Advice On Running A Webinar, From Someone Who Attends Too Many

a laptop sits on a desk beside a teal mug. On the screen, a video call is occurring with 16 faces each in a small box beside each other.
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Last week I was in (yet again) a webinar. The subject was career strategy. There was a whole panel of senior staff talking about their careers, what they did right, what they suggest, you know, the regular stuff.

This webinar wasn’t much different than the others. I’ve attended many before: democracy talks, information sessions for programs, stuff about plants (I think I signed up for the wrong one there), you name it.

Each time I got excited for the subject matter and format. Would we be listening to a panel? Or one person delivering a speech? If there were several experts, how many were there? 3? 9? Would they debate or just answer questions?

My enthusiasm would grow exponentially leading up to the webinar. Yet, each time I attended on, I found myself a bit underwhelmed. The webinar wasn’t bad per se — but it was usually awkward.

The transition to online from offline has been rocky to say the least. 2 years ago, we each had to change our entire lives to accommodate virtual ways of interacting. This came with its pro’s: work flexibility, the ability to offer services to people far away from us, and a slower pace in our constantly moving lives.

However, I have noticed that some online spaces haven’t fully kept up. Webinars, in particular, often lack the small nuances that can make them truly engaging and informative events.

These nuances, while easy to go unnoticed, can make a world of a difference if addressed. I’ve seen a few. And I have some ideas on how to fix them.

Below are some ideas on how to potentially improve the webinar experience so it’s more engaging and informative. Hopefully it helps.

A note before I continue: I’m not a webinar expert. Like I said, I just attend a lot, and have the perspective of an attendee who would like to get a bit more out of them.

Enjoy your read.

Tip #1: Make a hierarchy for speaker order

Often times when I attend a panel webinar, the moderator coordinates the introductions of panelists (either by introducing them, or asking the panelists to introduce themselves). This is usually the most organized part of the event. Once this is over, the webinar enters one of three scenarios:

  • Scheduled time for panelists to speak at length (say, 5–10 minutes on their topic
  • A prepared Q&A that panelists are or aren’t notified of ahead of time
  • A live Q&A from the audience with panelists responding

In any of these three cases, I frequently see the same result: the moderator allowing a free-for-all. Have you heard this phrase before?

“Who would like to go first?”

Shivers. One of the most awkward phrases to respond to. Do you pipe up immediately, and come off as arrogant? Do you wait and seem unsure? What if you speak at the same time as someone else? What if you take too long and the moderator just moves on?

It puts the onus on the panelists to organize, which isn’t their responsibility — it’s the responsibility of the moderator to, you know, moderate.

This is compounded by the Q&A sessions with the audience that are included later on. The free-for-all gets worse here, as listeners can lob out complex questions for someone to answer. That being whoever speaks first.

(This opens up the door for a single panelist to dominate the conversation, which ruins the point of a panel to begin with. I see this happen way too much.)

I think the moderator can do a bit more to solve both issues with a simple fix:

Make an ordered list of speakers.

Remember when you attended in-person panels, and the speakers “went in order”? For example, the moderator would ask them to speak from left to right.

When the moderator makes an ordered list, they take out the guess work for who speaks when. The list can be the go-to approach for figuring out who speaks when and who speaks next.

For example, say you have 5 panelists: Jamie, Kendall, Mohammed, Noor, and Tyson. They’re all specialists on the subject. Before the webinar begins, they can be organized into a simple order:

  1. Noor
  2. Jamie
  3. Mohammed
  4. Tyson
  5. Kendall

When questions start coming in, the moderator can just go down the list.

This takes a lot of the guess work out of the equation and ensures panelists don’t need to think about who speaks when. They just speak when it’s their turn. This also solves the problem of who introduces themselves first, as the moderator can coordinate panelists by their list.

You might be thinking to yourself “but this will take out the dynamic aspect of panels and Q&As! Also, not every panelist will have something to say on the matter.”

To which I say: bah, humbug! You’re overthinking it. An experience can still be dynamic without having it be all over the place. I’d argue it increases the possibility of being dynamic, as awkward lulls are cut down substantially. Also, a panelist can (and should) say “I’m not well-versed on this specific subject enough to comment, but I’m interested in hearing what the others say.” A moderator can also break from the list momentarily to pick the speakers who are most likely to be able to respond to the question, leaving the rest to offer their thoughts afterwards (this will still cause lulls, but the amount and severity will likely decrease).

So, consider making an ordered list of speakers that you can work off of when responding to questions, whether they’re prepared or live.

Tip 2: If you do breakout rooms, prepare room organizers

Stop me if you’ve experienced this before: you just had an informative session, and the moderator announces that the 2nd portion of the webinar will be conducted via breakout rooms. Each panelist (or a member of the organization running the webinar) will oversee each panel room. Reasons can vary — maybe it’s a networking opportunity, a chance to share what you do in relation to the subject matter, or a chance to ask specific panelists questions.

So you pick one. And boy is it awkward.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash. How it feels to be with a bunch of people when no one is speaking.

Attendees have their mics and cameras off. The room organizer is sitting there, blurred background, with the saddest look on their face as they repeat the phrase “does anyone have any questions?” to what feels like themselves 5 or 6 times. One brave soul pipes up, leading the organizer to speak at length about the matter until there isn’t anything left to talk about. And repeat.

Painful.

I think many webinar hosts fail to prepare their supporting staff or panelists for scenarios like these. It’s easy to overlook — after all, isn’t it the audience that should be leading this portion of the webinar? They attended, and they should be asking more questions.

But they don’t.

Even in 2022, everyone is still fairly awkward on camera and online. And that’s okay! You don’t need to fully embrace video conversations in that manner. But if you don’t, it leaves a lot unfulfilled.

A simple solution to this is having those overseeing/managing breakout rooms prepare a handful of subjects to speak on if no questions arise. Often times, listeners will pipe up with questions in response to something said, as opposed to from thin air.

So, it helps to have a list of subjects a room organizer can lean on when they need it. To get the ball rolling, here are some examples:

  • Your career path & how you ended up where you are now
  • A retrospective view on the industry/field: what did you see coming, what is a surprise, etc.
  • An opportunity to expand on something you said or was discussed earlier
  • How ______ is related to ______ (EG: if the panel was on military affairs in response to foreign interference, and you’re a crisis response worker, you could talk about NGO efforts and their effect on the current conflict)
  • Your list of stand up jokes (good luck with that)

You may notice a small theme here: many of the subjects are likely similar to what was discussed in the original session. If you’re on a panel about career strategy, you probably talked about your career path. That’s fine! You can repeat stuff. The breakout rooms are for specificity after all, so if no one is asking questions, you can go into more detail and offer more nuanced views (maybe you didn’t do something you now think was good to do, or did something you felt wasn’t as necessary). Run with it. Just don’t say or do anything that will turn you into a meme. That’s the worst.

Meme of Fry, a character from Futurama, squinting. Top text says “Not sure if I’m awkward because of situation” Bottom text says “or situation is awkward because of me”
Me sitting in any room at any time

Tip 3: Establish a follow-up system

So, the panel is over. You, the eager attendee, are now cursed with knowledge. The panelists say thank you for attending, and the moderator gives their pitch about their organization (God, why do they always do that?). The video call goes POOF. It’s gone. All is quiet.

And then you think of a question.

Questions often pop into our heads after a period of contemplation. Webinars are stuffed with knowledge and expert insight, so it naturally takes a while for us to think things through. This leaves us with a handful left unanswered.

An easy way for a moderator to solve this is to establish a way of triaging follow-ups if they do come in. By proactively making a system for fielding inquiries, the moderator can coordinate responses in a fluid and reliable fashion.

There are many ways of doing this. Some panelists/speakers offer up their emails for individuals to contact them directly (I like this method, but not every panelist will want to offer up their email). Sometimes the moderator lists their organization’s generic email, using it as a fly trap of sorts to triage and forward questions along. Fancy webinars will establish a community page on their website that people can go to for posting their questions. Panelists, attendees, and staff can respond right there.

To be honest, all 3 are good and are dependent on what you can reasonably do. Pick what works. Or choose a 4th! Or none at all! I’m just a dude on the internet making suggestions.

But, I think it will benefit webinar organizers to consider that attendees will have questions after the session.

So, there you have it. 3 tips on how to improve webinars. I came up with a few more as I wrote this, but they aren’t as important as the previous three. That being said, they still may help you. So here they are. I encourage you to leave a comment with suggestions if you think of any.

  • Encourage attendees to introduce themselves via chat (name, some relevant fact related to the subject matter, where they’re from)
  • Introduce audience engagement (if you have staff, ask them to respond to various inquiries or comments. Doesn’t have to be anything deep, just acknowledgements of what has been said)
  • Create a summary PDF/document for people who missed the session or attendees who would like a refresher
  • Clip small segments from the webinar to be repurposed across your social media channels (helps raise awareness for future webinars AND gives attendees the opportunity to refresh their memory on specific subjects without going through the whole damn recording)
  • Ease the process from registration to attendance (make it easy for potential attendees to register and connect their ticket to their calendar)
  • Send a pre-event email with the agenda and a request for them to think of questions to ask

Alright, that’s it. Some ideas on how to improve your webinar. Like I said at the start — these ideas are not revolutionary because I’m not an expert. I’m just a guy who likes learning and has attended one too many.

I see the places many webinars stumble. But I also see where they can improve. I hope this list helps you consider the same.

Until then,

Andrew.

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