Dave Clark | Aug 18, 2022 | CWC Blog
As Ben Franklin wisely said, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. But for as long as I've been managing and hosting webinars, including almost a decade as an independent webinar producer, I've heard the same words of protest from webinar organizers and presenters: We don't need a dry run. Granted, I don't hear this all the time, but I hear it often enough that I'm always ready with a quick rebuttal stressing why a webinar dry run is one of the most important steps of the entire webinar production timeline.
Before going any further, I should first explain what I mean by a "dry run." What I don't mean is a full-scale word-for-word dress rehearsal of content. I learned long ago that virtually nobody is willing to spend the time rehearsing and timing their presentations together as a group before a webinar. Heck, many presenters don't even practice their presentations alone. They just slap together some slides and wing it. But the consequences of failing to practice and rehearse content is not the subject of this blog post. I can't force webinar presenters to practice their presentations, either on their own time or together with their co-presenters in a final rehearsal, and I don't try to.
What I do mandate is that presenters participate in a relatively quick and easy technical rehearsal a day or two before the webinar. That's what I mean when I refer to a "dry run" with my clients. If the presenters also want to use that time to practice their presentations, that's terrific. But the primary objective of this session is to avoid complications and nasty surprises on webinar day by ensuring in advance that everything is working correctly and that everyone is familiar and comfortable with the webinar process and run-of-show.
Indeed, a webinar dry run is as important for me, the producer or host, as it is for the speakers or presenters. I can't possibly show up out of the blue on the day of the webinar, perhaps never before speaking to some or all of the presenters, never having had a chance to review a game plan with them, and then expect to execute a smoothly-running, professional webinar. In fact, I refuse to do this to my clients. They hire me to make their webinars look good. I'm not going to betray that trust by attempting to host a webinar that I'm not prepared for. The availability of the presenters to participate in a scheduled dry run before the webinar is always a client requirement in any webinar production proposal I send to a would-be customer. If they insist I remove it, I decline the job. A webinar dry run is just that important.
I already briefly mentioned the objectives to accomplish during a webinar dry run. Here, in a little more detail, are the three main goals:
1. Verify that the technology is working correctly. A smoothly-running dry run is no guarantee of a smoothly-running webinar, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't test everything out beforehand anyway. A day or two before the webinar, the entire webinar presentation team should join a brief session on the webinar platform being used for the live webinar, using the same webinar settings, to make sure that everyone can connect successfully and access all of the features that will be needed for the webinar.
It doesn't matter if a speaker or presenter just used the same webinar platform last week with no problems. That's not a valid excuse not to attend a dry run. Any number of things could have changed, potentially causing some kind of problem, since last use: the webinar software vendor could have issued a new release, the presenter's own computer settings or configuration could have inadvertently changed, or the presenter's hardware or equipment could have sustained some type of damage or failure. Never assume that things won't change or go wrong over time, because they always eventually do.
In addition to testing out the webinar platform and interface itself, and making sure that everyone can connect to it and access what they need to access, the dry run also offers an opportunity to do initial audio and video checks with all of the speakers. You'll do them again right before the webinar, of course, but if you discover a problem now, you'll have plenty of time to troubleshoot or make adjustments.
The dry run also provides a chance to evaluate the strength of each speaker's internet connection. If audio is fading or video is freezing, the presenter still has time to possibly find a new location or upgrade their setup. Again, there's no guarantee that something still won't go wrong right before the webinar, but it's better to discover existing problems now, not later.
2. Provide instruction on webinar process and procedure. A webinar is supposed to be a formal, structured event, not an informal get-together with participants making it up as they go along. Just like with a live TV show or a Broadway play, a single person needs to be directing the action. Otherwise, a webinar devolves into chaos. Obviously, there's not enough time in the minutes before the start of a webinar for a producer to provide adequate direction and instruction for that day's webinar, so a webinar dry run is crucial in accomplishing this aspect of webinar preparation as well.
The instruction provided to speakers and presenters during a dry run should first include a discussion of the webinar user interface. Today, with many online meeting platforms doubling as webinar platforms, there's much less of a learning curve than there used to be. But the special webinar versions of these meeting platforms are often slightly different from what an everyday user is familiar with. A feature, such as chat, that works one way when used as part of an online meeting might work differently, perhaps with negative consequences, when employed as part of a webinar. To avoid mishaps, make sure that presenters understand which features should be used, which shouldn't be used, and how they work in the context of a formal webinar event as opposed to an informal online meeting.
If it's a presentation-style webinar, you'll also need to address the method that will be used to share presentation slides with the audience and give each presenter a chance to try it out. And, just to be safe, it doesn't hurt to briefly cover basics like mute buttons and camera buttons. Even today, I still occasionally encounter speakers who don't realize that they're responsible for muting and unmuting themselves during a webinar.
In addition to functionality, a webinar dry run should include direction and instruction on the overall webinar game plan. Again, this isn't a free-for-all. Every member of the webinar team should have a defined role (host, moderator, presenter, panelist, etc.) and understand what that role means. For example, is someone serving as the official on-air host, welcoming the audience at the beginning and thanking them for attending at the end? Who is moderating Q&A and how will that process work? What other roles might be needed to ensure a logical, smooth-flowing program?
Beyond roles and responsibilities, other practical items will likely need to be addressed during the dry run as well. If the webinar will feature other interactive elements, like polls, how will that be facilitated? Will live video of the speakers be shown during the webinar, or will cameras be left off? How will the presentation team communicate privately, if necessary, during the webinar? The answers to all of these questions, and any others that come to mind, should be known and agreed to before webinar day.
3. Review the run-of-show. Finally, a webinar dry run should include a thorough, step-by-step review of the entire program from start to finish. Again, this isn't a content rehearsal (unless the presenters want it to be), but it's important for the presentation team to know precisely what's going to happen and when, with no surprises, on the day of the webinar.
For example, what will the host cover as part of his or her opening remarks? Will the host introduce the first speaker? Or will someone else be responsible for making introductions? If it's a multi-presenter webinar, how will presenters transition from the end of their presentations to the next speaker? Will they hand off directly to the next speaker, or throw it back to a moderator? How will the transition be made from the presentation or panel segment of the webinar into a formal Q&A session? If the webinar will feature live video, when do speakers turn on their cameras, how long do they leave them on for, and when do they turn them off? If you want a webinar that stands out as polished and professional, all of these transitions and considerations need to be mapped out, understood, and agreed to in advance.
Having a final, or almost final, copy of a master slide deck is very useful when reviewing the run-of-show. The producer can use the slides as a visual reference point while stepping through the webinar program from beginning to end. This also provides an opportunity to make sure that whoever designed the deck included the appropriate transition slides (e.g., title slide, speaker intro slides, Q&A slide, closing slide, etc.) and that they correspond correctly to the final run-of-show. I usually also ask each individual presenter to quickly flip through their slides. More often than not, they catch last-minute mistakes or formatting problems that otherwise wouldn't have been noticed until it was too late.
As already noted, a problem-free dry run is no guarantee of a problem-free webinar. That's why I conclude every dry run by asking that everyone join the webinar at least 30 minutes before the formal start time. Despite already participating in a dry run, most people seem okay with this additional request. They understand it's a little bit of extra insurance against any last-minute problems that might emerge.
I started this blog post with a quote from Ben Franklin, and I think I'll end it with one too. Perhaps nothing sums up the importance of a webinar dry run better than this famous adage: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
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