What does it take to “engage” a webinar audience?

Engagement is a hot topic.  Web site developers, human resources & L&D folk, and even webinar presenters…all realize that in today’s change-the-channel world, we’ve got to get and keep attention.  Or we lose.

Here’s the bad news:

As I’ve addressed many times, engagement in a webinar isn’t “pushing a poll” at someone.  It’s multi-dimensional, and it happens throughout the whole webinar.

Sounds hard, right?

Yes, and no.  The answer is simple, but learning and growing (read:  becoming a pro) takes time.  Here’s where to start:

Create whole-brain content
Research supports the fact that we’ve got to appeal to both sides of the brain if we want to optimize the impact of our messages.  It has to be logical or we miss the opportunity to help them “get it.”  But content also has to have an emotional connection (e.g., “wow!  here’s why I should take some action to <avoid continuing pain or gain something beneficial or both>).  My own research has shown that content is still the number one reason people show up to and stay engaged in webinars. (Catch some of that in this report licensed by the good folks at ReadyTalk)

Amateurs create info-barf.  Pros construct data and story into clear, interesting, and compelling Point-A-to-Point-B whole-brain content.

Deliver a holistic sensory experience
Your audience is hearing something, seeing something, and maybe doing something.  You’ve got to use your voice effectively, deliver something visual that’s worth watching, and interact with them naturally.  This may include a poll, but it may not.

Amateurs think about tools.  Pros adapt to a new set of tools to deliver facilitate experiences.

Facilitate natural interactions
For most presenters and audiences, talking with another human being or group is fairly natural…until we have a new set of tools through which to do it.  The responsibility, therefore, is yours to guide the experience.

The key here is that unless you’re delivering a one-way lecture or keynote address, people connect with people (you and each other).  If you’re not doing that in your web seminars, you’re likely missing an opportunity.

Amateurs talk AT people.  Pros learn to talk WITH people in a new way.

The bottom line
You’re not a “pro” because you make a full-time living doing it.  You’re a pro when you’ve got an attitude of self-improvement.

Engagement isn’t a thing you place in an event like an object (e.g., a poll) or at a pre-defined interval (e.g., “every 9 minutes”).  It’s a skill that you work on and grow…and when your audience is one click away from “changing the channel,” you’d better figure out how to get and keep attention throughout.

If not, you’re going to be like a television playing in the background, not the main focus of the person you’re trying to reach.  And sooner or later “noise” gets turned off.  Game over.

Engagement starts with attitude.  Be a pro.

4 thoughts on “What does it take to “engage” a webinar audience?

  1. Phillip Morgan

    OK, this is all well and good, but the real issue is the HOW of doing things differently.

    I have been a pro trainer for many years, growing personally and growing and developing programs; creating raport and transactions between me and the group and between group members in a live training session.

    You state above “Pros learn to talk WITH people in a new way”. But what is that new way? What are the nuts and bolts of talking in this new way? You have no eye contact, you may not know who,or how many people are attending the event,and if the event is on dmeand what then?

    Some real tools explained and discused would be very helpful.

    Phillip Morgan

    1. TheVP

      Hey Phillip, thanks for the thoughtful response.

      Almost all of what I do is focused on the ‘how’ in a pragmatic way, but it wasn’t the purpose of this post. I’ve done whole hours on small subsections of these top-level ideas doing just that.

      The challenge with diving right into tools is twofold: one, every set of tools is different. And skills with tools often isn’t transferable (you change organizations, or the organization you work for changes what tool you have).

      Example: Should you use a whiteboard? Or on the ‘how,’ question, what is the best way to use a whiteboard? If you use GoToMeeting, you don’t have one (and may need to improvise how to accomplish the same thing with a PowerPoint slide or figure out an alternative way to accomplish the same learning objective).

      As for the ‘new way,’ any new medium transforms how the communication is sent and received. You’re not looking at your audience, but what tools do you have that can serve as a dashboard or proxy? A pilot learns to gain meaningful feedback from an instrument panel when sight is absent (like flying in the dark or in fog). It’s not the same, but it helps accomplish the purpose. In a webinar solution, do you have a “hand up” tool? A questions or chat box to look at (or both)? An attention meter that tells you if they’re multitasking on something else? A place for them to use an emoticon?

      I’m not saying that tools are unimportant, but by analogy, we also don’t teach people to “do phone,” we teach them “customer service skills.” At some point in the conversation teaching them how to transfer a call to the right place might, in fact, be part of the training, but in this scenario, using the phone isn’t the goal.

      Beyond that, we ‘engage’ people with content structure that enables more effective cognition and retention, visuals that support, if not enhance cognition and retention, use our voices in ways that enhance the same, etc. I just believe that we have to start with the goals stated above, then figure out which tools to use or how to best use the tools we have. Ideally we let our objectives help us choose the best tools for our own purposes, but many have to use the tools they’ve been given and figure out the best way to accomplish their goal with those.

      So, on occasion you will find here, in this blog, the discussion of a specific tool. But in this post, I’m also noting that to say something like “you should use a poll to engage someone” or even “you should use a poll every 8 minutes to engage someone” is overly simplistic, broadly sweeping statement. In your offline learning & development world, it’d be similarly silly to say “you should always use a flip chart at the front of the room.” Uh, no. It actually depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

      And that’s why, as I posit, I think engagement in live, online training sessions or presentations necessarily begin right where I started. But it’s not where I stop. 🙂

  2. Joan Davis

    @ Phillip: I can help you out with ways to get your attendees talking. Assuming that you’re using a web conferencing or teleconferencing tool, you’ll have control over muting and unmuting attendees. Mute helpful to block out background noise, particularly when there’s a larger audience, but it’s also okay to unmute participants to conduct a meaningful dialogue.
    The rest is a matter of process. Build an agenda that includes time for conversation and figure out how based on the size of your group. Here are a few suggestions:
    * Use the list of attendees to call on people by name and invite them to tell their own stories.
    * If your group is small create a reference with everyone’s name around a circle and use it to sequence a round robin discussion.
    * Add a photo of each attendee for regular distributed meetings and you’ll go a long way to break down barriers.
    * Incorporate audio breakout sessions – a little used feature found in many teleconference and web conference tools. Prompt the attendees with a question or situation to respond to in individual reflection, then split the attendees into private conversations of 2, 3, 5 people to share. Allow sufficient time for them to engage each other, and then bring them back to report out each group’s outcome. They’ll thank you for the experience.
    For more ideas join others discussing this type of challenge at the Virtual Facilitation group on LinkedIn (subgroup of the Professional Facilitators Network).

  3. Katie

    Hi Phillip,
    I hear your pain. It’s a whole different world training an audience you can’t see. How do you adapt a team exercise to a web delivery format? Or how do you give feedback when you can’t see what your audience is doing? The nuts and bolts of learning to talk WITH people in a new way involves adapting those personable skills in an un-personable medium. How you do that is bigger than the application used to deliver it. The nuts and bolts of that are things like how you use your voice and “virtual body language.” Roger is doing a presentation next week on ID for live, online training. His presentations are always really good. Check it out: http://learn.gototraining.com/forms/06April11-APAC-ANZ-G2T-WBR-S?ID=701000000005cQ2

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