Get those webinars interactive!

December 20, 2010

How engaging are your organization’s webinars? Do your speakers actively plan and implement opportunities for their audiences to get engaged, or do they essentially deliver a “virtual lecture?”? What do your adult audiences expect from webinars?

A while back I wrote an article for a learning technology company’s e-newsletter, entitled Get Interactive! Ensure Your Webinar Speakers Engage Their Learners. The company’s client relations manager asked me to write it because some of its clients wanted ideas for making their webinars more interactive.

As you’re planning your annual learning calendar, consider how you might enhance the value of your webinars by ensuring participants are actively engaged. Webinars are learning opportunities; they’re just delivered virtually! All adult learning principles and practices apply, just as they do in face-to-face learning. Your speakers might have to get more creative in how they engage their audiences, and it likely will take a little more effort…however the pay-off can be huge when it comes to learner satisfaction and “repeat business.”

How do you make it happen?

The article I wrote focuses on large-audience webinars, with 60 or more participating sites. If your programs run that size or larger (even up to hundreds of sites), there are some good ideas there for you to consider. The same principles apply regardless of the webinar platform you use.

You have a lot more options for actively engaging participants in webinars with a smaller number of audience sites, especially with just 20-25. As an example, for seven years, seven times per year, I led a 3-part webinar for ATD entitled Essentials of Coaching SMEs to Facilitate Learning, part of its ongoing ATD Essentials of… series. Each segment of the program is 90 minutes long, with a week between them. ATD expects programs in the Essentials series to be interactive and keeps registrations small as a result. Typically, I had from 15-25 participants each time, and I had fun using a variety of ways to keep them engaged. Developing and facilitating this webinar series allowed me to experiment and discover what works. The reactions from participants were overwhelming…they loved the opportunities to engage!

Engaging smaller audiences

Below are some general ways to engage smaller audiences beyond what you can do with larger groups; I’ve successfully used them all. The next time you work with your webinar speakers, consider encouraging and helping them to incorporate the techniques into their webinars.

Annotations: As mentioned in the article, annotations are a great way to help focus participant attention on the screen. Besides speaker use of annotations to help focus attention, with a small group you can also enable annotations for participants to use, which helps actively engage them with the content. For example, you might have an on-screen game, or participants could be asked to mark which of a list of several items on the screen are most relevant. Or they can check the two or three most important items under given circumstances. Annotations might be a fun alternative to polling in some circumstances.

Telephone/VOIP line: With a smaller number of audience sites, consider keeping participant phone/VOIP lines open throughout webinars, rather than muted. This allows the type of vocal interaction speakers might use in face-to-face programs, with a twist. Since the speaker can’t see participants, set up ground rules at the start of the webinar such as how sites can indicate they have something to say (by “raising” their hands, for example). With fewer than 25-30 sites and a speaker who is a good facilitator, it’s possible to engage in lively vocal discussions related to the webinar topic.

Chat: With a smaller group, the chat function can be used extensively! Participants can contribute their thoughts by typing them in the chat window, and with a little creativity a variety of learning activities can incorporate chat. People can be asked to add their perspective to something the speaker said, and to share ideas and comments with each other as well as with the speaker. Speakers don’t have to respond to everything in the chat, either; in my ATD webinar I encouraged participants to add their own ideas in response to questions I’m answering during Q&A. Sometimes I commented on those ideas, and sometimes I didn’t. When good information and ideas have been shared in the chat, save and send it to participants after the webinar…it can be good material for later reference! To use chat most effectively, a little pre-planning is required – decide ahead of time how the tool will be used, and consider setting at least one ground rule at the program start: that chat will be reserved for content-specific comments and questions (be sure to give participants an alternative for any technical difficulties). Also, allocate time during the webinar to provide chat instructions.

Questions: Smaller groups also allow use of any of several tools to ask for participant responses to questions the speaker asks. Responses can be provided via chat or through use of annotation tools, on a whiteboard, and vocally via phone/VOIP. If the webinar platform allows breakout rooms, participants can even be divided into groups to discuss a question and then report back to the full group, just as they might in a face-to-face program.

Other activities: Other types of activities can work, too…just use your imagination! For example, what started as an experiment in my ATD webinar – virtual role-playing – was successful enough that I used it for quite a while. Just as in face-to-face learning, role-playing can be risky when it comes to participant comfort levels, so use caution. I reserved it for the third part of my webinar, when participants are more comfortable with each other after learning together in the first two segments. If participants seem a little reluctant to volunteer, try offering a small incentive to participate; it works. Think about other activities you’ve done or seen in other programs; how might they be done virtually?

The more engaging your webinars, the more effectively your participants will learn and, hopefully, return for more!

Here are three good resources I recommend you have on hand when planning interactive webinars: The New Virtual Classroom by Ruth Colvin Clark and Ann Qwinn; Live and Online! Tips, Techniques, and Ready-to-Use Activities for the Virtual Classroom by Jennifer Hofmann; and Webinars with WOW Factor: Tips, Tricks and Interactivities for Virtual Training by Becky Pike Pluth.

Are there other ways you or your speakers have engaged webinar audiences? Share your successes and challenges by posting a comment below. If you haven’t yet taken your webinars to this level, encourage your subject-matter experts to try at least one new engagement technique the next time you’re helping them prepare their webinars!

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