In 2015 I explored various aspects of giving a great presentation (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Those posts concerned in-person, face-to-many-faces events, and I really need to turn them into an ebook. Now I’d like to branch out and discuss what makes for a great virtual presentation.
I’m basing these thoughts on around two decades of webinar and videoconference work. That’s included a wide range of tech, from NetMeeting to Elluminate to GoToMeeting to Hangout, Polycom, Zoom, Bluejeans, and Shindig, plus others I’ve forgotten. That experience also covered a wide range of formats, affordances, and structures, from Brady-Bunch-style multi-person conversations to sage-on-the-stage addresses. It’s also included different hardware, from cellphones to laptops to projections and robots. I’ve seen some good work, some terrible work, and a lot of boring presentations. I’ve also been putting my ideas and conclusions to the test with the weekly Future Trends Forum.
To begin with, people now have two completely opposed understandings of what a virtual event should be. On the one hand we’d like something interactive, social, where we can get a good sense of other people and interact with them. This view sees the technology as ultimately approaching a replacement for face-to-face interaction, a stand-in for in-person workshops, meetings, and presentations. In the meantime the interactive webinar tries to reproduce as many of its features as possible. More on this below.
On the other hand we also prefer … a time-released YouTube video, basically. These presentations do not require audience interaction or, for that matter, action. They involve a speaker or speakers presenting through sound, primarily; images or video can also play. The audience soaks this up like watching a tv show or listening to radio. We don’t have to do anything, really, although we can multitask, either for the webinar or for something unrelated, as we like. Nobody’s watching us (except the NSA and Google and Facebook and friends, but we’re usually cool with that).
So when it comes to webinars* we expect two completely different experiences. It would be useful to poll people in order to learn more about this. Which populations prefer which model? Is one more popular than another? How about reasons for liking both? But for now, in this post, I’m only writing about the interactive style. I’ll follow up with the other in a later post.
What makes an interactive webinar great? What does it take to give participants a buzz, so that afterwards they tell others about it? Can we make mind-blowing webinars, that people actually want to attend?
I’m addressing this to event organizers and those who support them. It’s also focused on an event itself, rather that its preparation or followup. I’m also avoiding technical questions here.
Some of these ideas appear widely in best webinar practices articles, yet I see them so rarely used that I’m happy to echo them here. Others do not.
How to run the best interactive webinars
Overall, my personal strategy is to connect with as many participants as possible while getting them connecting with each other. This spirit of connection means treating logins and small pixel clusters as people, humanizing them as far as the technology allows.
The onus for that is on facilitators and presenters. They have to establish a welcoming and sociable environment right away, then maintain that throughout the session. I think it’s best to make this overt, with the host actually saying “we’d like this to be a social space”, or words to that effect. This is very different from the non-interactive version, and also from formal, face-to-face presentations. Not doing this throws the audience back into the non-interactive mode.
A good way of getting the social environment going is to encourage participants to start doing easy, interactive stuff. I’m fond of goading informal conversations or offering gently shaped prompts, like asking people to describe the weather where they are. Other people run quick and light, sometimes funny, quizzes, if the software allows. These are icebreakers, like the ones we use in face-to-face parties.
Unlike a party, it’s a good idea to lay out the session’s framework as soon as possible. Describe the highlights, the desired flow of events, whatever rules of the road participants should know. This brings the event into focus for the audience, letting them manage expectations and involvement.
If anyone has technical problems, and we can still expect they will in 2017, hosts should treat them in a genial, supportive, or lighthearted way. We can now bond over glitches, and can use that connection to strengthen the webinar’s social situation. Continue reading