Monday, August 22, 2011

Lessons from a Webinar

I recently had the chance to present a topic of my choice via webex to a group of people more or less unknown to me. I had never met any one of them before and had spoken on phone to only one of them. I had a vague idea of their backgrounds and guessed that a topic on content structures would interest them. I would have liked to know more about the participants but the situation didn't allow it.

To prepare for the presentation, I worked hard on my PowerPoint deck, looked for examples and fine tuned the content, went through a few webinars and youtube videos on how to make webinars interactive, pottered around with webex (even trying a test webex session with Atreya and Akhila), timed myself, wrote down my talking notes, added interactions every 2-3 slides, and practiced my presentation. Following the best practices I had read, I added my picture on the first slide and also created a loop to keep the participants hooked while we waited for the rest to join in.

My biggest worries were about technical hassles during the presentation. Would the annotations work? Would I hear the people talk clearly if they asked a question? My trial version of webex gave me trouble with "raising hands" so I fretted over that too.

But the problem I faced was of a totally different nature. Never having met my audience, and not even being sure of their background, it was like I was giving my presentation with a blindfold on. Having been a classroom trainer, I am equipped to detect audience mood and level of perception, but I do that with my eyes. With a blindfold on, and with the audience as if sitting in pitch dark, my skill was useless. Webex interactivity gave me some idea of how the audience was perceiving the content, but it could not change the fact that I didn't know the people I was talking to. At the end, I didn't come out feeling I had accomplished what I had set to achieve as a trainer.

The lesson I learned was most basic. No rocket science here. Whatever the situation, whatever the purpose, I have to know my audience better when facilitating a webinar. The virtual environment will naturally create this wall between the presenter and the audience, but that wall need not and should not be totally opaque.

In retrospect, what could I have done to make it a better experience for myself and for them? I could have known more about them before the session started, such as what they do in their jobs, what they understand about the content I am presenting, and what interests them. I would have insisted on seeing their profiles (job role, location, picture if possible) before the session even if it was difficult to convince them to give this information to me. I could have simplified the presentation a bit (had I known that the audience wasn't that familiar with the content and jargon) and could have planned for more time for quizzes (essentially reducing the content). It's one thing to time yourself in a practice session and another to time yourself in the real presentation. I could have helped myself by adding timers on slides reminding me how fast/slow I need to go. Finally, I could have been less in love with the content myself and gotten less carried away with the intricacies and nuances of what I was talking about. 

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