November 22, 2017

Let’s Commit to Making Library Webinars Better | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellWith budgets tight and conference travel less fun, more librarians are turning to webinars for their professional development. The convenience factor is high but they sure can be tough to sit through. Let’s improve the experience.

If my email inbox is any indicator, library webinars are more popular than ever. On any given week I have several from which to choose. In addition, library publishers and vendors make more use of webinars to share information and promote resources, while professional associations increasingly allow their members to plan and offer web-based professional development. In fact, I’m planning one right now for the ACRL Membership Committee: our annual “Get Involved” webinar. It’s great to have the convenience of so many learning opportunities delivered to our desktops, but the downside to webinars is that they can be downright awful. I was reminded of this recently by a Twitter thread in which librarians shared their disappointment (putting this kindly) with webinars. Monotone speakers. Loads of bullet point slides—and presenters who just read them—or notes that are drier than dust. Low-quality audio. These are just a few reasons why many webinars result in a poor learning experience that, as the tweeters agreed, is difficult to stay focused on for the entire time. And then there is the Internet.

Attention competition

Webinar presenters have a tough job. In addition to communicating under challenging circumstances, every webinar speaker is competing against the audience’s distracting technology. As a webinar presenter, you may imagine yourself speaking to a captivated group of attendees, but the reality is that those listeners are paying more attention to their email, Twitter feed, and someone knocking on their office door. In “Mastering Remote Presentations,” Nancy Duarte shared survey results indicating that webinar attendees spent more time checking their mail than participating in the webinar. They also browse the Internet, catch up on work, make phone calls—just about anything except pay attention to the webinar. In that respect, it’s like any other classroom or conference experience. The speaker’s failure to engage the audience opens the door to distraction. It’s up to the webinar presenter to craft an event that will capture attention and keep attendees off their devices.

Change the formula for failure

What can librarians preparing for webinar presentations do to in advance to counter attention competition? Here’s simple formula to keep in mind:

(Boredom + Distracting Tech) – Physical Presence = IT’S BROKEN

If the content is boring, or valued content is presented in a boring style, it opens the door to distraction. When speakers are unable to overcome that with a dynamic physical presence, it adds up to a broken webinar. What you want to do is change the formula:

(Dynamic Voice + Interactive Engagement) – Boredom = GREAT WEBINAR

Put simply, webinars require speakers to work harder to make a connection. Librarian speakers may regard webinars as a low pressure engagement: Just read notes while advancing slides. No one can see you, so just going through the motions isn’t noticeable. Wrong! In fact, it takes more advance thinking and preparation to achieve a successful virtual presentation than a successful in-person one. Start by asking yourself “What can I do to make my webinar more interesting than everything else my audience can do while I’m presenting?” No pressure there, right? There are loads of click-bait articles on how to jazz up a webinar. I think Duarte, a presentation expert, gives good basic advice in her webinar—and shows how it’s done. Here are my top takeaways:

  • Be Human: avoid speaking like a robot that’s just reading notes; remember that we’re all just looking at our computer screens; communicate in a way that lets those on the other end know there’s a real person reaching out to them.
  • Speak with Passion: value the power of your voice; use it to share your emotion and excitement about the topic. Raise your voice; lower your voice; pause your voice. It’s all that connects you to the audience; pay attention to how other presenters use their voices and learn from it.
  • Keep a Quick Pace: keep advancing through the presentation; presenters who put up a slide and talk over it for more than two to three minutes send attendees straight to their email.
  • Aim for Activity: use polls, hand raises, chat room dumps, web tours, and other strategies to activate attendees; engage with an activity every four to five slides.
  • Tell a Story: never start any presentation by talking about your library, number of students, collection, etc.; start and end with a story; jump right into it and keep moving.
  • Voice of the Chat: if you plan to use a chat box, ask someone to be the voice of the chat; their job is to monitor what’s happening in the chat and encourage chat activity, so the speaker can focus on the presentation.

Remember the basics

Much of the other advice Duarte offers, along with many of those “better webinar” sites, apply to all types of presentations. One thought per slide, mix up the media, use images instead of text, add a bit of design skill—these things signal to the audience that you care about this opportunity and put time and effort into the event. Duarte even suggests dressing like you would for a physical presentation. Even if no one sees you, it puts you in the right frame of mind. They may still go check their email, but they’ll probably spend much less time being distracted. Webinar presenters are competing against more than the attendees’ devices. Now we all compete against every great presenter—think of your favorite Ted Talk—that is readily available on the Internet. Fail to live up to those expectations and watch your audience disappear. Few of us will ever present at that level, so give yourself every advantage. Start by forgetting everything you do for a physical presentation. Then prepare the entire webinar remembering that everyone is just looking at a computer screen and has a world of distractions at their fingertips.

It’s a two-way street

A successful webinar takes effort from both presenters and attendees. The burden is largely on the speaker, but attendees need to actively engage as much as possible. If attendees log in half-heartedly, knowing full well they plan to get as much work done as possible during the webinar, that’s dooming it to failure. It’s one thing if the presenter breaks all the rules and follows the formula for failure, but if interactivity and engagement are offered, attendees must be in the right state of mind to accept it.

Presenters can avoid adding fuel to the discontentment fire by doing a few critical things. Set up a practice session a week ahead of the webinar—especially if webinar experience is limited. Get a good USB headset and test it out during the practice. Let’s put an end to “I can’t hear the speaker” and “tell the speaker to speak up” messages. Ultimately presenters must, as I have written before, approach their presentation as more than just something to survive. They need to throw themselves into it and make the webinar an experience to truly enjoy. Perhaps even more so than a face-to-face talk, attendees can sense when the presenter is just going through the motions or trying to get it over with as fast as possible. They can also sense when the presenter loves their topic, cares about it, hopes others will do the same, and wants everyone who hears their voice to know it. If webinar presenters start from the premise that it is all about the attendees and giving them a great presentation and learning experience, those attendees may just forget about their phones, email, and social media for the next hour or so.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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Comments

  1. When it’s a canned webinar say that it’s a canned webinar – I’ve seen some of these where presentation is canned pretending to be fully live when not; Q/A might be live or not as in my question never gets asked despite the Q/A chat time. This can effect tone/demeanor of the session.

    Also frequency for given vendor/group 1 a month is enough. Also record for missed with schedule conflicts. Knowing it’s in the can is acceptable.

  2. >. Get a good USB headset and test it out during the practice
    A big ‘yes please’ to this point. Way too many webinars seem to rely on built in mics or cheap gear, which provides a very poor audio experience.

  3. Your points to presenters are well taken. I frequently advise those speakers who may not be comfortable speaking to a screen to bring in a co-hort or mentee so that they feel as if they’re speaking to another person *in the room*. That can liven up delivery as can use of the hands (don’t feel you need to sit on your hands or otherwise confine natural movement. Of course, we’re not looking for great physical exertion — just natural pose and body language.)

    That said, bear in mind, that expertise in a speaker shouldn’t be gauged by their ability to “entertain” an audience. The topics that may be under discussion may not be particularly engaging, but that doesn’t mean the content isn’t robust and/or necessary to the audience member’s professional role.

    • Hi Jill. Thanks for your comment. I like your suggestion and that one is actually made in Nancy Duarte’s video presentation on how to do a better job with webinars. She shows herself presenting with a colleague in the room. I’ve only done that when my colleague is a co-presenter and we are doing the webinar together in the same place. Otherwise, I just visualize an audience in front of me – instead of my computer screen.

      I agree that it’s not about entertainment – and you really need to be careful about even trying for that as a webinar presenter – but I would stress the value of engagement with the attendees. Among the critiques of webinars that I uncovered, what leads to a lack of or inability to focus on the webinar is a presenter who seems to just be going through the motions. That might not be the case – and I would hope attendees wouldn’t pass judgment – but it can definitely impact their ability to stay with the webinar when they have other distractions surrounding them.

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