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How to save a wayward webinar

Craig Reardon /

A bizarre thing happened to me today. And it wasn’t just nearly collecting fabulous Australian actor Stephen Curry as I was driving back from a meeting.

No, it was during a webinar on website conversion I was attending – not in my normal presenter role but as an audience participant – when the stranger thing happened.

Before the presentation had even got beyond the opening introduction, the host was not able to connect the guest presenter into the webinar.

This is the stuff of nightmares for webinar presenters. You are completely reliant on the guest to deliver the presentation but they are nowhere to be heard. Therefore you have nothing to present and the audience get impatient and start to leave.

Sensing the host’s discomfort, I messaged him to let him know that I knew something about the topic and could fill for him while the glitch was rectified. Given the presenter was something of a competitor, I didn’t think I would be taken up on my offer.

But to my surprise he called me into the conversation within seconds.

Filling the breach, live

I’m sure it was only four or five minutes I had to fill the breach, but to the presenter it must have seemed an eternity.

Soon the glitch was rectified and I resumed my post as an audience member.

When dealing with technology, the reality is that the odd glitch will occur, but this wasn’t the only problem the webinar encountered.

Use the visual capabilities of the medium

For starters, whilst the guest was knowledgeable and articulate, the points he was making were completely unsupported by visual evidence.

So rather than show great examples and illustrations of what he was discussing – remembering that the small business audience is still very new to it, he relied on the conversation and about four ‘slides’.

Four slides for a 30 minute webinar!

This is the online equivalent of watching a TV newsreader hold an entire bulletin without cutting away to taped or live reports – pretty gruelling viewing.

A common malaise

But this presenter is no Robinson Crusoe. I produced a webinar last year where – despite a thorough briefing, the presenter did the same to my client. Needless to say, said client was not impressed at all.

Whilst the term ‘webinar’ gives a pretty good indication that the presentation is much like a seminar, many presenters fail to provide enough visual support for the points they are making, making the presentation less engaging for the audience.

If you don’t have live video to capture your engaging gesticulation and facial expressions, it can be dull viewing indeed.

In fact, it could be argued that of all the incumbent media, webinars actually resemble radio more than seminars (particularly when there are so few ‘slides’) because of the ability to have the presenter interact in real time with the host.

So while good presenters could ‘get away with’ a predominantly aural presentation, the lack of visual support is kind of a waste of the medium’s capability. Television’s equivalent is ‘talking heads’, which is often lambasted for being a waste of the medium’s capabilities – unless in the hands of real pros.

And a bit like television

Presenters have to realise that webinars provide a television-like experience and that television moves at 24 frames a second, a far cry from four slides in a half hour.

Given that the presentation was about the web, the presentation had literally gigabytes of material to refer to. Surfing the web in real time tends to add authenticity and interest.

Instead, we were visually bored by the same static slide.

Another aspect I find annoying in both live and online presentations is when the presenter provides a full screen of bullet points simultaneously but then describes them one by one.

This means that visually you are racing ahead which can distract you from what’s being said. The obvious cure to this ill is to ‘build’ the points as you are discussing them, ideally fading them once you have moved to the following one.

These are standard within PowerPoint and its ilk so there’s no excuse not to employ them, even if it takes a little longer to prepare.

Make sure your webinar is properly resourced

What this webinar also illustrated was the need for a third party operator or technical producer. It can be challenging enough to keep the webinar smooth and professional without having to worry about the technical and audience aspects.

In this case the producer could have left the room to find out the cause of the problem whilst the presenter carried on. It’s extremely difficult to do that when you are trying to engage an audience.

What did they do right? Luckily, a few things.

Credit where it’s due

The audio quality was good – a good microphone, a quiet room and all their phones turned off assisted this. Those of you with an office dog or cat may need to pop them into another room for similar reasons.

There is another excellent reason for this. I was once presenting a webinar when our dog (how can I put this politely?) broke wind. And this was no ordinary wind. I was almost gagging whilst trying to professionally deliver my piece to 300-odd people!

But back to this webinar.

The interaction between host and guest was good. It’s very difficult to listen to a single presenter for any length of time and it’s equally difficult to keep yourself sounding fresh without the break of a second voice.

I presume they did a rehearsal of the presentation. No matter how experienced your guest is, it’s always important to rehearse what is being delivered, at least for several minutes to get a sense of the presenter’s style and to rehearse interaction between host and presenter.

And the presenter did know their stuff and the information was valuable, if a little underdone.

Learn from the mistakes of others

These factors are all important when preparing your own webinar, or you risk your audience dropping away, potentially never to return.

My only other criticism was that the host didn’t acknowledge my intervention at the end of the presentation – I thought a small token for preventing considerable egg on face.

But given the guest was really a competitor, not really a surprise either.

Webinars are a brilliant way to present a concept and win new customers, but like most professional media, they require considerable time and effort to get right.

Hopefully we can all learn from the challenges this webinar encountered.

In addition to being a leading eBusiness educator to the smaller business sector, Craig Reardon is the founder and director of independent web services firm The E Team, which was established to address the special website and web marketing needs of SMEs in Melbourne and beyond.

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Craig Reardon

Craig has been assisting and educating Australian smaller businesses with their marketing and website requirements since 2002 via his business The E Team.

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