Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Effective communication in a webinar

I have been involved in a lot of webinars over the last four years or so; as organiser, moderator, speaker and participant. It's a wonderful opportunity to gather people from all over the world and from different fields to discuss a common interest and learn new things but I wonder if we really use this arena effectively.

Many webinars are pretty well standard one-way lectures from a guest expert. There may be a chat window for participants but most prefer to sit back and listen to the lecture. That's perfectly valid as long as we don't pretend that it has any other function. Many of the webinars I've been involved in however have audiences of 100 or more and the chat window is used heavily with a constant stream of comments, links and questions. What happens is that the webinar has two threads of communication that are sometimes interlinked and sometimes go off in slightly different directions. This means that some participants choose to follow the speakers, some get deeply involved in a parallel chat discussion and some try to multitask between the two threads. I've always seen this combination of discussion channels as an exciting and stimulating feature of webinars.

However after a webinar I held yesterday one participant got in touch and explained that she found the experience messy and frustrating. The use of the chat session while someone was speaking meant that many weren't able to concentrate on the speaker and it seemed to be a multitasking free-for-all without any clear communication strategy. A fair point indeed and maybe we should think of ways to change focus during a webinar. One possibility would be to make it clear what the focus is by using visual cues. If someone is presenting we could make the chat window very small to show that it's time to focus on the speaker. After the input from the speaker the chat window could be expanded to indicate that now it's time for comments and questions. Focus on one activity at a time and make the rules clear from the start. Divide the input into short bites and then regularly open up for comments and questions.

It would of course be great to be able to let participants contribute with sound and video but once you get over 20 participants this can be very tricky from a technical perspective. Most participants have not installed their headsets correctly for the e-meeting tool and if you give someone the floor to speak it often leads to audio issues; either no sound, echo or howling feedback. So we continue with only the speakers with video and audio and the participants in the chat.

So how do we make webinars more participative and rewarding for all? Breakout groups are one possibility that I hope to try soon. It works with smaller groups but I wonder how to organize this in a webinar with 150 participants. It would mean a lot of groups and the risk of causing confusion among participants unused to suddenly finding themselves transported to another virtual meeting room. Should we try to minimize multitasking and focus one one activity at a time (attention, discussion, questions, brainstorming)? Or is the webinar a clumsy tool for real interaction and should preferably be used for lectures or panel discussions?

What do you think?


  1. Interesting point. i have sometimes experienced the same frustration, and i have also seen when the presenter tries to respond to input from the chat window, sometimes loosing the thread altogether, thus upending the whole thing. The fight for attention is indeed a challenging one to address. Your suggestion with different visual cues seems a good one, i think it could work. But i also think presenters must look in the mirror, they need to find ways to engage the audience, and react to input in a structured way. Too long lectures are very boring to follow, as is lectures without visual aids (and i do not mean endless powerpoint slides with texts). I think breakout groups ought to work, as long as they are clearly explained, limited in size, well moderated. This requires more moderation and more resources (staff) than a "simple" webinar, but i think it is time we take the audience seriously and invest what is needed to improve and then maintain a very high quality.

  2. I have heard presenters complain about the constant flow of messages being distracting.
    When I present I tend to forget the chat, and get distracted when I finally discover questions/comments that has by then fallen a bit out of context.

    The Q & A pod and maybe a moderator could be (part of) a solution. The chat is still needed though, if one wants to handle technical issues like sound quality.

  3. I wonder if you are reading too much into the reaction of one participant? After all, it is the first time you have had this reaction.
    However, it is interesting to consider how the typical webinar could be improved.
    I think the idea of shrinking the chat as a presenter goes into action may be worth trying. Of course it would make it even more difficult to pick up questions even with an extra person reporting back from the chat.
    Or how about two chats? One purely for questions to the presenter, which could be kept small and would be easy to keep track of, and one for comments and links which could be shrunk when the presenter was in action.
    Or is that getting too complicated...

  4. Maybe I am Keith but I see the point. Maybe we are so pleased with creating a rich multitasking environment that we are losing sight of real communication. I think we can move webinars forward in terms of creating more dialogue and interactivity. I also think we need to learn to focus sometimes. I'm very guilty of multitasking (or thinking that I am).

  5. My name is Eva Grundelius and I am the person who reacted to the somewhat chaotic communication at the webinar Alastair refers to. I am the author of a couple of Swedish books and work as a professional communication consultant. I have invented two new practical communication tools; Fourfold Communication and the Communication Thermometer. You can read an introduction to my communication models in English here: http://www.hallbarkommunikation.se/images/Fourfold%20Communication%20by%20Eva%20Grundelius%20130607.pdf. (For those of you who know Swedish, see my webpage www.hallbarkommunikation.se .)

    One way of looking at the communication at a webinar is to imagine what would work if all the participants were in the same physical room? We would not invite a speaker to make a presentation - and at the same time encourage the audience to chat instead of listen to the speaker. And an audience that has been chatting - instead of listening to the presenter - would not be able to account accurately for what the presenter said.

    I am a skilled facilitator of communication in live groups, and I think that many of the principles that apply there go for webinars as well. Remember that the latin word "communicare" means "share" (or to make common) - and we are not communicating - are not sharing anything - as long as we are not listening well to each other.

    I feel that we are only in the beginning of experimenting with the many exciting opportunities of webinars. But I think that in order to realize a higher potential we must evolove a wise and very practical communication strategy for how webinars can - and should - be facilitated or moderated. Only then will the participants feel that they truly connect on a personal level and really share the information and ideas they provide.