Webinars are a great way to gather people around a particular theme or topic, to share findings and discuss them with a wider and engaged online audience.
What did I learn running the recent R2A ‘Cup of Tea’ webinar series?
- Have a Plan B. Make sure everyone presenting and facilitating knows what to do when the technology fails on the day. Have a practice run to familiarise everyone with the software, and plan what to do in the worst-case scenario.
- Allow plenty of time to promote the webinar. Don’t waste your fabulous webinar and great presenters on a small audience. Expect a 50% dropout rate from those who signed up, compared to those who turned up on the day. Use every available channel to promote your webinar, and don’t forget the power of word of mouth and existing networks.
- Have a trial run. Even if you Skype for meetings all the time and rarely meet collaborators face to face, with webinars it is essential that the presenters and facilitators ‘sit around the table’ virtually once before the webinar. Discuss the style, tone, and content of the webinar, and ensure that you are all comfortable with it and each other before launching in.
- Never rely on having ample bandwidth. And the more people involved the more potential there is for something to go awry. David Olson wasn’t wrong when he said that low tech is sometimes better for e-learning! Take these steps to minimise the risk of bandwidth issues: use audio not video; plug in with an ethernet cable instead of using wifi; enable participants to dial in via phone instead of internet connection using the webinar software; ensure the file size of presentation slides are as small as possible; have all participants close all unnecessary applications and web browsers; if possible have technical backups in place (a generator for power, a second computer or internet providing device); and finally, know when to mute yourself if it is going to be one of those bad bandwidth days.
- Speak slowly. It’s much harder to understand people when you can’t see them speaking. If the bandwidth is bad, there is an echo, or if you are reading from a prepared script your audio might not be accessible to everyone. Speak at a level speed, but use a conversational tone that won’t prompt people to switch off!
- Keep it short and sweet. Most webinar software allows you to monitor participants’ attentiveness. You can see if they switch off, and how often the webinar screen is the main screen on their computers. To keep their full attention ensure that the screen you are displaying is attention grabbing, or you might be competing with emails or solitaire. If you see attentiveness dropping off, send prompts to your facilitators or send messages to participants via the chat functions to reengage them.
- Share your learning online. By this I mean definitely record the webinar and post it online afterwards. Your potential audience are in different time zones and have busy lives, so people cannot always tune in live. Edit the webinar for different segments of your target audience. Trying to reach policymakers? Edit your recording down to 5-10 minutes. Trying to reach the wider public? Turn your recording into a podcast. To maximise accessibility publish a transcript or short summary; it will enable easier translation to different languages and be accessible for people with audio impairments.
- Each broadcast, ask yourself and your team what worked and what didn’t. Most webinar software allows you to collect feedback from participants using surveys. It’s best to do this just after the webinar. Peer feedback is also important; ask presenters and facilitators what they enjoyed and what they would change next time, to enable you to continually improve. Share with presenters and facilitators your statistics on participant attentiveness and feedback too.
- Have fun! Webinars are a truly great way to reach new audiences and gather together diffuse communities who would otherwise not meet. At first it’s daunting, feeling like you are speaking to an empty room, so use the tools such as polls and chat boxes to engage with participants. Enjoy the experience and remember that you are being recorded, so no slips of the tongue!
David Olson’s blog titled ‘Webinars: an effective tool for e-learning among think tanks in Africa?’ reflects on the lessons learned hosting a webinar as part of a mentoring scheme.
Isobel McConan’s blog ‘Emergence and sense-making’ from the Facilitation Anywhere site gives you tips on how to gauge the reaction of online audiences.
David Gurteen explains why he uses the software Zoom to hold virtual knowledge cafes.
Research to Action uses GoToWebinar to host webinars.