Knowing your audience

What we learned facilitating multi-lingual webinars

By 05/05/2022

One of the last blogs I wrote for Research to Action back in 2017 collated  learnings from our first webinar series. Many of our original musings about webinars are still relevant today. Have a backup plan. Definitely don’t forget to have a trial run. Speak in a measured pace. Keep it short and sweet!

Little did we know that two years later in 2019 the word zoom would become a household brand name as well as a verb…

Since I wrote the last blog, I have spent thousands of hours online. It generally takes me about eight hours to prepare one hour of online workshop delivery (including the practice run and digital accessibility checks). I once tried to count how many hours I have spent delivering online training and learning events, but after one thousand it became too hard to tally.

Recently I was asked to join a fab team of CommsConsult facilitators delivering a webinar about policy briefs for the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health academy. We logged into collaborative Zoom prep calls from Zimbabwe, Egypt, and the most remote corners of England and Scotland. We chatted about the best ways to bring policy briefs alive using an online presentation and digital tools (we tried out the new Zoom whiteboard). We sourced image banks for researchers that were empowering instead of disempowering or demeaning.  And we also discussed how to make the webinar a more equitable experience for learners joining in both English and French.

Here are just a few of our learnings about facilitating a more engaging and equitable multi-lingual webinar:

  1. Try to really understand your audience first. What does the audience already know? How many people will be speaking which languages? Are there any barriers to engaging with the webinar? Can you be proactive about any requests to make adjustments to the materials such as large print?
  2. Don’t assume everyone has used video conferencing platforms like Zoom after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Try to use a mixture of verbal, text, and visual instructions for how to use platforms like Zoom. If you are using simultaneous translation, you should include a slide about how to activate the Zoom interpretation function with screenshots or a video walk through. Remember platforms like Zoom change and update all the time too!
  3. Plan your content well in advance. If you are going to translate elements of the webinar like polls, group work instructions and handouts, make sure you plan, review, and finalise content well in advance. It is also helpful to keep text inputs for things like polls short, so that dual translations will fit within the character limits.
  4. Set up early ahead of the webinar. You will definitely need some time ahead of the webinar to set up and test the language channels on platforms like Zoom. You might also find it helpful to discuss any frequently used terms and the timings for the session (including any breaks!) with the interpreters in advance.
  5. Leave enough time for interaction. If you are using simultaneous translation, make sure you leave enough time for interpretation of the instructions before you move into breakout rooms. Try not to use time-limited exercises for this reason.
  6. Don’t sacrifice groupwork if you’re running short on time. It’s useful to break up the rhythm of a large webinar and bringing people together in smaller groups always encourages people to speak up. It’s better to cut short the time and abandon any formal tasks if you’re really running over, but still give people 10 minutes to ask questions/share their insights, etc.
  7. Think about the equity or inequity of participation. How can you create a learning experience that doesn’t exclude people? Will the chat box be translated in real time by someone or will it only be the audio that is translated? If only the audio is translated, who will voice the questions or comments so that it can be simultaneously translated? Will the tech support for the webinar be provided bilingually? You can try things like switching up the language the webinar is presented in halfway through the session, to ensure that English isn’t always the dominant language, but make sure in advance that your simultaneous translators are as comfortable translating in both directions if you do. If you use breakout rooms for smaller group conversations how will you create an equitable experience if the language translation cannot move across?
  8. Try to use the right technology to optimise sound quality. You can reduce background noise on most digital meeting platforms like Zoom and Teams. Headphones or an external microphone are often recommended for the best sound quality. Although the best sound quality in the world isn’t going to make the translation any better if you talk too fast for the interpreters!
  9. Be clear about the limitations of the technology used. Most digital meeting platforms are not perfect. For example, Zoom’s transcript and closed captions are only available in English at the time of writing. If someone requests the automated closed captions or transcripts, how will this work? Will you contract a stenographer?
  10. Ask about whether the session worked. Don’t forget to have a debrief. Ask the speakers how the session was. What would you do differently next time? Did the interpreters have any technical issues or feedback for next time? What did the learners think about the session?