Pity the poor Webinar. So much promise and potential, both for presenter and audience…and yet, so many truly horrific results.
Why? Because Webinars strip out the immediacy and nonverbal elements that can elevate an in-person presentation, and they amplify some of the worst aspects of most presentations. Such as:
• A bullet-laden slide, black with text, which is left on screen for three or four minutes while the presenter talks about each point. At least in person, the presenter might leap to the screen to point out a particularly significant item. (Okay, he probably wouldn't, but we can always hope.)
• Complex graphics that are either hard to digest or go by too fast—or both. In person, or in a one-on-one Web demo (where both parties interact by phone), an audience member can say, "Can you explain that a little more closely?" But that almost never happens in Webinars, with dozens to hundreds of participants.
• Limited interactivity. It's almost impossible for a Webinar victim—er,"participant" —to be able to say, "We get it. Can you jump ahead?" Sure, you can answer those gratuitous survey questions or submit queries, but short of the presenter receiving a barrage of "Move on!" posts, you're kind of stuck.
• Easy (convenient?) distractions. In person, it's harder to turn away from the presenter or start doing other tasks. But when it's just you and the screen and someone's voice, it's really easy to wander.
So, what's a presenter to do?
1. Make it visual, and if possible, visceral. Use no more than two bullet slides for the whole presentation, and then, only for the points you want them to absolutely remember. They're not going to remember even a dozen things, let alone the 80-100 items a typical bullet-heavy presentation throws at people.
Use pictures or illustrations to help tell your story. Find or create an image capturing a particular idea, then leave it on the screen while you talk about the issues facing the audience. During that time, the image will burn into their brains, creating an impression far stronger and more easily recalled than anything you could put into bullet points.
2. If you have complex depictions of your processes or products, don't just put the whole thing up at once. You'll lose your audience really quickly. Instead, show them one bit at a time, then layer in the next bit when you need it, and the next…until you finally have the complete picture in front of them. There's something compelling about an incomplete picture; our minds want to fill in the blanks. But if they don't know exactly what's coming next (and if you haven't already bored them off the call), they'll stick around to the end.
3. Check in with the audience regularly. Be flexible enough to jump ahead or go back through something important if a fair number of people indicate either preference. How do you do this? With survey questions. Say something like, "Let's take a quick progress check," and then give them three choices. For instance:
a. "I get it. Let's jump ahead."
b. "The pace is good. Carry on."
c. "I missed something. Can we go back a little?"
Have the audience "vote," and if you get a lot of "jump ahead" responses, do so. If you get a fair number of "go back" responses, you'll probably want to ask for feedback on what most needs clarification. And if you get mostly "carry on" answers, be sure to acknowledge the others' responses.
No matter what the answers are, your audience will really appreciate that you asked them for their feedback.
The Webinar needn't be the bastard cousin of presentations. Most are, granted, but yours doesn't have to be. By taking the visual, interactive approach suggested above, you'll make an incredibly strong impression on your audience. And while you're at it, you might just want to use this approach for your in-person presentations, as well.
John Windsor is president of Creating Thunder, a Boulder, Colo.-based communications training and consulting company and the author of YouBlog, He has held executive positions in marketing, sales, and business development and has worked with companies like American Express, Reuters, Staples, and Knight-Ridder.