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That Was a Bad Webinar, Wonder Why?

By Matt Bovell / July 2009

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How has your experience giving webinars been?

Three major factors contribute to making a high quality webinar: technology, content, and style. If you hit those three marks, you'll leave your audience wanting more, rather than relieved that it's over.

Technology can make or break a webinar. Unless you're giving a webinar to a small audience with a known technology profile, you'll be dealing with lots of unknowns. The tool you choose should cover as many bases as possible.

The first thing attendees notice when they join a webinar is whether the technology actually enhances their experience, and often, less is more.

Webinar service providers that offer rich feature sets often require first time users to wade through huge file downloads before they can participate. Although many webinar "regulars" have come to expect this, it's still a turn-off.

A real worst-case scenario is that a number of attendees won't be able to log-in at all due to platform restrictions, such as the webinar not being Mac compatible or not being supported by a wide array of browsers.

Ideally, webinar hosts should find a tool that will work for their least computer literate attendee. The audience should "enter" the webinar as easily as they walk into a physical auditorium. Several services offer fairly rich functionality and use Adobe Flash, which is cross-platform compatible, and in many cases they don't require an additional download, other than Flash itself, of course.

Don't take audio for granted either. It's quite common for webinar attendees to have limited use of their computer speakers, either because they are in a shared work space or they don't have them at all. The most basic solution is to provide a call-in number, so the webinar will be both Web- and phone-based.

Let's not forget that most webinar services are not free. You may have to make tradeoffs between what functions or features you need and how much you're willing to spend.

The general rules of thumb for the content of your slides during a webinar aren't much different from those of a live presentation.

You and your slides are there to complement each other. Too often I see presenters with single slides that look like they might contain the entirety of War and Peace. Attendees are not there to read. They are there to learn from you. Their focus should be on what you're saying, and whatever visuals you show should add flavor to your narration.

In an environment where the audience is physically present, we tend to be more aware of this because we can see people seated far from the over-head display, sometimes at the very back of a ballroom.

But in a webinar, where attendees are sitting just inches from their screens, we tend to think it's ok for them to do a lot of reading. It's not. If all they needed were provided on the slides, then they wouldn't need the presenter.

The correct approach is to have slides with some bulleted keywords that you will hit as you speak, combined with meaningful and entertaining graphics.

In terms of how long a webinar should be, an hour is about the most an average person can tolerate before his or her attention wanes. I encourage speakers to plan 45 to 50 minutes of straight content, with the remainder last 15 minutes reserved for questions. Leaving time to answer questions is absolutely key because it provides a level of interaction. If a webinar is not interactive, the presenter has no idea if he's lost his audience's attention.

Whether you save Q&A until the end or pause for questions during the main presentation, you must engage the audience. This is not negotiable. Exactly how you engage them will depend on your style.

The webinar environment provides a number of options that can greatly enhance one's presentation style. For example, one way to run a Q&A session is for the presenter to be the one who asks the questions by polling the audience about something—most moderate to high end webinar tools have a polling option.

However, these kinds of stylistic touches must be used with restraint. You wouldn't want to display a poll after every two slides in a 40-slide presentation. But if you start your webinar with a poll, let's say to get a read on your audience's background, and then incorporate another two polls or so during the course of the presentation to make sure everyone is still awake and following you, the net effect is an engaged audience.

Another function offered in most webinar platforms is highlighting and annotation. Using a virtual highlighter, you can mark up your slides on the fly and keep your audience visually engaged. During a webinar, all you've got are your voice and the visuals, and unless your vocal style is incredibly compelling, you'll need to keep the experience visually arresting. Polls break up the potential monotony of slide after slide, and real-time markups keep the presentation a bit unpredictable. Both help to keep the audience awake, too!

On the other hand, stylistic touches can also ultimately harm your webinar. Using a live video of you during the webinar is a prime example. A lot of webinar hosts think that including a video feed will make the experience more intimate. Unfortunately, it's more likely to have two negative effects.

First, it uses network bandwidth that may slow down the performance of your webinar tool. No matter how much your webinar vendor swears that his or her service is a network dream, if you have even one attendee with limited bandwidth (such as a dial-up connection), the dream can become a nightmare.

Second, you want as few distractions as possible. Basically, you want your slides, a few visual "tricks," and your voice. Your audience will already have a million other environmental factors competing for their attention: ringing phones, people walking in and out of their workspace, a barking dog or crying baby if they're working from home. Don't let your animated face add to the competition. Allow the audience to focus on your content rather than on you.

What's worse, having a live video hookup places a greater burden on you from a performance perspective. You can no longer scratch that itch on your nose or read from your notes because you must maintain eye contact with the camera.

If you want to add a touch of intimacy, include a photo of yourself near the beginning of the webinar, perhaps when you introduce yourself. That will more than suffice.

The Webinar Triad
Successful webinars are a delicate balance of technology, content, and style. Failure in any one of these three areas can lead to that sinking feeling that the other two didn't go so well either. But if you make the best use of your technology, keep your content tight and crisp, and use an entertaining and engaging style, then you will walk away saying, "Wow, that was a good webinar." And your audience will too!

About the Author
Matt Bovell is president of Vell Group, LLC, a consulting firm dedicated to advising companies and individuals on how best to leverage web communication techniques. He lives in Middlebury, Conn., with his wife and daughter. Follow him on Twitter.


  • Wed, 16 Sep 2009
    Post by calculus of Silverman

    pleas send this book for me

  • Thu, 13 Aug 2009
    Post by Matt Bovell

    Jim, I loved your comment! You obviously encountered a really bad webinar! I have the sneaking suspicion that the webinar you attended was using GoToWebinar which mandates that you use screen sharing to show your presentation. Other vendors offer platforms that allow you to upload your powerpoint in advance and ONLY show that to the audience, avoiding the embarrassment of people seeing your email and Tweetdeck.

    Thanks for a great comment!

    P.S. GoToWebinar does allow you to only share one application (such as PPT). If your webinar host was using that platform they probably chose the "share my desktop" option.

  • Fri, 24 Jul 2009
    Post by Jim

    I participated in the worst webinar ever just yesterday, so here are my thoughts and tips for presenters, one step before the helpful items listed here.

    1. Practice. Knock out "uh, ah, mm" and annoying filler noises and grunts. You don't know your stuff, that's why you have nothing to say but "aaannnnndddd.....". Don't include words in your PowerPoint that you can't pronounce. "Reciprocity" was the perfect word on the screen, but you showed no expertise or credibility by reading it as "Re... I can't... Resssi... I can't pronounce this word. Reh? It's on the screen, you can see it there. I can't pronounce that."

    2. Close your other programs. Your TweetDeck notification popping up every few seconds is distracting. Your co-worker sending you an IM is annoying. I don't want to see the sender and subject of the emails you get during the presentation.

    3. Turn off your own speakers and other noisemakers. Second to the pop-up notifications annoyance is your Outlook alert noise, iTunes turned down low, and so on. For crying out loud, turn off your cell phone. Because you left TweetDeck open, I already know you yourself are Tweeting during your own webinar and people are responding. I don't need audible confirmation.

    4. If you've avoided these and still have an audience at the end, keep the questions open. Don't spend 30 minutes presenting and then 5 wrapping up and promoting your business' name change and then ask "So are there any questions about our name change? No? Ok, well we also have speakers available, I'm one, for your uh... events. Bye." and then suddenly end the whole thing.

    (5.) Especially follow these if your actual webinar is about providing great customer service.

  • Tue, 29 Jan 2008
    Post by KAYE


  • Mon, 03 Dec 2007
    Post by Bob Ludwig

    You DO NOT need to know calculus-level math to do well on the GMAT. You do need to understand the way the GMAT is given (it''s a computer-adaptive test) and practice answering the quantitative questions that require a basic understanding of high school algebra and geometry.