So what’s it like to present a tech comm webinar?

Presenting a webinar isn’t much different from other “public” presentations, but the format has a few quirky effects and demands of its own.

On 29 February, I had the chance to present my first webinar. As with many first-time experiences, the newness of it all felt a little weird, there were some glitches, but altogether, it went alright. I think. I hope. Because I have had virtually no feedback.

Missing feedback

And that is already the most important difference to other presentations: You have next to no idea how you’re coming across. I never knew how vital even subtle cues are for presentations before a live audience. Does the audience follow along or do I need to be faster? Or slower? Frowns can signal that a point or a  joke didn’t get across. Genernal “antsiness” means I can pick up the pace a bit. Attentive smiles or chuckles indicate that I’m connecting. A webinar offers none of that.

The best I’ve seen other, better webinar presenters do is to ask at the beginning whether attendees can hear the audio and can see the slides changing. But after that, as a presenter, you’re on your own. It feels like talking into a tin-can telephone – without knowing whether the string is still taut.

Tin can phone

Tin can phone, from

Fortunately, my webinar heroine Sarah O’Keefe had alerted me to this lack of immediate feedback. So I could identify it – but that didn’t make coping with it any less bewildering.

I think I forged ahead too fast and with too much urgency in the beginning, as if constantly groping for attention. Then I reminded myself to take a long, deep breath between my major sections.

The curse of convenient isolation

I think it’s also worth keeping in mind that even a live webinar catches everyone in a different time, place and context. What makes webinars so easy and convenient to attend, turns out to be a bit of a curse. I was presenting at 7 p.m. in Germany from my kitchen. Attendees in the US caught the webinar in the late morning or around noon, at the (home) office, I’m guessing.

This means you have less of a common context on which to build a dramatic arc or a feeling of community. In this regard, a webinar feels rather like broadcasting live television.

By contrast, some of the best live presentations I’ve witnessed gathered all attendees together, took them on a transformative trip and dropped them off at a different mental place. These were communal experiences which impart knowledge and change your perspective and rouse a group to action. I don’t think I’ve ever had that feeling in a webinar. And after my own experience, I don’t think it can be done, unless participants know each other better and have some way to interact with each other.

My webinar about getting ahead as a lone writer relies mainly on information sharing, but both times when I presented it at conferences, I was delighted to know that some attendees walked away with a feeling of “I’m not alone; I can do something about this, because others could, too.” Whether my webinar was successful along these lines, I don’t know.

Your turn

If you’ve considered presenting a webinar or have done so already, I’d love to hear your expectations and experiences. Feel free to leave a comment.

15 Responses

  1. Kai, thanks for sharing your experiences. When I speak in public I rely a lot on nonverbal cues like the ones you mentioned. I especially look for the smiles or chuckles to energize me. When I’m giving a webinar (I’ve done three or four) it’s a real challenge not to have those cues, so I have to get the energy from within.

    One way I do that is to break down the talk into 10- or 15-minute segments and then monitor my pace. “Good,” I’ll say to myself. “You’re right on pace.” Or “you’re going a little fast – slow down and reemphasize the major points.”

    Another technique is to encourage my listeners to use the chat and comments boxes, and then have a colleague nearby who monitors those and alerts me when someone says something. I find that few people actually use chat or comments during the presentation, even they’re encouraged to. But even if I get only one or two, it gives me a small amount of feedback and a way to add immediacy to the presentation.

    • Thanks, Larry! It’s good to hear that others have similar experiences.

      I second your suggestion of a well-paced talk. My previous live experiences helped me a lot with the pacing. I knew I had enough material (but not too much), and I knew approximately how to pace the sections.

      I also think the chat box can help a lot with feedback – alas, presenting from my kitchen didn’t provide for colleagues to monitor it… 🙂 But I WILL keep it mind, I’m sure it can serve as an ice-breaker, so thanks for the idea!

  2. Because of the timing issue you mention, I always start my webinars with a joking, “Good morning. Good Afternoon. Good Evening.” and I think that nod toward global audience helps connect people.

    Also, depending on your presentation tech (I use WebEx), you could poll your audience and that dramatically helps with participation and feedback. That said, it isn’t easy. I usually have another coworker helping me by monitoring the chat and QA sections and replying immediately if possible.

    • Hi, Andrew, and thanks for the smooth idea of the “global greeting”!

      I actually had a question ready for a poll, but didn’t receive the link for my own webinar until the minute I was supposed to start, so there was no time to set up the poll.

      As you’re the second person to suggest a “co-pilot”, I think I might’ve been a bit too self-confident, going it alone… 🙂

  3. With eSeminars it is important to note that they are often recorded. As a result the audience may be listening to it many days, weeks or even months later.

    • Good point, RoboColum(n)! I knew ahead of time that my webinar would be recorded – but I tried to push the thought aside. Being too aware that people would be able to replay my “uhm”s over and over didn’t do much for a fluent presentation… 😉

  4. I was one of the participants, and I did get some useful tips out of it. The lady from STC also promised to send us the slides after the presentation, but so far those haven’t arrived yet. I’d like to review them again against my notes to help reinforce what was presented. I really liked the ideas on treating documentation as a business, and also making documentation an asset by serving the customer and not the company.

    As for feedback or comments during the presentation, I’m of two minds. Some topics invite immediate feedback, and having audience participation helps to bring out more information and more discussion. But for other topics, like the one you presented, I came to hear someone who is an expert or authority on the subject speak. To be blunt about it, I paid my money to hear you speak about a specific subject, not to have to waste my somewhat limited time listening to other people give their opinions on the subject matter. If they have strong opinions on the subject at hand, they can host their own webinars.

    I also think these are the kinds of webinars that work best as something prerecorded that I can listen to on my own time, and follow up with the presenter via some other channel if I have questions.

    • Hi, Alan, thank you for your feedback. I’m glad you’ve found the webinar useful, and I appreciate your take that our topic requires less feedback than others.

      I’d never have thought to pre-record the session (and I didn’t have that option), but I think it would’ve worked well – not least because I could’ve edited out the rough spots… 🙂

      I’m sorry to hear that the slides haven’t been made available to you yet. (Suffice it to say that this was not the most smoothly run webinar imaginable, and from what I understand our session’s facilitator doesn’t work there anymore…). Give me a day, and I’ll see if I can’t post the slides so you can get them. Thanks again.

  5. Hi Kai – always love your blog; check it daily. Did you see on the HATT mailing list today that Sharon Burton’s just created an ebook version that talks all about this – “8 Steps to Amazing Webinars”?

    • Thanks, Jeff, I’m glad you find my blog helpful!

      Burton’s ebook (from what I’ve read about and from it) looks great! Much of it didn’t apply to the webinar in question where I had no control over a lot of things, but I’ll keep her advice in mind in future webinars to make sure I get them right.

  6. […] Weber wrote a great post recently: So what’s it like to present a tech comm webinar? I’ll just add a bit here too (repeated from my earlier post announcing the webinar […]

  7. Hallo Kai

    Thanks for this great post. I had reason to re-read it last week, because I was due to present a webinar myself! It was especially useful to read your notes about missing feedback. You’re right, that’s something that takes getting used to.

    I’ve written a post about my experiences in last week’s webinar. The post also poses the question of whether webinars are another tool that we should add to our tech comm toolbox. In other words, should we be thinking of doing them more often? The role of webinars in technical communication. What do you think? 🙂

    Cheers, Sarah

    • Thanks, Sarah! I think webinars definitely have a place in our tech comm tool box, just not for everything. I think they’re best to convey conceptual, top-level or story-based information, especially if you need visuals (else consider doing a more flexible, light-weight podcast). They’re a great complement to other channels and can offer most of the benefits of a conference session. But they’re probably too heavy on human and technological bandwidth to replace the more agile interactive channels, such as wikis, twitter, etc.

  8. My father was in radio and he used to say you sat in a room all by yourself and talked. A strange way to make a living, he said.

    Doing a webinar is similar. You sit in a room and take a leap of faith that anyone is there and that they are listening. It can be done and it can be fun as all get out. But the skills are slightly different than in person presentations.

    Of course, I think you want to buy my book to get you up to date in the skills and how to make it work best for your audience. Run right out and get either the ebook or physical book!

    • Oooh, oooh, thank you, Sharon! I *love* radio – and yet the parallel never dawned on me! Years ago, I was mesmerized by some of the monologues Garrison Keillor did, how anyone could captivate a remote audience with a story. I’ll remember that and the necessary leap of faith when I do a webinar again.

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