DINAH: It stinks.
MRS. LORD: Oh, darling, don’t say “stinks”! If necessary, “smells,” but only if absolutely necessary.
Philadelphia Story (1940)*
Let’s not mince words, Mrs. Lord: webinars can stink in many ways—disorganized or dull, poor audio, boring slides, ploddingly paced, crowded with content, too commercial, no interaction, presenters running over time, technical glitches. Need I go on?
Even though webinars have been around since the 1990s and it seems that almost every organization does them, there is still significant variation in quality. This inconsistency has not only led to disappointing learning experiences, it has caused consternation among providers of continuing education and professional development that see the potential for webinars as an effective delivery format for learning at scale if used well.
What is this “Web-based seminar” you speak of?
WebJunction started producing webinars in 2006. At that time, it was still a mind-blowing idea that people from all across the world could gather in one virtual room to watch, listen and engage with a presentation on a topic of shared interest. In the earliest days, we were excited to get 50 attendees at a webinar. More recently we have averaged 250+ attendees at our live events, with hundreds more viewing the archived recordings.
We know that our price of admission—free to attendees, thanks to the support of state library agencies and other funding partnerships—is a big draw, but I believe we’ve established a reputation for hosting webinars that are highly engaging, relevant and useful.
Over our ten years of webinar design and delivery, we’ve established some standard practices for our live programs that provide a consistently satisfying experience. I asked our Community Manager, Jennifer Peterson, and other members of the WebJunction team to share some best practices that we use for our webinars, as well as what to avoid.
Prepare. Practice. Produce. Present. Participate. Preserve.
- Define learning outcomes and make sure you consider what the audience will find useful.
- Consider the range of learning styles — visual, aural, kinesthetic.
- Include interesting graphics/images on slides, but avoid slide animations.
- Use presenters who have firsthand experience with the topic.
- Know how to respond to common technical issues, and have responses at the ready.
- Design for the online format, with both its opportunities and limitations in mind.
- Don’t have more than three presenters.
- Have a dress rehearsal.
- Rehearse timings to ensure the pace and transitions are good.
- Try out all webinar software, including interactive and notation tools, and practice “handing the ball” from speaker to speaker.
- Test presenters’ audio equipment and any connections that will be used for the live event.
- Have a technical producer to support presenters and attendees.
- Have an emcee introduce the topic and speakers and facilitate questions from the audience.
- Provide common troubleshooting tips upfront.
- Have some voice speaking before start time so people can check their audio.
- Live caption the webinar for the hearing impaired.
- Display a welcome slide before start time so people know they’re in the right place.
- Include photos of the speakers.
- Don’t give long introductions for speakers. A brief sentence or two with links suffices.
- Avoid video streaming if bandwidth limitations are likely an issue for attendees.
- Use every day analogies to describe complex concepts.
- Make practical, actionable connections to people’s jobs and lives.
- Practice good time management; don’t run over time, talk for long stretches over the same slide, or rush at the end; allow time for concise and encouraging wrap-up.
- Don’t read the exact text of slides aloud.
- Don’t say, “Can you hear me?” It leads to a distracting deluge of responses.
- Provide active, engaging facilitation.
- Join in the chat, except when you are presenting—don’t try to multi-task.
- Encourage attendees to post questions for everyone to see.
- Use the annotation tools for visual interaction with the slide content.
- Use chat to allow attendees to share information and interact; avoid using chat for tech support questions as that disrupts the flow of the conversation.
- Give attendees the option to hide chat if they find it distracting.
- Share links in chat for more information.
- Record the webinar and allow it to be accessed for future viewing.
- Make all your saved webinars available in one place. We curate ours in our Course Catalog.
- Save the chat and surface helpful links shared by attendees.
36. Observe and reflect
This isn’t a tip as much as it is an attitude. As producers, we want our webinars to go smoothly, to be useful and entertaining and to be well remembered. But during the actual production, we are often so focused on the technical and presentation details that we forget to pay attention to the audience. If you can, have a colleague or invited guest attend who isn’t involved in the production and whose only role is to take notes for review afterwards. And then check to see if you have any new dos/don’ts to add to your own list of best practices.
Webinars are like any other performance medium. They take practice and attention to detail. They can be a marvelous addition to your education and outreach content. But you have to take the time to make them not stink. Or your audience will only attend if it’s “absolutely necessary.”
If you’d like to see how we try to follow all our tips, you can register here for a free WebJunction webinar.
*One of my favorite movies, so I couldn’t resist this quote.