Practical tips for webinars and online conferences

I’ve attended a variety of online meetings over the past three months from mid-March – these meetings have ranged from small groups for an hour or so through to multi-company conferences lasting for the best part of a day. Some have been excellent, with the organisers fully understanding how best to use the technology and how to keep attendees engaged. More than half, however, have ranged from “OK” down to “woeful”. As a result, I’m departing from my normal style of blog post in order to provide what readers may find as a useful set of practical tips – if this can help in any way to lift the quality of webinar experience then I’ll have succeeded in my aim!

  1. In advance / set up
    • Invitations should make clear which video tool is being used.  Many firms are using Zoom or Microsoft Teams but there are many other tools and downloading the software or updating a previously downloaded version may prove necessary for a number of attendees – I lost the first 15 minutes of one webinar that I attended when my software demanded that it be updated before use
    • If people have to register in advance, please make it clear that they need to go through the registration process.  Without this, a calendar invite can go in the diary and then the attendee clicks on a link at the time of the webinar only to find that they’ve sent through a registration request and haven’t yet entered the webinar itself
    • Ensure that all your speakers and other key attendees are using the right software and they know how to use the functionality.  It’s easy to test this by setting up a briefing session in advance on the same software and explaining the process of the event and the functionality that will be used (e.g. chat function, Q&A, breakouts, whiteboards)
    • Agree any rules that you want to adopt for speakers and your own firm’s attendees (e.g. dress code, backgrounds, use of company logos)

  2. Dialling in
    • For the event itself, have all your speakers and other key attendees dial in early to check that no one has network issues (e.g. some properties have more than one Wi-Fi network and if someone has been moving around with a laptop or tablet they could be on a network that doesn’t work so well in the room they’re choosing to use for the event itself)
    • Some software has people dialling straight in – others hold people in a virtual lobby and you have to admit them.  Be ready for this and ensure that you’re in “professional mode” as soon as the first guest arrives
    • Have a welcome screen (e.g. an opening slide) or the person acting as the host being “front and centre” ready for when guests join
    • Admit people at exactly the start time and spend 2-3 minutes welcoming them in order to allow stragglers to get their software sorted, grab a drink after their last session or whatever and dial in
    • Plan to actually start the content around 3-4 minutes in

  3. Format
    • The best webinars, short or long, seem to be those that have a clear host person who welcomes people, explains the methods being used for submitting questions or comments, facilitates Q&A, introduces speakers etc
    • Where quite a bit of functionality is being used, it helps to have a person other than the host being dedicated to this
    • Speaking slots of 15-25 minutes, followed by immediate 5-10 minutes of Q&A with that speaker, work well
    • A wider Q&A at the end is good for questions outside the direct focus of the webinar, to mop up questions that couldn’t be answered previously and as a flexible piece of the agenda to either fill in time or, more often, act as contingency for speakers who have overrun
    • Events lasting over an hour benefit from not purely being one long plenary session of presentations and Q&A.  Insert instant polling, videos and/or breakout groups
    • Events lasting over two hours should have a ten minute break for urgent calls etc
    • Longer “conferences” should have a proper lunch break, maybe even for an hour

  4. Presentation materials
    • You must have some!  I’ve attended a number of webinars now where a speaker is simply speaking to camera and I’ve yet to witness one that has worked well – in fact, I’ve seen people who’ve left their cameras turned on clearly zoning out and getting on with other stuff, and I’ve witnessed many attendees simply dropping out of the webinar entirely
    • The only exception to this is events clearly labelled as panel discussions – these need strong facilitation and still need some material to lead into the discussion, as a minimum
    • Presentation slides should be few and have simple content.  Busy slides with detailed diagrams and small type can be difficult to see for some people
    • Short video clips can work well to keep attendees interested
    • Instant polling grabs the attention back of minds that have been wandering and can be good to get some interactivity in discussion

  5. Etiquette
    • The host and anyone else considered key must keep their cameras turned on and they must look engaged throughout
    • If you can mute attendees microphones remotely to allow an uninterrupted flow, do so and tell everyone that you’re doing it.  If you can’t, then ask them to do it.  They can always unmute if they really want to speak
    • Questions are best submitted through a dedicated Q&A function, if it exists, or through the wider comments function if not.  The host can always choose to ask someone to unmute to ask their question, or a follow up, directly, if that’s what he/she chooses
    • If you have “resident experts” attending, maybe because they’re facilitating a breakout, it helps with the overall feel of the event to ask them to answer a question in a plenary session, or add to a point that’s been made
    • You must finish on time, or even 1-2 minutes early.  You cannot overrun – people drop off the event to attend their next call and the whole thing falls into disarray
    • Don’t be “salesy” – if many attendees don’t know you then it’s OK to do a (maximum) one minute introduction to the firm – otherwise, stick to the topic
    • Confirm with any external speakers that it is OK to share their materials, and a recording of their session, after the event – this may be to attendees only, or all the way to a recording on your website that could get a link to it sent out via social media, so be clear what you want their permission for

  6. Breakouts
    • I haven’t yet seen software where attendees can elect which breakout to join and achieve it themselves.  You have to allocate people to breakout groups so it’s best to work out in advance who goes into which one
    • It’s unlikely that breakouts will be used for further presentations – they’re more likely to be discussion fora
    • Discussion breakouts work well with a facilitator and 3-6 guests.  Your planning should allow for dropouts – I facilitated a breakout session recently that should have had three other attendees, from different firms that operated in the same market – it could have been powerful but, in fact, only one attended the webinar so it made a discussion forum quite difficult!
    • Have someone managing the technology, to put people into the breakout “rooms”, allocate unexpected/late entrant webinar attendees into groups and end the breakout sessions, moving everyone back into the plenary “room”
    • Some software tools require people to press a button to enter the breakout room – others don’t.  If yours does, tell people as you’re about to send them into the breakout “room”
    • Most video tools have a simple whiteboard facility.  This can work well in breakout groups, especially when controlled by the facilitator.  Some whiteboard tools allow free-format drawing etc – in my experience this only works well when all attendees have touch screens, which is unlikely.  Most of the time, the whiteboard will be used for recording comments, thoughts, agreed actions and the like, so they can be typed by the facilitator.  It’s important that the whiteboard is saved (there will be functionality for this) before the breakout ends or else the content will be lost.  Saved whiteboards will most likely be placed on the facilitator’s computer hard drive and can then be pulled up in the plenary session by screen sharing, or can be emailed to someone central behind the scenes
    • The technology should have functionality to allow for a message to flash up a minute (say) before the end of the breakout and count down to zero – use it!

  7. Overcoming technical issues
    • The most likely technical issue is broadband speed which can vary for all of us
    • For this reason, more than one person should have a copy of all presentation materials – if the host has broadband problems, the whole event could fail.  Ideally, a second person with a copy of the materials would be able to step in as a replacement host in this eventuality
    • Passing control of a presentation deck to others can work if all involved are both used to doing this and enjoying good broadband speed (i.e. it is fraught with risk!).  It’s probably better to either have one person moving slides on the request of a speaker or for the first person to stop sharing their screen/presentation and the second one to start sharing theirs, and vice versa later

  8. Follow up
    • Send a copy of any slides or other materials to attendees (or a link to them), as well as a link to any recording made (Note: which you may need to edit rather than sharing the whole thing)
    • Ask for feedback, unless you already know how it went from comments left via the chat facility
    • Choose whether or not to send materials presented, or a link to the recorded webinar, to registrants who didn’t attend
    • After this mechanical follow up, move into a sales process in the same way that you would normally.

I hope that some of these tips prove helpful to readers.

Good luck with your webinars and online conferences – they’re here to stay so it’s worth getting them right!

Stay safe.