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“Why are people checking their email when they should be paying attention to my webinar?!”

Even though web conference technologies have offered learning professionals unprecedented opportunity to spread their content around the world, more often than not it seems attendees spend more time on their email than listening to the presenter.  Such “multi-tasking” isn’t a necessary evil, but more likely the function of presenters who feel handcuffed by the online, distance-based format.  How do you truly engage people when you’re limited to a PowerPoint presentation and can’t even see the people you’re training?

A few small changes in the planning and preparation by presenters can transform the attendee experience from that of a passive receiver of information to an active co-creator of the learning experience.  The more opportunities you offer for participants to engage with you, the less opportunity the participants will have to “multi-task”.

Before you can engage with participants and offer your undivided attention, you’ll need to be sure to get some administrative details squared away. 

  • Have a co-pilot: Finding a partner to handle technical issues and questions that webinar attendees have on the day of the presentation will free your energy and attention to be 100% focused on the delivery of the webinar.
  • Limit to 60(ish) minutes: Regardless of how engaging you make the webinar, the fact is that attendees are joining you from the comfort of their own desks.  Anything over 60 minutes will all but guarantee that participants will no longer be able to hold off their temptation to check their email or begin working on a report that’s due tomorrow.
  • Practice, practice, practice: Be sure you’re familiar with both the technology and the way in which you want to deliver the content.  Have a few co-workers serve as a rehearsal audience and have them try to think of questions that real participants may ask.

Now that the administrative details have been taken care of, following are several strategies to engage webinar audiences depending on your level of comfort and tolerance for risk:

  • Risk Tolerance: Just about everything stays in your control

All web conferencing platforms allow you to set up polls and survey your participants.  This can be used as an icebreaker (“how many people are from the east coast, west coast, how many individual contributors are on the webinar, how many managers”, etc) at the beginning and/or can be interspersed throughout the lesson to check in with participants (“before I go any further, how many of you would take x action in this case, how many of you would take y action in this case”, etc).  Be sure to have polling questions prepared prior to the webinar, let participants know how much time they will have to respond and verbally announce the results (sometimes technology gets screwy and participants can’t see the percentage breakdowns of poll responses). A quick way to take a poll of your participants without setting up a survey is to pose a question and ask participants to use the raise hand function.

  • Risk Tolerance: Able to screen comments before acknowledging them

All web conferencing platforms also have a chat box that can be used in several ways.  First, invite participants to type their questions as they arise into the chat box.  You may wish to answer these questions as they arise – though this can disrupt your rhythm – or you may wish to plan for several points to pause and answer clusters of questions.  You can also pose questions to your participants and ask them to type their answers into the chat box.  This allows all of your attendees to participate at the same time.

  • Risk Tolerance: Something silly might be said, but you can always mute them

Many presenters prefer to place all participants on mute as soon as they join a webinar.  This automatically eliminates background noises (especially for participants who call-in and use the speaker phone feature).  Posing a question to participants and inviting them to offer verbal responses (whether calling in or using VOIP) enables more of a give-and-take exchange and allows participants to expand upon their ideas.  Two downsides to this approach include the fact that only a limited number of participants can offer verbal comments (not everyone can talk at once) and participants can occasionally be somewhat verbose or off-topic.

  • Risk Tolerance: If the technology fails, the show can still go on

Facilitators in webinar settings can imitate classroom-based flipcharting by inviting participants to use the white board feature.  Facilitators can place a title or subject on the white board and invite participants to brainstorm and freely type ideas onto the screen.  These white board screens can be saved and typed up later or simply sent out to participants as a pdf file.

  • Risk Tolerance: High risk, high reward

The ultimate way to engage everyone in a classroom setting is to break them up into small groups.  Almost every web conferencing platform I have used now offers a breakout room feature whereby you can assign participants to small groups.  This can be a bit complex so you must practice this feature with some co-workers before you decide to use breakout rooms in a live webinar.  On the day of the webinar, you’ll also want to provide clear directions for how breakout rooms work (perhaps by sending a handout via email prior to the webinar).  This is a feature that most webinar participants are not accustomed to and will need some help with initially.  Just as a facilitator will float from small group to small group to clear up any questions in a classroom setting, a webinar facilitator will need to “drop in” on each breakout room (and/or have several co-facilitators who can also drop in on breakout rooms) in order to clear up questions and ensure people are having small group discussions.  Participants in small groups and breakout rooms are generally way too engaged to be bothered with their email.

Webinars remain a tricky format to draw out participation and engage attendees.  Good design (and some pre-webinar practice) can quickly connect learners with the content, the facilitator and each other in an extremely engaging learning experience.

Have other ideas on engaging webinar participants?  The comment section is all yours!

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