What Makes Webinars More Engaging for Work-at-Home Audiences

September 2020
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Online presentations and conferences were already business staples before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, but now they’ve become the standard. It will be months before we can assemble groups of people in meeting rooms to hear our latest tips for getting media placements, how marketing will counter the pandemic-induced slump, or how a diversity and inclusion team is working to improve a corporate culture. Love it or hate it, most of us will deliver a webinar at some point in the near future.

Even before the pandemic, webinar viewers have always faced distractions — work emails, people popping into the room despite the door being closed with a note that says “In a meeting, please come back later,” stacks of papers that have needed to be filed for at least a year, and free coffee down the hall. 

But now, during the COVID-19 shutdown, people working from home still deal with all of those distractions — plus pets, children, neighbors, laundry, cleaning and the couch they never realized was so comfortable. 

So, how should we change our presentations, and our presenting, to address audiences who are sitting at home? We have to be more interesting in our online meetings and webinars than we were when talking to people in their offices. And we need to work twice as hard to hold the attention of people watching from home. 

Bring the energy.

The No. 1 ingredient required to keep an online audience’s attention is the same as it’s always been in person: energy. In person, presenters need energy to engage their audiences but, on webinars, we need even more, since playing to the camera can be tiring.

Webinars delivered to home audiences require even more energy from their presenters than traditional webinars. But, energy is not hype, screaming, yelling, barking, or speaking in a higher register. It simply means delivering material with the natural energy we give to anything we care about. 

Forgo charts and figures.

To maintain that energy, we should make sure the topics we discuss in our online presentations, or as many of them as possible, are things we truly care about. Most presentations include charts or numbers such as sales figures and projections that no one is interested in. They should go.

 If those charts and figures must be included, we can make them available for the audience to download later, rather than review them during the presentation. A quick “I’m not going to go through these, but here are the projections for Q4 in each of our territories” should suffice. Maybe highlight “the great growth we expect in the Northern Midwest” and move on.

Remember to gesture.

An important part of public speaking, and one that many speakers struggle with, is gesturing. Hand and body gestures make speakers more visually and vocally interesting, as well as more believable. Even when the audience can’t see you during a webinar and can only hear you speak, underscoring your points with your hands and other body language will improve the sound of your voice. Address the audience this way whether they can see you or not.

Make your slides readable.

When showing slides to stay-at-home audiences, we first have to make sure they can be read at any size when displayed on the different computer devices people viewing them will use. In person, we can control how slides are projected and guarantee the text is readable in the back of the room. But online, we have zero control over how our slides will be viewed. 

Someone in the audience might be splitting their 10-inch laptop screen between your presentation and Outlook, Firefox or Skype, and therefore be unable to read the slides. That’s why the type in our slides should be in at least a 16-point font size. Graphics should be simple and take up most, if not all, of the slide, while also having a high enough resolution to survive being enlarged on someone’s 65-inch computer screen.

Of course, the best way to make slides readable is to keep them simple, with brief headlines rather than long blocks of text. Slides just need to spark the presenter’s analysis, not to explain everything.

Add some sizzle.

I usually caution against making transitions and effects too showy, since such razzmatazz can be more memorable than the points we try to make in our presentations. When presenting to home audiences, however, it helps to occasionally add some sizzle that catches the eye of anyone whose attention may have wandered. Short videos (especially humorous ones), for example, can enhance a presentation, as long as they’re not overdone. Again, we want the audience to remember our points, not just the way we made them.

Keep it brief.

A big hazard of making presentations over the internet is that we don’t receive any visual or audio cues from the audience. We don’t know if they’re shifting in their seats, if our joke landed or fell flat, or whether a question that someone asks is relevant for the rest of the audience. The best way to counter this uncertainty is to keep everything brief and avoid answering any question in too much detail, in case no one else is interested. Only use jokes that have worked in person (and realize that they may not translate to webinar). 

Webinars will never communicate as well as in-person presentations do. Even a keynote address to an audience of thousands, given on a stage hundreds of feet from the back of the room, is more intimate than any video presentation. The difference is like the one between movies and live theater.

But with energy, simplicity and a little flash, you can bridge the gap between yourself and your audience, and deliver a webinar that viewers will be glad they watched.

Return to Current Issue The Tech & Social Issue | September 2020
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