Effective communication in a webinar

Originally posted on Alastair Creelman’s blog, Corridor of Uncertainty (28 May 2013)

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?

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