when the audience can’t see you. My reaction to the “radio voice” of the speaker I mentioned earlier notwithstanding, I wonder if some radio training would help webinar speakers. After all, engaging the unseen listener is what they do–some more effectively than others.
  • Those of us who are used to public speaking, find it hard to be ‘on’ without the enthusiasm of a crowd. It’s like practicing a speech–very uncomfortable and stilted. How do you replicate the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd?
  • Knowing your subject is only part of the battle. You also have to understand pacing, know how to engage, understand the technology, and if you’re going to use them, know how to design interesting polls. Most importantly, you need to be able to create engaging graphics; ones that complement what you have to say without confusing or boring the audience.
  • Most people, myself included, multi-task while listening to a webinar. Imagine giving a speech where the whole audience is surfing the web on their laptops or talking on their phones. I think part of the reason for this is that the webinars aren’t engaging enough, but it may just be a function of a multitasking culture. Recognizing this, how do you deliver content that’s easy to follow while they’re doing other things?
  • Part of the problem is obviously bandwidth. Once that increases, we’ll no doubt see better production, but that’s going to place an even greater emphasis on the artistic side of things. How will mere mortals cope?

Is it just me? Are there any ideas out there for how to give great webinars? Dare I ask, has anyone seen a really good one?

Photo by: Zelda Go Wild

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  • susanvlewis

    You aren’t the only one. I’m constantly frustrated by the webinars I attend – everything from technical problems to overwhelming slide decks to dull presenters. I’ve tried bringing in live video so people can see me while I’m talking in an effort to make it more engaging. One of my biggest frustrations with some of the webinar software is when they don’t provide live chat so there can be discussion as we go.
    I like the idea of recording in advance, but … makes me wonder. Would the better route be – 1) Provide a paper/slide deck/some kind of information to participants in advance; 2) Deliver presentation (live or pre-recorded) that builds (not repeats) info provided in advance; 3) Spend most of the time in Q&A since people would have had time to think of solid questions in advance and it takes advantage of the “here & now” part of a webinar. Otherwise, why not just upload the recorded session somewhere people can just access as they want. Has to be a reason for us all to get together at the same time, right?

  • Kivi

    Thanks, Susan Steele, for the shout-out!
    I’ve run a nearly weekly webinar series at http://NonprofitMarketingGuide.com for going on two years and let me tell you, it ain’t easy.
    I do it because my business mission is to help small nonprofits improve their communications/marketing. To help them, I train them to do it better themselves. To train them quickly and cost-effectively, I have to do it online. I like it to be as interactive as possible, thus the live webinars.
    A few things I’ve learned after presenting what is probably close to 100 webinars . . .
    You need about one visual per minute to keep people remotely interested online. I use pretty much the same powerpoint for a webinar as I do for a 4-hour in-person workshop. In person, you can move slides much more slowly, because you are reacting to what you see on people’s faces and doing lots of exercises that you can’t do on a webinar. In person, everyone has the visual stimulation of others in the room; online it’s only what you see on the screen, so keep it moving. I cover waaaay more ground, much more quickly, in a webinar than I do in the same amount of time in-person.
    You have to be very natural and conversational, even though the presentation is pretty much a monologue. People zone out if they are listening to something that is over-rehearsed. It’s almost like a few flubs are better than the perfectly polished presentation. I really don’t think the pre-recorded idea would work very well . . . I think presenters just need to get better at doing it on the fly. Several times I have made what I considered mistakes during live webinars — referring to repetitive errors messages on Facebook as a “circle jerk” for instance. When I checked in with a few participants about it later, expecting them to confirm my suspicion that I had said something really stupid and possibly offensive, instead, they said they thought it was hilarious, because it was so unexpected. At the same time, lots of “ums” “uhs” and dead air are dreadful.
    Some topics simply don’t require visuals and creating a powerpoint where you don’t need one actually distracts from the learning. I’ve found myself stuck in this trap lately and am thrilled to have found a conference call service that allows breakout groups. So now when I feel a topic is best explored through discussion rather than visuals, I will go this call-only route instead.
    The advice about radio training is spot on. I am blessed to have a wonderful collaborator, Claire Meyerhoff, who has many years of radio experience. She’s given me tons of tips that have really helped me with the webinar presentations.
    I still feel like I am very much in the learning mode, even though I’ve been using the webinar tools weekly for almost two years. So thanks for opening up this discussion, Kate!

  • https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawkWYJtlDnsvQM1ELHd6776j0aaMTSJCMcs

    Good additions Kivi. I’m with you on the benefit of a little humanity in a webinar. I saw a good one the other day from the AMA. It was about giving good webinars: http://www.amanet.org/training/webcasts/webcasting-the-ama-way.asp.
    There were four speakers, and they were all in one room that is specially set up for webinars–something you can afford when you’re the AMA. As a result, the program had a very conversational tone. The visual cues between the speakers made the hand-offs and occasional chime-in’s sound natural.
    They also put a picture of the speaker up as he was speaking. Since there were four men participating, that really helped.
    Here are some of other tips they offered:
    – Never, ever use a cell phone or speaker phone for audio.
    – They did a lot of hand-wringing over it initially, but finally succumbed to pre-recording the non-interactive portions of their webinars–explaining that there’s just too much that can go wrong with live events.
    – Keep the intro material to a minimum – get to the meat of the matter a.s.a.p.
    – They use 20-30 slides per hour as a rule of thumb, but to be honest, I felt the visual content of their program dragged a bit.
    – Don’t use deeply saturated colors or colors you don’t see in nature in text or headers.
    Keep those cards and letters coming folks!

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  • susan.m.steele

    I did a webinar yesterday and it was pretty bad. Poor audio quality, way too long and far too much on each slide — and the advice was only so-so.
    I have done good webinars (Kivi Leroux Miller in particular), but most are hit or miss. Maybe the presentation style just hasn’t matched up with the technology yet. Like you said, the speaker needs to know how to be engaging without a real “audience.”
    Still — for good webinars, it’s a great way to augment your skills more inexpensively than traveling to a conference or seminar.