How long should a webinar be?

I was recently watching a TED video and the thing I found most interesting for once wasn’t the video itself…it was a comment below the video where a viewer rated the presenter as “long winded.”

And this was a 17 minute video.

My first response is to quote a line from Amadeus, the 1980s movie about Mozart.  In one scene, after Mozart concludes a new piece, one of the royalty in the audience exclaims, “Too many notes!”

Wolfgang replies, “And which ones, sir, would you have me take out?”

But that’s just the smarty pants in me.

A frequently asked question is “how long should a webinar be?”  I usually play on Einstein’s “make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler” with something like “as short as possible but no shorter.”

Two cultural challenges beset us:  One, meetings somehow always have to be an hour long.  Two, content and context have everything to do with it.

In short, there is no simple answer.

Given that I’m fond of saying you should talk WITH your audience and not AT them, here’s a guideline or two.

If you are going to talk at them, make it short.  Then shorter.  Remember the ‘long winded’ 17 minute TED presentation.  State your point, make your recording, post it on the web.  Especially if it’s about you, not them.

If you have interactivity, especially in a training context, you can go longer.  I’d still keep it to two hours or less with a break in the middle.

Here’s why:

We live in an information-on-demand culture.  If your live webinar is the equivalent of on-demand information (meaning there’s nothing uniquely live about it), you’re competing with every other source of on-demand information available in those 23000 results that come up in a search on a search engine.  You’d better get to and make your point quickly.

If, however, you treat an event as a shared experience, allowing adult learners to be active (vs passive), giving the audience the chance to get questions answered (a radically high form of personalization), you’ll command attention more effectively and at very least keep audiences around to experience more.

A final tip:  plan to end early.  Nobody complains about presentations that end early.  This doesn’t mean you can’t take Q&A through the hour, but it’s one simple way to set yourself apart from the many who drag on and on.

Make your webinar as short as possible, but no shorter than necessary to make a focused point or deliver what you promised.

8 thoughts on “How long should a webinar be?

  1. Blaine Ung

    Hi Roger,
    Good to talk with you today. Thought I would share with you a rule of thumb that Mr. Moran, my high school English teacher, used to tell us about the length of the essays he would assign. I believe it applies Webinars.

    “Essays [Webinars] should be like a woman’s skirt. Long enough to cover the subject but short enough to still hold interest.”

    Have a great weekend.

    1. TheVP

      well put!

  2. Tamara

    I’m a fan of anybody who quotes from “Amadeus”..!

  3. TheVP

    Thanks, Tamara!

  4. Brento

    hi Roger, good to talk to you.
    we are preparing for a webinar to demonstrate our software to potential buyers, before reading your ideas, we tried to make the webinar in about 55 minutes, but now that seems far too long. and what do you suggest to keep them focused during the webinar apart from more interactive talks, which company do you know is good at hosting a webinar, and there might be something we can learn, thanks

    1. TheVP

      Hey Brento, “too long” is relative.

      I’d always recommend starting with an in-person experience…how long would you demo to people if you had them in the same room? (Read this for applying this thinking in a training scenario).

      One thing I’ll add…the human communication interaction is different, subtly-but-importantly, when we make sales presentations versus deliver seminars (web seminars, webinars) versus make a keynote presentation. Unfortunately what most people model in webinars is nothing like a “seminar,” so they’re typically lousy models.

      If you were going to just make a video demonstrating your software, would it be so engaging that people would sit through an hour? More likely, you’d make it just a few minutes long.

      The power of “live” is dialogue, so while you said “apart from being more interactive,” the one thing I’d add is “be engaging.” It’s voice, it’s performance, it’s verbal skill, it’s describing things in compelling ways that the audience can get their hearts around…and a whole bunch of things that have nothing to do with web conferencing or webinars.

      Doing it online is a function of adapting to the medium, true enough. But if the core stuff isn’t there, online is going to simply be harder (because it’s so much easier for the audience to “get up and walk out.”).

      Suggestion? Start shopping the market not by attending their webinars, but their sales demos.


  5. Claudia Newcorn

    Hi Roger. Very much liked your article. A question – what about pre-recorded webinars. Would you say the same rules apply. We’re working on doing these type of webinars so people can view them at their leisure, and then email in questions. Your thoughts?

    1. TheVP

      Claudia, here’s how I always think about it: in general, passive audience experiences should be shorter than the same content delivered in an interactive way.

      That said, your pre-recorded/on-demand webinars might be as engaging as The Lord of the Rings — in which case multi-hour length is okay. 🙂

      Most of the time, however, audiences have less tolerance for duration in passive online video (which is what a webinar recording is). I’d judge and adjust accordingly.


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