Webinars have become increasingly ubiquitous, facilitating education and the exchange of ideas without having to travel. It has also become essential during the current pandemic, as education has moved out of the crowded classroom and into the sterile environment of the digital realm. As leaders and communicators, therefore, it is essential we master this form of presenting the information.
Table of Contents
- Struggles When Delivering a Webinar
- Tip # 1 - Create a Catchy and Specific Title
- Tip # 2 – Never Read Off a Script. Practice and Prepare Instead
- Tip # 3 – Minimize Improvisation
- Tip # 4 – Write on the Slides
- Tip # 5 – Visualize the Audience
- Tip # 6 – Buy the Best Microphone Your Budget Will Allow
Having acquired extensive experience speaking in front of a live audience, I assumed it would be a simple matter to transition into a webinar format. I had already mastered the essentials of delivering in-person speeches, including engaging and lively audience interaction, body language, and voice modulation. Thus I assumed webinars would be easy, as I wouldn’t need to divert any attention to body language, nor would I need to memorize my presentation since I could simply read off my notes without anyone noticing. The only task would be to vary the pitch and tone of my voice. Piece of cake!
As it turns out, it was much harder than I thought. My strengths became my weaknesses. While I am adept at reading an audience and adapting my performance, there was no audience to read. I couldn’t tell if people were looking with rapt attention or if they were dozing off. I couldn’t see if they were nodding their heads in understanding or scratching their heads in confusion. I couldn’t even tell if they were still following my webinar or watching youtube videos!
The webinar also amplified my existing weaknesses. I speak with an accent, which now stood out like a Picasso in a room full of Renaissance paintings. Like a pantomime, I rely on my body language and facial expressions to keep the audience’s interest. Without those tools, I felt more like a quadriplegic. Also, the microphone flattened my voice and made vocal variety more difficult. Perhaps it was the quality of my equipment, yet it certainly showed me how technology is a poor substitute for a live, in-person experience. Significant adjustments would need to be made if I were to keep a captive audience. After six months of trial and error with the webinar format, I have created six tips that I would like to share with you:
The purpose of the title is to select the audience and grab their attention. It is important to know the audience you are preparing for; your examples may resonate with members of one demographic more than another and your jokes may be more likely to draw laughs from one crowd over another. In short, you are narrowing down your potential audience with your title by using words designed to evoke a stronger response in a specific group of people. Also, the degree of technicality in your title will attract those of one level of expertise over another. A title using words such as “stochastic analysis” will scare away the layman, for example.
Whereas I can adjust my presentation on the fly when presenting in-person to a live audience, I need to predict my audience in advance with the webinar format. Using a title designed to attract a specific group of people enables me to tailor my presentation to them more accurately and thus hold their interest.
The purpose of preparation is convincing and engaging delivery. When delivering a speech in-person, the presenter often makes the effort to memorize some or even all of the content. Doing so indicates not only professionalism but also how deeply the presenter cares about delivering their message. If they have made the effort to memorize their speech, it is so they have more attention available to focus on their audience rather than looking at their notes.
Webinars make it easy to take the lazy route. An audience that won’t notice you reading off your script won’t be able to judge you on your level effort – right? I can simply plop down in front of my computer and start reading off my notes and no one would be the wiser, correct? Well, think of those lectures with the prof that didn’t care. The lights are off, the slides are on the projector, and all you can hear is his voice. He drones on and on, his voice as unvarying as a concrete foundation. The words sound like one long string of gibberish and pretty soon, your eyelids start to feel heavy. I’m pretty sure he just walked into class and started reading from a set of notes he didn’t bother to look at until that moment.
Convincing communication is about making the ideas your own and injecting it with your own emotions. Hence my method involves a very detailed script which I practice until the ideas become second nature to me, and I know which ideas deserve more emphasis. However, if I do lose my train of thought, I have the assurance of having a script in front of me. Also, keep in mind that making mistakes is natural – pauses that are a bit longer than usual, stumbling over words – it reminds the audience that it’s a person delivering the presentation, rather than Siri or Alexa.
Improvisation is a wonderful tool when speaking to an in-house audience; it demonstrates skill, quick thinking, and daring. I have used it with much success in the past. When it comes to webinars however, it is the wrong tool for the job. I would liken improvisation to walking around in a park with an in-house audience, and swimming in the dark when it comes to webinars. With an in-house audience, you can delight them by taking them to an unexpected and interesting feature. With the webinar, however, it’s more like swimming in pitch-black water without any landmarks to guide you – very risky with a high chance you will get lost and be carried away by the current. Many times during these attempts, I couldn’t read my audience and so lost my train of thought, stumbling over my lines while trying to circle back to my original plan. The feedback I received tended to be as muddied as my delivery. I learned to shoot my arrow straight as possible and stick with the original plan during webinars.
Given the hands-off nature of the online platform, we need to be creative in how we interact with the audience. One of the methods I have found effective is to write on Powerpoint slides as a matter of emphasis. To engage the audience and break the monotony of the monologue, I write key words, draw simple diagrams and underline key concepts to draw their attention more tightly to me. I have received positive feedback after implementing this, with participants saying they felt more engaged in the presentation.
A visualization is a powerful tool. Substituting the camera of my laptop for a live audience was a big challenge at first. I could not see my audience, so my mind naturally preyed upon my fears – that the audience was disinterested, confused, or disapproving of my performance. Since I knew the reality of this one-sided communication would not change, I decided to change the variable that I could alter, and that was my own perception of the invisible audience. I started to visualize my audience as a group of friends that were taking turns speaking. It was my time to speak and my friends were there to listen, earnestly, and without judgment. Before I started speaking, I would greet them in my mind as “my dearest friends.” This was very effective in alleviating anxiety and tension. It also allowed my voice to project confidence and calm.
In the digital age, the best speaker in the world will be limited by the quality of his or her acoustical equipment. Imagine Pavarotti singing live versus being played on a tinny cassette tape. It is a world of difference.
The same holds true for webinars. It is surprising how many people do not realize how limiting their microphones are. When I recorded my speeches and replayed them, I realized how monotonous my voice sounded even when I put every effort into a vocal variety. The microphone muffled and hid many nuances of speech. If you present online on a regular basis, it is well worth the investment to purchase a quality microphone.
The webinar is an essential skill to master, today more than ever. I hope the six tips I have provided will assist you in refining your technique to help deliver effective, engaging, and entertaining presentations.