People don't really like to be talked at. Yet this is the approach taken by most webinars. A single presenter proceeds through a pre-planned script or outline from beginning to end. Not that there's anything inherently wrong or ineffective with that. That's the way most business and education presentations—in-person and online—have been delivered since the invention of the slide deck. In fact, webinars—usually defined as a "one-to-many" mode of communication—tend to reinforce the notion that this is how presentations should be. But there are ways you can tweak this traditional webinar approach to give your attendees the impression that they're participating in a conversation rather than passively viewing a presentation. Here are three ideas to consider for your next webinar:
1. Be spontaneous. Improvise. Get rhetorical. You can still rely on the tried-and-true outline-based presentation approach without putting your audience to sleep or lecturing at them. The key is to remember that your outline is just that—an outline. You don't have to follow it precisely and you certainly shouldn't be reading from it word-for-word (I cringe at the thought of presenters reading their presentations from a "script"). So if your outline is simply an outline—a way for you to remember your key points and get back on track if you lose your place—you're free to deliver your content in a way that's more akin to how you would engage someone in a one-on-one conversation.
When you're having a conversation with someone on the street, it's a completely spontaneous flow of words. When a thought pops into your head, you say it. Why should your webinar presentation be any different? Sure, you're roughly following the path of your outline, but if a new idea occurs to you or you suddenly remember a great story relevant to what you're talking about, go right ahead and tell your audience about it. If you pepper your prepared material with enough improv, your presentation naturally begins to sound more like a conversation. In fact, since this is the way we naturally speak anyway, you'll probably find it easier than trying to follow a minutely detailed step-by-step outline or, even worse, memorize your material completely.
You can also use rhetorical questions to mimic the rhythms of an actual conversation. I sometimes like to introduce new sub-topics with rhetorical questions: Are you ready for one of the most important best practices of webinar presenting? In a regular, everyday conversation, we're always querying the people we're talking to about one thing or another. During a webinar, you're obviously not going to get a response, but asking rhetorical questions can make a presentation sound more like a conversation. Try throwing in an occasional So, what do you think? or a Can you guess the answer? and then pause for a few moments for effect. Sound good?
Tweaking your presentation delivery is an obvious way to help make your webinar sound more conversational. Now, let's take a look at some ways to tweak your webinar format itself...
2. Have a Conversation...Literally. There's no rule that says a webinar presentation has to be a beginning-to-end delivery of prepared talking points and in-sequence presentation slides. Some of the best webinars feature nothing more than a group of people talking to each other. It's the webinar equivalent of the traditional on-stage panel discussion. Recruit a bunch of chatty subject matter experts and you have an engaging webinar in the making.
Don't misunderstand. I'm not suggesting that you need to stream a live video feed of the panelists up on a stage or sitting around a table. That would move us into the realm of a webcast, which requires special webcasting software and usually an on-site video production crew. For a webinar panel discussion, each panelist can still be located in his or her own place and on his or her own computer, either on or off webcam.
But what about the visuals? Isn't a webinar partly a visual experience? For a panel discussion webinar, the webinar organizer can design simple slides that introduce or support each topic of discussion. When the conversation moves from one topic to another, a new slide comes up to remind the audience what the current topic of discussion is. Of course, if the subject matter calls for it, you can also use traditional information-based slides to visually support the conversation when needed. And, of course, the panelists can all be on camera, with or without slides, if that's the preferred format. But overall, the visuals play a much less significant role during a webinar panel discussion. It's all about the conversation.
It's imperative that you use a moderator for any type of conversation-based webinar. The moderator and panelists will decide on a rough outline of topics in advance, and it's the moderator's job to keep the conversation focused and on track. This is still a webinar, after all. You still need to ensure that the audience receives the value they were promised and that the webinar ends on time and on target.
By the way, you can also make a traditional outline-based presentation sound more conversational by adding a second voice. Why not assign a second subject matter expert the job of jumping in from time to time to add insight and maybe even some levity to a presentation? It's why sports broadcasts always include a "color commentator" alongside a play-by-play guy. Two voices are always more engaging than just one.
3. Give Your Audience a Voice, Too. No big reveal here. Almost every webinar already features a live audience question and answer session. But there are lots of things you can do to make a Q&A session more valuable and engaging for an audience and even offer your attendees other ways to interact with you.
Let's start with Q&A. Obviously, this is where a webinar presentation really becomes a conversation. There are several ways that Q&A can be facilitated, but for the purpose of this discussion I'll stick with the most common application and the one that I prefer. Using a built-in Q&A module, attendees can type questions at any time during a webinar. At the end of a formal presentation, those questions are verbally answered by the presenter or presenters.
As is the case with a webinar panel discussion, it's critical that a webinar moderator is used to facilitate Q&A. Again, two voices are more engaging than one. But, more importantly, it's just too difficult for a presenter to go it alone. Have you ever attended a webinar where a speaker impresses you with a compelling, well-prepared presentation and then fumbles through a disorganized, stop-and-start Q&A session?
Give a friend a topic and ask them to write out 15 to 20 different questions about that topic. Then, immediately after receiving the list of questions, try to simultaneously screen out any irrelevant or inappropriate questions, parse the remaining ones for meaning, correct them for typos and bad grammar, read them coherently out loud, and provide articulate, meaningful answers...all in real time with no pauses or delays. It's virtually impossible.
A webinar moderator has plenty of time to vet, organize, and queue up questions that come in while a presenter is presenting. Then, during the Q&A session itself, when the moderator verbally relays each question to the presenter, he or she has some time to review any new questions that are coming in as the presenter is answering. It's still a lot of hard work for the moderator, and they need to be quick on their feet, but it's a lot easier than asking a presenter to handle it solo. Plus, as a bonus, it forces the presenter and moderator to engage in conversation themselves while engaging in conversation with the audience!
Here's another simple way you can make your Q&A session more engaging and conversational: Use attendees' first names. It's surprising how many presenters and moderators don't do this. Everyone likes to hear their name and we naturally acknowledge people by name when we talk with them. Refer to your attendees by name during your next webinar and you'll be amazed at how personal and intimate your Q&A session will sound. Of course, it's worth mentioning that you should use first names only. Some attendees may want to remain anonymous, so do honor that. Referring to attendees by first name only usually doesn't ruffle any feathers, but if the subject matter is particularly sensitive or controversial you may want to skip this idea altogether.
There's one final Q&A best practice that can mean the difference between a Q&A session that's engaging and conversational and one that never occurs in the first place. Occasionally, a webinar audience will have few or no questions. What to do? Apologize and end the webinar early? How embarrassing. Plus, it cheats the audience out of any additional value they may have received by participating in a stimulating question and answer session. To prevent this awkward scenario, a moderator should always prepare four or five "seed" questions to use if the audience has none of their own. These should be the ideal questions that the presenters hope the audience will ask. The moderator can keep these questions in his or her back pocket if needed and simply make up names for the "attendees." The real attendees will never know the difference and you'll still be able to offer them the Q&A conversation they were promised.
Aside from Q&A, there are myriad other ways to bring the voice of your audience into a webinar. Some webinars feature live interactive polling. At pre-selected times during a webinar, you can invite attendees to provide their thoughts or opinions on a particular topic area or even ask them what they'd like you to talk about next.
Other webinars will offer a built-in group chat box where everyone can interact with everyone else. Although I usually stay away from webinar features that can potentially distract an audience from the actual webinar content, this idea may be appropriate and useful for certain use cases and can really lend a conversational vibe to a webinar. Some webinar organizers even extend this concept beyond the webinar platform itself. They may create a hashtag for the webinar and ask attendees to take the conversation to social media. The organizer can assign staff to monitor the hashtag and facilitate a proper topical discussion.
You can also invite your webinar attendees to communicate with you before and after a webinar as well. On your registration page, ask registrants what they hope to get out of your webinar or ask them to prioritize topic areas. Then, develop your webinar content to reflect what they want. After a webinar is over, you can send attendees a post-event survey link. In addition to asking them what they thought of the webinar and what topics they'd be interested in for future webinars, the survey can allow them to contribute additional thoughts and ideas on the webinar topic.
A webinar doesn't always have to be a one-way street. Tweaking your webinars to make them seem more conversational can have benefits for both you and your attendees. For your next webinar, consider incorporating ways—vis-à-vis presentation delivery, webinar format, and audience interactivity—to make your event more conversational. Your attendees will appreciate your efforts to talk with them, not at them.
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