State Your Purpose: A few words about webinars

2 Jan

A speaker. A podium. A slide set. Information to disseminate. This is a fine scenario, and it is the paradigm on which webinars are built.

A: I have information.

B: You want that information.

C: I will share that information.

However, I think we all agree that the majority of webinars go off the rails pretty quickly. The reason for webinar-fail can be mostly categorized in five buckets:

  1. Poor presentation skills. There are many great resources to improve public speaking, slide design, and delivery. I rather like Slide:ology and The Webinar Manifesto, among many other great resources. Some folks are just not cut out for public speaking. There’s no shame in that. However, this is not my concern here.
  2. Technical problems. Yes, it happens, but not as often as you might think. Learn your platform and plan for worst-case events. That’s not my area of expertise.
  3. Poor understanding of the medium. A webinar compels participants to sit at their computer, watch and listen. That’s a personal-space environment. Don’t expect learners to pay attention for more than 15 minutes if they are not at their own screen, headphones on or in a very quiet room, alone. Groups gathered together to “watch” the webinar—unless it is a highly produced presentation experience, a là Apple introducing the iPad—will fail. (And, don’t get me started on anything that is planned for more than 60 minutes!) This is an oft-misunderstood element, and there is a lot of literature on how we act in groups versus as individuals, but that’s not what has my attention today.
  4. Wasted time. I attended a webinar recently of genuine interest, planned for an hour. There were 15 minutes of housekeeping, introductions, bios, and “setup.” Really? I can read bios and setup before, or after. Get to the topic! They lost me at “I’ll allow each of the four speakers to introduce themselves.” Again, I refer you to The Webinar Manifesto and numerous other books, blogs, articles, videos, and (yes!) webinars.
  5. Designers conflate dissemination, instruction, and learning. This is what I want to talk about.

Dissemination ≠ Instruction

As trainers are fond of saying: Telling Ain’t Training! If you’d like to share some news, build excitement for an initiative, or get all your scattered team members on the same project timeline, webinars are extremely useful. But if you’d like to train folks on the new CRM, or regulatory process, or how to avoid slips, trips, and falls in the warehouse, there are much better ways. At best, a webinar is part of a larger program. There is a reason that the phrase I’ve told you a hundred times! is so common. Telling is for the teller’s benefit, not the ones being told.

Instruction ≠ Learning

Learning happens by, and through, the learner. No matter how sound your instruction, how skilled a teacher, whether in a live classroom, via webinar, or in one-on-one coaching, learning happens when learners take new information or skills, filter and synthesize with their own experience and reference points, and apply it productively. No webinar is going to do that. There are ways to design learning experiences in which learners can demonstrate and apply lessons in real time. It takes good instructional design and a lot of skill to pull off. Alternatively, or in addition, you can observe or measure how the content you deliver is applied. In some cases there are hard metrics, but in most cases assessment will be anecdotal and iterative. You see, learning is a process that is ongoing, not an event. A stand-alone webinar is an event, useful for many things, but not to demonstrate that learning has occurred. If that is your goal … well, some design thinking is in order.

So, the when you plan your next webinar, think through:

  • The objective. If it involves words like teach, train, instruct, or educate, a webinar is at best a piece of a larger instructional program. If it is to inform, prepare, share, discuss, or gather feedback, you’re setting yourself up for success.
  • The attendees’ experience. What will the participants do during your time together? If it is sit and watch, don’t plan for longer than 20 minutes. We live in an interconnected, ultra-distracted world: Holding anyone’s attention longer that it takes to read this post is asking a lot. (If you’ve read this far, thanks!) There are ways to flip the webinar, that is, to do pre-work so that time online together is spent clarifying, discussing, and answering questions (for 20 minutes). Fewer slides, more talk/chat.
  • The purpose. If your purpose really is to train or teach, then design the learning experience. Again, this is not unique to the webinar medium, but participants are especially disinclined to sit through a webinar that is not useful.

A big thank you to Roger Courville, The Virtual Presenter, for his review and suggestions on this post. Check out his excellent blog and get a free copy of his handy book 102 Tips for Online Meetings.

One Response to “State Your Purpose: A few words about webinars”

  1. Roger January 6, 2015 at 11:08 am #

    Appreciate you, Ben. I knew from the moment I saw your conference presentation last year that your thinking is something we need more of in the world of learning.

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