Today’s entry covers one of the major reasons I got into this business. (Caution: I’m about to introduce a concept-framing flashback. Cue the wavy lines and synthesizer music...)
I was happily churning out web conference after web conference at my old software company, chattering away to my unseen audiences. Got pretty good feedback on my listenability and presentation style. And then our company would shake things up by deciding to do a joint webinar with a business partner, or they would invite a journalist or industry analyst to present. And far too often, these speakers would be terrible. Not just mildly disinteresting, mind you... Simply awful! I knew many of these people outside of the conference calls. They included marketing managers and respected authors who regularly were invited to live conferences to speak. Many had received formal training in presentation skills. All could converse at length on their subject areas in a one-to-one setting. But listening to them on a webinar was sheer torture. What was happening?
All right, it’s not material for the TV mystery of the week. And my over-dramatization aside, I knew perfectly well what was going on. These people had been trained in and had spent their entire personal and professional careers delivering materials to a live audience. They knew how to use proper body language, how to react to audience feedback, how to pace their speech patterns and allow time for audience reactions, questions, and comprehension. We all do this to some extent in our daily conversations. You learn pretty quickly as a kid how to read your parents’ reaction to your statements and modify your delivery accordingly. I have been through the whole formal speaker training package myself. I have also done stage acting, stand-up comedy, classroom training, and extemporaneous commentary on bus tours.
But none of that was as useful to delivering webinars as a basic class in radio performance I took during my school years. A web seminar format calls for the presenter to effectively be a radio personality, and there’s a whole different set of skills and dynamics at work there. You need to all but eliminate pauses, you have to train yourself not to listen for audience reaction and to visualize how the majority should be responding. Vocal cues are all you have to take the audience with you on your journey.
There are a myriad of little things that we accept and ignore in live conversations but that build into major barriers to listening over an audio-only medium. Filler words (um, uh, y’know), too-often repeated cliches and pet phrases, monotone delivery, pauses... all these are the enemies of a well-presented webinar speech. And webinar presenters have the added distraction of working with technology that pulls focus from their content. Webinar software requires conscious attempts to react to or ignore multiple information panels, advancing slides, placing annotations, dealing with audience questions and comments, and much more.
Webinar Success was my attempt first and foremost to advance the level of speaking professionalism among the vast community of webinar presenters. Presenter training is still a huge focus of my business (and for the obvious commercial link, why not visit my Presenter Training page on the main website?). I added lots of associated services around all aspects of effective webinar planning, preparation, and presentation – but I have yet to find a speaker who doesn’t appreciate and benefit from a review of their webinar speaking skills with specific suggestions as to how they can become more compelling and persuasive.
PS: Did you notice how I mentioned getting feedback up near the top? I guarantee that you will never hear your own problem areas... your brain blanks them out. Do you think teenagers notice how much they say “like?” The only way we can learn what we need to fix is to ask outsiders what they are noticing. I use general polling questions at the end of webinars occasionally, but I also have a formal speaker evaluation form that I hand to trusted friends and colleagues when they attend a web conference. I recommend regular use of these techniques to anyone planning to make webinars a standard part of their presentation portfolio.