Three Nightmare Webinar Scenarios and How to Prevent Them

Dave Clark | Feb 16, 2017 | CWC Blog

The Scream

I like to think that, over the course of about ten years of producing, managing, and conducting webinars for myself and others, I've made or at least observed most of the common webinar mistakes. Some mistakes are relatively harmless, like momentarily forgetting to unmute yourself before speaking, but other mistakes can have a significantly detrimental effect on the quality of your event or the effectiveness of your presentation. Here are three nightmare webinar scenarios to avoid at all costs and the simple ways they can easily be prevented:

1. Attendee Free-For-All. A webinar, as opposed to a more informal web conference or web meeting, is supposed to be a controlled event. The webinar moderator is like the host or producer of a radio or television talk show, screening questions from the audience, facilitating Q&A with the guests, and managing the order and flow of the program. But order can turn to chaos when too much control is turned over to the audience.

Happily, most webinar platforms offer the ability to universally mute all attendees, both their computer microphones and their telephone lines if they've dialed in to the webinar for audio. To submit questions, the audience can type them into a chat box or a dedicated Q&A panel and the moderator can then verbally relay the questions to the presenters. This allows the moderator to review questions in advance, select only the best questions to use for the Q&A session, and keep the whole process nice and tidy.

Some webinar platforms, however, also offer the ability to unmute all attendees, a feature you would definitely want if you were hosting an informal staff meeting or a small group event where everyone knows each other. But for a formal webinar with a large, external audience, giving your attendees the ability to speak and audibly ask questions is asking for trouble. First of all, managing this is difficult with a large audience. Who speaks first? Will people talk over each other? Some webinar platforms do offer the ability to mute and unmute individual attendees one at a time, but then you need to figure out a way for the attendees to notify you that they have a question. You could tell the attendees to type a simple notification into the chat box and some platforms include a "hand-raising" feature, but the entire process can be a bit clumsy.

For those platforms that don't allow you to unmute individual attendees, you'll need to unmute the entire audience and then ask them to manually mute themselves if they don't have any questions. But, guess what? Attendees don't always follow instructions and some attendees may have even stepped away from their computers mid-webinar. So now you run the very real risk of suffering a cacophony of background noise transmitted through countless attendee microphones or telephones. I made this mistake in my early days of conducting webinars and once had an attendee who decided my Q&A session was the perfect time to do some vacuuming!

Even if you find an effective way of managing the order of speakers and there isn't any background noise, you're still not able to screen the questions in advance. What if all the questions are irrelevant or off-topic? What happens if someone asks an inappropriate question? How do you prevent your competition from bad-mouthing your company? On radio call-in shows, callers are always screened before they get on the air; the show's producer doesn't allow just anyone to ask a question, and neither should you.

Prevention: For formal webinars, make sure your webinar platform lets you mute all attendees and always use typed Q&A. If you absolutely must unmute microphones, select a platform that provides the ability to mute and unmute individual attendees one at a time and figure out a way to make the process work smoothly.

2. The Droning Presenter. Some mistakes aren't technical in nature. In fact, some mistakes have been around long before webinars even existed. You've surely attended events like this: the speaker tediously delivers their information in a monotone voice as they read their entire presentation word-for-word from a script. If you're lucky, they also provide you with huge blocks of verbatim text on slide after agonizing slide. Sometimes, they just read the text right off the slides.

There's nothing less engaging than a presenter who reads from a script. If you're going to do that, you might as well forget about the webinar and just send the script to your audience instead. They don't need someone to read it to them. They want to be part of a conversation. They want to feel like you're talking with them, not at them.

I'm not suggesting that you should show up for your webinar completely unprepared. Although some public speaking coaches insist that you should be able to deliver your entire presentation off-the-cuff if you know your material well, there's nothing wrong with preparing notes or even a formal outline. As long as you're not writing out what you're going to say word-for-word, there's no harm in drafting a short document for yourself that outlines the main topics and subtopics you'll be talking about. An outline can be a lifeline if you momentarily lose your focus. Likewise, if you design your slides correctly, keeping text to a minimum and using lots of eye-catching images that illustrate your points, you'll be able to stay on track by referencing your slides.

That said, there is a time and a place for scripts. If you're opening up your webinar with a short welcome message, providing instructions for the audience and introductions of the speakers, you can read from a script. You can even rehearse the script in advance in an effort to make it sound more improvised. But if you're the main speaker or presenter, please don't torture your attendees by reading to them.

Prevention: Prepare notes or an outline, but don't script your presentation word-for-word. Be as conversational and engaging as possible. When designing slides, minimize the use of text and use lots of eye-catching images.

3. Webcam Peek-A-Boo. This nightmare webinar scenario doesn't occur often, but when it does happen it can be a true horror. Most webinar platforms provide the functionality to stream a live video of the presenter or presenters using a simple external or laptop webcam. This is useful if you want to ramp up the engagement factor of your webinar or there's a compelling reason why the audience needs to actually see the speaker. It's an especially useful feature if you're hosting an internal staff meeting or a small, intimate event where everyone knows each other. In fact, some vendors market their web conferencing platforms primarily as a business meeting solution and webcam video is a major selling point.

It's usually those platforms—the ones designed for small web meetings and web conferences—that put you most at risk for potential disaster. Because live video is such an important feature of those platforms, the default webcam setting is usually in the on position. The vendor assumes that anyone using their software wants to use webcam and must be using it in a formal business or office setting. As each participant joins the meeting, their webcam automatically turns on and starts broadcasting a live video of them to everyone else in the meeting.

Needless to say, this can cause some serious problems and embarrassments, especially if it happens as part of a formal webinar event. At the very least, it's an inconvenience. The host or moderator will need to disable all of the webcams (assuming webcam video won't be used) or instruct the presenters to do the same. In a worst-case scenario, participants can be caught off guard in some rather compromising situations. There are stories of presenters unwittingly broadcasting themselves as they come out of the shower or in other various states of undress. Even if a person is perfectly presentable, they'll feel awkward when they suddenly realize they've been transmitting a live video feed of themselves to others. If there was ever a camera that needed a lens cap, it's the computer webcam.

Prevention: Make sure the default webcam setting is in the off position. If the default setting is on, change it to off. If you can't change it, make sure your presenters know ahead of time that their webcams will be on and how to disable them. You can also somewhat mitigate this risk if your webinar platform has a "lobby" or "waiting room" that prevents attendees from seeing or hearing the presenters before the host officially starts the event.

Clark Webinar Consulting provides hands-on expertise and support to help businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations conduct and deliver worry-free, professional webinars. Learn more about our full range of webinar services.