The relationship of engagement and technology in #webinars, webcasts, and virtual classes

“How do I engage an audience that I can’t see?” 

It’s one of the three most frequently asked questions I ever get. Over the years I’ve answered it so many times and in so many contexts, I’ve started seeing subtextual patterns develop. In short: people are often trying to solve problems with technology that aren’t technology problems.

What follows isn’t a perfectly academic thought. It’s more to poke you in the thinker for your own self-evaluation and better evaluating where your team kicks butt or needs help.

Motivation: the first puzzle

To badly paraphrase a source I don’t remember how to quote, “For those who don’t want to learn, there’s no helping them. For those determined to learn, there’s no stopping them.”

I won’t pretend to have the keys to the magic kingdom here, but I do know that even without them, we can move the needle in the right direction. Yes, I know some of you have to try to educate or train 100% of a population, but I think this goes for you, too:

Too much content is half-brained, satisfying the cognitive needs but light on the affective.

Remember, the “why” you’re (hypothetically) starting with is arguably the most powerful with the affective, emotional elements. Not the cognitive elements.

Content: the next thing to get awesome at

Another question I’ve often been asked is, “We teach a really boring subject. How can we make it more engaging?”

I try to be gentle with my answer. “There are no boring subjects, there are only boring deliveries of those subjects.”

You can tell a story in a book, you can tell it in a movie, or even on Twitter. At some level, content that serves its purpose transcends the medium. Content is then affected in the telling (duh!).

Using web conferencing as a platform for presenting or training or facilitating or meeting is of course different than a book or an in-person classroom. Of course this may affect how you plan and design for impact, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.

Before you even get to the medium, though, you’ve got content that rocks someone’s world. Or doesn’t.

Remember, garbage in, garbage out. If you have lousy content, pushing a poll at someone in a webinar or virtual class doesn’t solve your engagement problem.

Video/web/audio conferencing inevitably will develop its own “grammar”

Let’s be honest about webinars and virtual classes: we have an “Uncle Joe Syndrome” problem. Uncle Joe knows how to play golf and I don’t. So I learn from Uncle Joe, not realizing Uncle Joe’s a hack. So I learn to hack, too.

The most advanced use of web conferencing is being done behind closed doors in virtual classes done by learning and development groups. The most egregious use of it is done in public marketing webinars. And thus perpetuates the problem and the myths. In some cases we fail to adapt what we know; in others we fall short in developing a new language for the peculiarities of the medium.

By analogy, consider two statements by John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer at Pixar in Technology and The Evolution of Storytelling:

The limitations of the technology being used to shoot the films set up what we’ve learned as film grammar.

It’s interesting how people cannot see beyond what they’re used to.

We first notice what we lose in a new medium (“But I’d rather meet/train/collaborate in person”) before we learn what we gain. In the interim, we hold onto the old as better when in fact, it’s not a better/worse issue. It’s a different issue.

What we’re slow to grasp is what is new, better, or unique about the new medium. To continue riffing off Lasseter:

If you use technology correctly, you can change opinions overnight.

Absent a “grammar” for the world of conferencing, learning tends to be experiential alone. To combat this, I often use the phrase “virtual body language” to refer to the non-verbal cues and clues that can be used in a webinar or virtual classroom to enhance sensory, cognitive, and social engagement. It’s teachable, and after 16 years in the business it’s still fun to watch people have “aha!” moments when they realize that it’s not hard (just different). Their paradigms shift suddenly. This happens at the level of principle and belief and language, though. It requires learning the new medium, but that’s a dependent condition, insufficient in and of itself.

Remember, any change of medium means we lose something and it means we gain something. Webinars, webcasts, and virtual classes are a matured market, but they’re still immature in the development of a new grammar for the medium. Preceding technical skills is the very understanding of the principles underlying the medium.

Say, “show me the money” and I’ll say “focus on skills, not tools”

NOW we get to technology as an enabler of technology. It does play a role when we analyze the change of sensory, cognitive, and social interaction. But simply learning how to use a webinar platform’s polls or chat or emoticons doesn’t solve your problem.

It’s not your ability to connect to, it’s your ability to connect through the medium.

And since software comes out with new versions, and since sooner than later there will be revolutionary (vs evolutionary) changes, simply learning tools will leave you without the real solution in a world that has never before seen the rate and scale of change we’re now experiencing.

Instead, it’s your agility, your ability to learn how to learn.

By analogy, if you learn “how to use Microsoft Word” and are suddenly faced with using Apple Pages, you’ll feel lost. If you know what you need to accomplish is to underline or bold some text and you’ve learned the skill of asking questions, you can easily ask Apple Pages how to underline or bold.

When it comes to webinars and webcasts and virtual classrooms, learning how you want to engage the senses, adapt your content, facilitate audience interactions with not only you but each other is the beginning. If, however, you instantly found yourself on an unfamiliar platform, asking the right questions will get you up to speed pretty quickly (assuming your platform isn’t just a “talk AT you” tool).

Remember, this is all decidedly different than the industrial age way of learning in advance of doing something (which isn’t entirely invalid). Learning in a digital world, however, will need to be agile. Or you’ll flounder and hate it.

The bottom line

Engagement is a hot topic for good reason. Concern for engagement will continue as long as marketers put up with crappy presenters because they get measured on leads generated and not on the quality of the actual experience. It will continue to be as long as trainers take their in-person PowerPoint and talk over it in a web/video conferencing platform. It will continue as long as the conferencing industry fails to partner with skills development organizations to provide sufficient conditions for mastery (and I won’t even start in on how often their webinars about webinars have perpetuate the very crap we love to hate).

It doesn’t have to be that way. Conferencing has matured as a market and technology, but skill development and the unique language of engagement in a synchronous, remote “room” is laggard.

The good news in the meantime: the bar is low, and the opportunity to look like a rockstar is great.

One thing is for sure: engagement is an inherently human, not technological, skill. Some presenters and facilitators will adapt. The others will keep asking, “How can you possibly engage an audience you can’t see?”