Keeping students awake and engaged was one of my biggest challenges as a college teacher, a task made so much easier because I stood in front of them in a classroom. I could walk around, modulate my voice, facial expressions provided context and it was easy to tell if I was boring students so I could adapt my presentation accordingly. The interaction is what keeps me enthusiastic and involved, even when I teach the solitary subject of writing. I feed off it and students, I hope, feed off my energy, too.
Online teaching has never appealed to me –online learning is inferior, in my opinion. It’s profitable, don’t get me wrong, and I see why colleges are turning to it. But it’s not as good as in-person learning. As much as I love to teach–it’s something I know I do well–I’ve resisted online college teaching gigs simply because I think they’d bore both me and the student. In the same way, I resist giving webinars on writing or other topics. Seeing students and exchanging energy in person is what my teaching style is all about. Oh, and did I mention laughter? And what is laughter without facial expression? Body language?
But students today can join a class from anywhere in the world, thanks to our electronic connection, and we can learn from some of the most knowledgeable professionals in our fields without leaving our desks. That was my thought when I signed on for a several-session webinar to help me learn more about marketing a new venture I am planning.
Most of us have taken at least one webinar to expand our skills, I would bet, and I’d also bet that we’ve experienced massive fails as well as great experiences. If you’re thinking of giving a webinar or even attending one, these tips are for you.
Publish the agenda well in advance. Any professional meeting planner will tell you that an agenda should be issued at the same time you ask for sign-ups. Any good marketer will tell you the same thing. If you want people to pay money for your webinar, they need to know what they are buying. The same goes for any meeting, workshop or event. Tell them in advance and then make your agenda the very first thing you review with participants when you begin. If you surprise them after they sign up, well, they just may be disappointed.
This is a matter of respect for your student’s time.
I had to search high and low for the stop time for a recent webinar I took–and finally saw that the sessions were three hours each. I thought that was manageable, but just barely. Since the first session took place on a holiday weekend, which is a terrible idea, I had to rearrange my plans, but I was excited about the topic. At the appointed time I was at my desk with a bottle of water, the webinar was up on my desktop and my laptop was at the ready for note-taking. The presenters then spent the better part of the first half hour explaining to us in detail about the charities that would benefit from this online workshop. There were three worthy organizations, and each was explained in great detail. And while I was happy that my small tuition fee would go to a good cause this holiday, I did not want to spend half an hour hearing about the charities. The details were just not important to me. I would rather have been with family and friends for that half hour. Or learning the content that was promised.
Because there was no specific agenda as to topics to be covered and length, I had no idea what to expect. BAD IDEA. I’ll be unlikely to take another webinar from this source.
Each session should be three hours –and less than that is even better.
I once taught a college class that ran four consecutive hours. It was horrific. So was this webinar. At the three hour mark, it was still going strong, at least from the presenter’s point of view.
Me? I was exhausted. Three hours turned into three hours and 22 minutes and there was no acknowledgment that the presenters were going over and no new stop time mentioned. It was well past midnight on the East coast. I bailed.
My experience is that three hours is the maximum a student can focus their attention in class–and that’s in person, where an instructor can keep energy high. But think about the online student, sitting in front of a computer, only moving their fingers and eyes. After two hours, legs get stiff, attention begins to wander. At three hours their eyes have glazed over and the instructor is losing them.
Three speakers were featured in my recent webinar. The primary speaker had the first three hours. She was engaging. The leader was also engaging when he popped on from time to time. But the speaker who took over at the three hour mark was ponderous and over-taught his topic, grinding on long past the time when we’d gotten his point. But I was done. Maxed out. My legs were stiff. I wanted to take my eyes off the screen. Do something else. And so I did. Three hours is the absolute maximum a student can tolerate an online lecture, even with the most engaging speaker.
Call them bio breaks, bathroom breaks, stretch breaks, water breaks, whatever. You simply can not expect students to sit for hours without a break. Maybe they want to get some water, visit the rest room, stretch their legs. I was expecting a break at what I thought was the halfway point: 90 minutes. Our bio break came at two hours and was two minutes long. Two. Minutes. An onscreen timer ran. What’s worse is that the leader kept talking through the break. Would I miss something if I left? I wondered? A break is just that, a break. They should come hourly. Five minutes is enough time and the speaker should stop and let the break be a real break.
The webinar I took was very interactive, in that the speaker was working with a computer screen as she demonstrated what she was teaching, clicking and adding info. Since she was doing what we’d have to do when we marketed our own venture, it was great to see the screen and how to use it. But not every subject lends itself to this kind of visual. At all costs, avoid a static power point presentation. There’s nothing more boring than bullets on a screen. Audiences stay engaged with interesting and colorful visuals, including video. Use as much of this as you can, broken up into small snippets because too much of anything can get boring.
Multiple presenter interaction should be focused on the topic.
Multiple presenters change up the energy–assuming they’re all good interactions. Sometimes the presenters know each other and work together and will use little inside jokes and referrals in their presentation, oblivious to the fact that the audience is not in on the joke. Keep these to a minimum. The class is there to hear your pearls of wisdom, not hear you laughing and joking with colleagues. It’s just not relevant. I’m always surprised when professional speakers don’t get that inside jokes are only important to insiders.
Solve technical issues in advance.
Nothing significant got in the way of the transmission of our webinar, but if you don’t know your technology, this could stop a session in its tracks. Go-to-Meeting is fairly easy to use, but make sure you dry run it and have a tech support option should problems arise.
Don’t be defensive about feedback.
If this is your business and you want to make money, all feedback is your friend, including negative feedback. How silly is it to discount information that could help you sell more in the future? Any feedback will help you refine your offering so that one day you’ll be completely oversubscribed. And wouldn’t that be great?
Born of brutal experience, those are my webinar tips. Got any you think should be added?