Monday, June 23, 2008

Webside manners

Having hosted, moderated, or spoken at several webinars, let me try to come up with some rules of etiquette for webinars. I myself may be guilty of having broken some of these rules on occasion, but mistakes are a part of the learning process.

  1. Be considerate to your users and test the webinar tool for every aspect of the user's experience. Do the invitation templates make the recipients scroll up and down on a 1024 x 768 resolution before they can see the sign-up form and the 'submit' button? Are the reminder settings reasonable in their frequency or will they become a turn-off for the person subscribing to your webinar? Have the dial-in numbers been tested? Did you conduct a test webinar with a few of your friends to know in advance how the webinar tool behaves? I was once listening in on a webinar where the nation's largest advocacy group for a certain category of businesses was launching a new online member database system. The lack of preparation was obvious when they stumbled through the various features of the webinar tool that they were using rather than focus on the subject of their webinar. Further, every time a caller joined, the audio conferencing system announced the arrival, and every time a caller quit or dropped the call, the same system announced the name of the person who left the call. I have never experienced a more chaotic online experience. If you are using an outside service to manage your webinar, request to sit in on any of their other webinar productions to make sure that your audience will enjoy the experience that the provider offers.
  2. Be considerate and keep the webinar crisp in content and style. Keep things informal as much as possible so that the speaker or panelists are at ease. Have a moderator to steer the conversation. Conduct a dry run for the panelists. De-emphasize power-point slideshows. Encourage the speakers to talk without the crutch of a slideshow. There is no point in showing slides that are full of text. If the speakers have a lot of content, then offer them as a download before and during the webinar. Use the live-time for engaging the audience. Keep the talk going for no more than 20 minutes. It helps keep the entire session very focused. See a sample video (I must caution you that the opening music on this video is needlessly loud) of a presentation by marketing visionary Seth Godin from the TED conference, or a TED conference presentation by Julie Taymor, who translated the movie 'The Lion King' to Broadway. TED conference presentations, I believe have an 18-minute restriction on each talk. The short duration of the presentation however, seems to be working quite well. Leave 10 to 15 minutes for questions. Have some blank slides available, and have someone available to type in any special information that the panelists are sharing on the fly, so that the audience can view it on their screen, e.g. an email address, a phone number or a website address that the speaker(s) may want to highlight.
  3. Be considerate and have webside manners: A moderator is there to steer the discussion. The moderator is not there to talk or add his or her own view to the thoughts of a speaker. The audience must be on mute. While some may be doing it because it is a job requirement, most of the audience members on a webinar have spared precious time to listen to the speaker and learn something new. I have been on webinars where the audio is un-muted, subjecting listeners to a variety of sounds such as interference from a blackberry, dogs barking, and even the flushing of a toilet. Mute them. Letting the panelists know beforehand that they will not be interrupted or heckled by a remote audience will help tremendously. Test the audio a few minutes prior to showtime, and monitor it continuously signed in as a member of the audience. On a recent webinar, even though the opening audio was supposed to be live for only the moderator and the panelists, they were all on air much before showtime. If there is a glitch with the technology, which is not very uncommon, manage it gracefully with a short apology and keep the show going on. Have more than one person prepare a deck of slides to display so that you can switch computers if needed. For the Question/Answer portion tell the audience members that all questions will be handled anonymously. This will encourage people to be willing to ask questions without the fear of publicly making themselves appear uninformed. This will also prevent self-promoters from stealing the thunder of the speakers. Moderate all questions because that way you control the tone of the entire session. If the questions are being submitted online, then have someone engage the audience promptly with all requests and side-bar questions. Encourage follow-on questions by taking them out of turn to help the audience member get the complete answer to a previously addressed question. That helps complete conversations between the panelist and the questioner. If you have to be running polls to keep the audience awake then it is possible that your content is not compelling enough. Post-event, keep your survey as short as 1 open-ended question. My personal preference is a single question with an open text-field for answers where the audience can type in any feedback they like.

In our webinars, we ask the panelists, who typically are subject-matter experts in their industry, a question - "where can our audience members meet you in person in the near future?". If your web conference does not lead to the hope for future human interaction, then you are limiting its true potential of making the world a smaller and friendlier place.