5 Lessons Learned from Delivering Almost 50 Online Webinars
Virtual conferences, webinars, meetups, and online events generally stink. But in studying what makes them bad, we can learn how to make them better.
Have you attended an online conference, training session, webinar, or meetup since March? Odds are, you have. In-person events aren’t possible so many events have gone online… but a lot of those online events pale in comparison to their former in-person counterparts.
What makes in-person events successful, and how can we make online events better? This topic has been rattling around my brain for a long time — long before the pandemic.
My practical tech training company, Camp Tech, has been in business for 8 years. For 7 of those 8 years, we only offered in-person workshops. I was staunchly opposed to online training. Of course, I understood the business case. The scalability and potential reach of going online was huge. And the profit margins are definitely better. But I couldn’t get past the quality issue. I was concerned that the things that made our in-person events so great — the connection between the instructor and the learner, and the ability to get help in the moment you need it — weren’t replicable in virtual events.
But, in early 2019, we were hired to deliver a series of online webinars for small businesses across Ontario. (That series is still happening, FYI — check out the list of upcoming webinars here.) I spent a lot of time looking at what makes most webinars awful. Text-heavy slides, a disengaged and monotonous instructor, a curriculum full of technical jargon, no clear explanation about how to use the webinar software and the chat window, lack of support when you have a question, little or no interactivity… all these things add up to an uninspiring online learning experience.
If any of this sounds familiar, I feel you. It’s what a lot of online events have been like since the pandemic began. So many online conferences, webinars, training sessions, team meetings, and events stink.
But, in studying what makes things bad, you can learn how to make them better. I was determined to make Camp Tech’s online webinars a success. And now that we’ve run close to 50 “live online” (aka real-time, synchronous) workshops, I think I have a pretty good handle on what works and what doesn’t. Here are a five key things I’ve discovered:
- Know your audience and meet them where they are. Learn as much as you can about the people who will be attending your online event. What’s their skill level with the subject matter? What are their technical abilities? Have they attended webinars before and do they know how to log on? What’s their internet connection like, and what kind of device are they using? Do not make assumptions here. Do your research and then prepare your content, pacing, and online delivery options accordingly.
- Clearly state how things are going to work. Some of your attendees have attended an online event before. Some haven’t. All online events are different, so don’t leave people guessing how yours will work. Do you want attendees to have their cameras on? Will the online event be recorded? Will the recording be shared with attendees? How are you going to use the chat window? Will you use additional features such as Q&A windows (and if you do, what makes a Q&A window different from the chat?) Be very clear about what to prepare, how to connect, what will happen during the event, how you’ll be using the technology, and who to contact with questions. Put this info on the event registration page, in confirmation and reminder emails, and be sure to repeat it during the event itself.
- Anticipate when people will need help. Go through your webinar content, and mark where you think people will have questions or ask for help. Plan for those moments, and build time around them. What are commonly asked questions? How will you address them? Do you need to pause the presentation? Or will you have “helpers” on standby to jump in and assist? We have teaching assistants on all Camp Tech webinars for this purpose — they’re available to anyone who has questions at any time, through the chat window. The allows the instructor to focus on teaching the main content, while not leaving anyone behind.
- Break up the format. Some of the best online events I’ve attended during the pandemic are from CreativeMornings New York. It’s clear that they’ve thought about the flow of their events, and they leverage different types of activities, including breakout rooms, musical guests, toggling between multiple hosts, and interviews. Don’t be afraid to break up the format of your online gathering to keep things fresh for attendees. Stretch breaks, musical interludes, mixing short and long presentations… these can all breathe life into a stagnant event.
- Be human. We’re relying on technology to do the heavy lifting in online events. But technology is a tool, not a means to an end. The real value in gathering is the connection between humans. Lean into your human skills to strengthen and deepen that connection. At Camp Tech, our instructors care as much about the webinar attendees as they care about the subject matter. We’re empathetic with our learners. We also rely on humour and storytelling to help people feel more comfortable, and enjoy their experience. We’ve found people learn more when they’re having a good time. A little fun goes a long way these days.
PS — Are you interested in discussing what makes an virtual conference, webinar, meetup, or online event better? Check out this Twitter conversation I started around the topic. There are some great suggestions and recommendations from those that have commented already, and if you have something to add, please do.
PPS — You might also enjoy listening to Together Apart, a podcast from The New York Times and Priya Parker (author of the magnificent book The Art of Gathering). It’s all about how to creatively meaningfully gather, even while we have to be apart.
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