From webinars to “web-connects”

The man was clearly sweating buckets. At least I imagine he was – it was impossible to know for sure, as this was an online training session without webcam. However, judging from the shaky tone to his voice and the muttered asides which his highly efficient mic picked up only too clearly – ‘The slides! Where have I put those damn slides?!’ – it seemed likely that he was most definitely not experiencing his finest hour professionally.

“Starting off on the wrong foot”

Things seemed to have gone wrong from the start. The presenter was dealing with a big audience – some 300 people had signed up for this 2 hour Webex presentation on ‘Effective self-marketing’ – and from everything that was happening so far, this seemed the very worst attempt to market yourself as a virtual trainer.

Firstly, this virtual trainer had clearly chosen to set up his session from a hotel room in the US and had forgotten to inform the hotel staff not to be disturbed. The first few minutes of his presentation were dominated by an entirely audible conversation with room service as they tried to clean the room, whilst trying to run the session. We heard the sound of a vacuum cleaner starting and an aghast comment: ‘Excuse me? I am trying to run a meeting here!’ Then we heard a mobile phone ringing, and being turned off again with much fumbling and background noise – as stress levels rocketed upwards. Hardly surprising then that as the trainer grew increasingly flustered, the participants rapidly grew bored .

Indeed, it was probably some of the attendees were actually asleep – since the webinar had been set up at a time convenient to the US trainer alone, with no consideration for those in other regions of the world.

And attendees had every reason to be bored – as the trainer tried to make up time by rushing through text-laden slides, speaking at a break-neck speed which left non-native English speakers struggling to keep up.

Finally, the man was working solo. In other words, despite a group of 300+, he had no co-facilitator, and no technical producer to help when people lost their audio connection, or even could not join the session in the first place.

He perhaps had not given consideration to what he would do when problems arose, and was therefore forced to ignore the issue, and focus only on those who were comfortably in session, could hear and understand him.

And those who could not? They were simply disregarded.

If by now you’re thinking that this is a fictional account, it isn’t. True, it happened some years ago, and while there is no doubt that webinar delivery has become more polished and less boring since, there is still scope for improvement.

Preparing for a webinar

Starting from the basics, an awareness of the simple principles of webinar preparation and set up – can ensure an impactful learning experience for attendees. The following are basic examples.

  • ‘Do not disturb’ remains an extremely useful message to put on the door of the room you’re working from to run your virtual meeting.
  • Turn off all other electronic devices and any other distractions on your desk.
  • Think about time zones – if you are meeting a big group even as a one-off event, try to ensure that no one is excessively penalised by having to attend a meeting in the middle of their night. If you are working with the same group over time, vary the start time of meetings so that punishing midnight sessions can be ‘rotated’ around everyone.
  • Technological preparation helps (see our last blogpost on Technology), however the services of one or even two back-up producers will smooth away challenges like magic, and it is worth every penny, cent and dime of the cost to hire them.

Beyond this, there are two questions to consider. What do you want your webinar to achieve? What would you like participants to say about it afterwards?

Regarding question one, it helps to think about what the word ‘webinar’ actually means to most of us.

I’ve asked previous attendees of Nomadic IBP’s Train the Online Trainer programme what the word webinar conjures up for them, and their answers included such phrases as ‘Passive audience, no interaction, being talked at, boring slides, no visuals, and feeling unimportant and invisible’.

Oh dear. However, webinars ARE great at some tasks, such as conveying detailed factual information rapidly at minimal cost to a vast audience spread across the world.   Indeed, that is what they are best at. But the problem is that they are so often used for what they are NOT best at.

So if your answer to question two – that you would like your online team or training attendees to say after your session that they felt motivated, got to know each other better, learned from you and each other , overcame specific business challenges together –then it may be time to put away those text heavy powerpoint slides and think in terms of – let’s try the word for size – the ‘web-connect’ approach.

Nomadic IBP’s virtual facilitators believe there is a kind of ‘virtual etiquette’ – or rules of engagement – for an successful, interactive online event. While this will need to be negotiated for each team or group according to individual needs and preferences, there are nevertheless some universal principles here.

The rules of engagement

If you want to really engage your attendees – to ‘connect’ with them online – then the rules of play for a ‘web-connect’ might include:

  • Involve people – go out of your way to invite discussion and even disagreement at times in the interests of exploration and a deeper understanding of your topic, and take care to include everyone. How do you do this with a big audience? Enable groupwork, private breakout rooms, team activities and so forth.
  • Be aware of individual difference – people have varying communication preferences, cultural needs, learning styles and personalities – make sure you pay attention to these, both through the technological features of the platform you use and through the activities you run.
  • Listen more than speak – this is not a monologue, it’s a conversation, with all the ‘messiness’, interruption and deviation from the topic that free-flowing explorative discussion can bring.
  • Balance order and chaos. Yes, you need a structure and clear outcomes for your session. But allow space to deviate from it and have a Plan B.   If you have no structure, you invite another kind of boredom – that of a feeling of purposelessness. Too much structure and people feel as if they are being talked at, not with.
  • Think about the visual element. Images and icons trigger intuitive exploration in virtual space, because what we see on our computer becomes, for obvious reasons, all-important. Words alone never have been and still are not memorable enough.
  • Finally – the idea of a ‘web connect’ suggests (of course) not just connection between attendees and you as trainer, but also enabling new relationships between attendees themselves. The atmosphere of a ‘web connect’ is sociable and friendly above all. Indeed, it aims to inform, coach, train and develop people specifically by means of it, using interactive, relational means to achieve the task at hand.

There are many other benefits to focussing on the virtual etiquette or rules of connection with your participants. Nomadic’s upcoming ‘Train the Online Trainer’ programme in January 2019 takes you through an eight-modular approach to becoming ever more effective learning and development people in the virtual arena.

Hope to see you there!

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