Five tips for conducting webinars that work

By Katherine Murray | April 26, 2011, 2:45 PM PDT

Picture this: You've been preparing for a big meeting all week. You plan to roll out the latest pitch for the products your group has been designing. All the top-level managers will be there and you really want to hit a home run. Minutes before the meeting, you walk quietly to your office and close the door. You put on your favorite jazz CD (quietly, in the background) and slip your feet into the bunny slippers beneath your desk. With a click or two of the mouse, you arrive in a virtual space, where you and your team present your creative genius… via webinar.

1: Educate as you inspire

Even though webinars are becoming more widely used in all sorts of industry areas, how many have you participated in that have been done really well? Sure, you can use a basic presentation. You can drone on about your program, burying your participants under a mountain of facts. They can sit there passively, playing Angry Birds on their phone (you can't see them, so how do you know?). Or you can involve them early in the webinar, help them understand what you hope they'll get from the experience, and let them know what you hope they'll provide.

At the beginning, talk about why you chose the webinar format and what you want participants to learn. Tell them where you have planned "audience participation" activities so that they know you'll be calling on them in the near future. This sets up the expectation for engagement and keeps them listening so they'll be ready when it's time for their part.

2: Begin with introductions

The webinar format enables you to be creative and deliver your message in a variety of ways. You can show video, draw sketches, run a terrific presentation, brainstorm, sing, or do anything else that fits your project and your participants. But even though people can hear each other's voices and see each other's handwriting or doodles, getting a good sense of who is talking (and why) can be a challenge. So unless you're using a webcam (in which case participants can see who you are as you're presenting material), start the webinar with good old-fashioned introductions that show a picture of each person involved in the presentation and give them a chance to say hello to the group so members can recognize them by voice right from the get-go.

3: Plan for engagement

The best webinars present information in a format that makes learning easy and interesting. Participants feel included, informed, and involved — not like they're being held captive while a forgettable series of bullet points scroll by. If you choose webinar software that's flexible (like Go To Meeting, shown in Figure A), you can build places into your webinar where you invite participants to share experiences, answer questions, and provide their perspectives on the information you're presenting.

You can also change the way in which participants receive the information by using different methods. For example, you might begin with introductory information in a slide show and then go through a variety of activities — demonstrate a Web site; play a video clip, draw a flowchart in real time; show photos of events, products, or people; and invite your audience to share their own ideas and experiences about the topic you're covering. Remember to include time for questions and answers at key points in the webinar so that audience members don't have to save what they're curious about until the end of your time together.

Figure A

Your webinar software should make it easy to relate to your audience in a variety of ways (audio, video, chat, presentation, whiteboard, and more).

4: Prepare collateral materials

In addition to the webinar you present in real time, giving your participants follow-up materials can be a great help if you're sharing lots of information. You can send handouts in advance of your webinar, if you like, so that audience members can refer to your outline or see your slides as you present them. PowerPoint makes it easy for you to prepare handouts to go along with your virtual presentation. You might also want to put together a list of resources that includes links to Web sites, videos, and other resources you used in your presentation. Be sure to put your contact information and your company name in the footer of the materials you send — they can continue marketing for you long after the webinar is over.

5: Invite feedback

At the end of the webinar — and at several strategic places along the way — be sure to invite your participants to ask those questions that bubble up during your session. You may also want to ask those involved whether they'd be willing to stay an extra five minutes after the webinar to share their experience about learning in this way. Some will stay; others will log off, and that's fine. But ask those who remain questions that will help you identify what worked and what didn't for them; where you could be more flexible in your presentation; what they're taking away; and changes you might consider making for next time. You can also follow up with a link to a survey to all those who registered for your webinar, which will help you get real data of participant reactions and maybe give you an opportunity to let them know about the next webinar you'll be presenting

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