3 New Ways to Engage Webinar Attendees

We've trained webinar audiences to be passive bystanders, says an e-learning expert. That can change — if we change how we think about webinar design.

We’ve trained webinar audiences to be passive bystanders, says an e-learning expert. that can change — if we change how we think about webinar design.

Treion Muller knows what’s going on during the vast majority of webinars. People “do Facebook, they read email,” said Muller, development director for online learning at FranklinCovey. “And then they catch up at the end and do a little bit of Q&A.”

The problem is that we’ve been conditioned to behave that way. A typical webinar, Muller noted, consists of 50 minutes of audio, a stream of crummy PowerPoint slides, and a few minutes tacked on at the end for questions.

In their book, The Webinar Manifesto: Never Design, Deliver, or Sell Lousy Webinars Again, Muller and colleague Matthew Murdoch offer seven principles intended to end “zombie” webinars. “We want to turn the paradigm on its head,” Muller told Convene. “Why would you lecture someone for 50 minutes and then do Q&A, unless it’s a keynote? You want to involve people throughout, so that they learn.”

Among their principles is the idea of “virtual accountability.” (That’s Principle #4 — “Captivate or Alienate: Engage your audience and hold them virtually accountable through what they see, hear, and do.”) It’s not enough to just add a poll at the beginning and at the end. In the webinars that Muller designs, “We create some form of virtual accountability every two or three minutes.” That can be done, Muller and Murdoch suggest, in three ways:

1. Verbal accountability

“You have to stop talking at participants,” Muller said, and “build in opportunities to talk or chat, instead of having Q&A at the end.” Muller recommends the unusual step of calling on webinar participants by name. “You can’t do it blindly,” he said. “Let people know you are going to call on them.”

One of the advantages of that approach is an increase in the diversity of participation. In atypical live session, you may have 30 percent of participants contributing 90 percent of the interaction, Muller said, while during his webinars — which are usually limited to 30 people — 80 percent of participants speak up. Done correctly, a webinar “takes away the fear of public speaking.”

2. Visual accountability

Provide participants with a visual map of what’s going to happen. “It could be something like a pirate map,” Muller said, “with X’s along the way that mark ‘this is where we’re going, this is where we’ve been.’ People like context, and they like to know where they’re going next.”

3. Kinesthetic accountability

One of the best ways for people to take physical action during a webinar is with platform tools like polls, which have the added benefit of being anonymous. Facilitators can ask questions that participants may not be willing to answer in a face-to-face setting. Muller also recommends offering downloadable materials in advance. “We provide a toolkit with every session we teach,” he said. “We say, ‘Go to page seven and answer the question.’”

If you don’t capture your audience’s attention early and often, Muller and Murdoch caution, they may move on to something they find more engaging: “Like doing their nails.”

‘Shut Down the Ugly’

Principle #3 in Treion Muller and Matthew Murdoch’s seven-point webinar manifesto is “Shut Down the Ugly,” and has to do with capturing participants’ attention. Typically, “in the training world, we’re not very good at creating pretty things,” Muller said. “And in a webinar you can’t get away with it as much as you can in a live setting, [where] a speaker’s charm and expertise can overshadow and compensate for bad PowerPoint [slides]. We need to either channel, learn about, or actually steal from our friends in marketing and advertising, so that we create beautiful PowerPoints and email invitations and handouts.”

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.