“The medium is the message.” One of the most quoted five-word phrases in the last 45 years. I’ll bet you think you know what it implies. I’ll bet you’re wrong.
I just finished reading an erudite and fascinating article by Mark Federman, Chief Strategist, McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology. The article has the unwieldy title of “What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message?”
Federman says that McLuhan wasn’t making a point about specific communication channels such as television, radio, or motion pictures. He certainly wasn’t downplaying the importance of content. McLuhan was trying to open our eyes to unanticipated changes in the architecture of societal and interpersonal interactions that accompany new innovations that extend our personal reach.
Read the article. My goal isn’t to paraphrase someone else’s analysis of yet another person’s work. I would like to see if we can apply the ideas to webinars and look at ways in which the technological introduction of the medium has changed the message of how we interact. I think that some of the common dissatisfaction with webinars from an audience viewpoint stems from producers and presenters still thinking in terms of older, obsolete messages of communicative dynamics.
There are questions I see all the time from webinar creators and administrators. Some common ones include:
- How long should a webinar be?
- How do I hold my audience’s attention?
- What’s a good audience size?
I see an underlying communications message in these questions that is based on a prior medium. Communicating to a large target audience used to mean flying them to a central location, setting up a room, and speaking from a podium. Logistics were incredibly important and had to be worked out long in advance to allow travel arrangements, venue bookings, deposits, meal planning, and a hundred other details. Audience members who made the significant investment in time and money to attend were looking for value justification, usually measured in units of “hours of presentation time.” Presenters and show hosts looked out over the sea of faces and tried to figure out how to keep them from nodding off. A successful event filled the room or at least covered the planner’s setup minimums.
Webinars extend our communications reach to that audience in a new way. And the change in the medium changes the dynamics of the message between hosts, presenters, and audience members. There is no more sea of faces. There is a multitude of simultaneous one-to-one communications between a presenter and an individual listener.
Information value now is measured in density rather than duration. Online audiences want maximum value delivered in the minimum time necessary to convey it. Then they want to customize the conversation to their interests through a dialog. So instead of concentrating on “How much time do I need to reserve before it is seen as worth the trip?” we need to ask “How much time do we really need in order to deliver the value we promised?” Don’t be afraid to end a session early. Or at least end the lecture quickly and move to audience-guided questions and discussion.
Online audiences are not captive, and the alternative to interest is not sleep. They are going to multitask, and they will abandon the presentation without remorse. So instead of “How do I hold my audience’s attention?” we need to ask, “How do I repeatedly restimulate interest and recapture attention that has wandered elsewhere?”
Instead of viewing the audience as a mass entity defined by its size, we need to present to an audience of one. Presenters must address the individual and value the individual’s attention and participation.
Notice that none of this changes the importance of your “message”… the content and the value in your presentation. That is always critical and neither McLuhan nor I would want you to minimize it. But understanding and accommodating the new dynamics of this medium will keep it from becoming associated with a message of frustration and uselessness.