In my last public presentation on webinar presentation skills, I received a question from a listener asking what you can do as a presenter when your audience doesn’t participate or interact. And today I saw a very useful blog post by Julia Young of Facilitate.com on tips for running interactive webinars.
Julia’s tips are spot-on, and I urge you to read, absorb, and apply them. But I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment, just to stimulate discussion.
First I’ll address something that Julia writes in her introduction to the topic:
“If we were designing an in-person meeting, workshop or training session, would we assume that participants would be working on their email, having side-conversations or searching the Internet? I think not!”
Ask a college professor this question and you’ll get a very different answer. People coming into the workforce (and the terminally hip trendies among the older crowd) are absolutely going to multitask. And despite your wishes as a presenter, the fact that you are working with an audience sitting at uber-connected multitasking computers makes it a fundamentally different experience and behavioral expectation than when they are sitting in chairs staring at a presenter in the front of a room. This is one reason I am cynical about the practical value of “attention meters” in some web conferencing products that purport to tell you whether your audience is paying attention to your content based on whether the web conferencing window has focus on the desktop.
I prefer to work on presentation style and techniques that subtly (or not so subtly) refocus attention on your content and your presentation, over and over, in a continuous barrage of attention recapture cues. I assume that people are multitasking and drifting. So I use vocal pitch and speed changes to recapture their auditory attention and interest. I use verbal directions that tell them to refocus on the screen: “So, as you see at the top of the first column…” or “Look at the picture I used to illustrate this concept…” And of course I use direct interactions through chat dialogs, polls, whiteboards, or other technology features.
But let’s face an unpopular truth. There are times when you simply don’t get the participation you wish you had. You ask people for suggestions or comments in the chat field and you get nothing. You ask for voting on polls and see that only a quarter to a half of your audience is bothering to respond. The root cause is most commonly a gap between what you are asking and the audience’s self-interests. If you ask polling questions obviously designed for your benefit rather than the audience’s, there is no reason for them to participate: “Do me a favor and help me with this research… Do you currently have a contract with a web conferencing provider?” Instead of giving value to your audience, you are asking them to give you the value. And it’s pretty transparent that they are giving you ammunition to come after them with a sales pitch. No wonder they aren’t interested in joining the game.
But even when you have strong content and do everything right, you can simply get an audience that prefers a passive experience. I have done stage acting, stand up comedy, and tour guiding. Anybody in those professions can tell you that the exact same material, delivered exactly the same way, can get completely different responses from different audiences. Sometimes it’s cultural. When I give presentations to a mostly Japanese audience I know to scale back my expectations for interactive responses and typed questions or comments during my presentation. It is considered rude to interrupt a presenter, and there is even a cultural reticence to comment on the material after he or she finishes. (I’m speaking in broad generalities of course.)
Sometimes it is just a weird, inexplicable group dynamic. This can sometimes happen when one individual takes command and barrages you with questions, comments, and attempts to answer other questions from the audience. The other members can simply give up and let the juggernaut take over the role of group spokesman. Other times you never know why you aren’t getting the response you are used to. So when it happens, what can you do?
Here’s a bit of heresy for you: … Stop trying so damned hard!
Have you ever heard of the term “flop sweat?” It’s a performing arts cliché applied to an actor or comedian or public speaker who tries harder and harder to win over an audience, becoming ever more desperate and visibly shaken at the lack of response. You can generate the same impression if you keep waiting longer and longer for people to answer your polls, urging them ever more stridently to type in comments, or trying other interactions with no results. What you are doing in this case is attempting to impose your will on an audience rather than modifying your presentation to meet their preferences and psychological comfort zone.
You have to disassociate yourself from your own predefined concept of what indicates success or failure of your presentation and associate yourself instead with the way your audience wants to take in the information. So instead of vainly trying more and more interaction techniques on unwilling subjects, eliminate the remainder of your polls. Stop urging the audience to answer questions via the chat window. Instead, concentrate on supplying detailed and valuable information in more of a straightforward discourse. The important thing is not to sound disappointed or to make an indication that this isn’t your preferred method of presentation. If they want to hear a lecture, then by golly you’re going to give them a great lecture!
Of course you leave the window open for them to interact and give you feedback. But if they choose not to, that can be okay. A great lecture, delivered well, with valuable content is every bit as effective a communication vehicle as an interactive session. It’s just different. And if you are willing to work the way your audience wants instead of forcing them to work the way you want, you’ll all end up happier.
So have I just told you that interactivity is a bad thing? NO, NO, NO!!! Given the choice, I want to engage my audience in multiple ways: visually, audibly, and kinesthetically. You should plan for interactions, making sure to frame everything in terms of the value TO THEM of participating. But remember that lack of interaction is an interaction itself. It helps you to read your audience. And on those rare occasions when they want to listen passively, have the courage and the flexibility to respect their group behavioral preference and give them the presentation they want.