How to win at webinars

Whether you’re making a presentation to your work colleagues on the other side of the country, or pitching your product to a prospective client, chances are you’ve had to develop content for and present a webinar. And if you haven’t yet, I’m sure you’ve attended some.

Here’s a few tips on how to make sure you’re effective and engaging when you can’t see your audience.

Last week I took a course online. It was presented by a leader in the art of employee engagement, and the webinar was highly touted as providing the best advice in the industry. As employee engagement is key to workplace productivity and also part of my current responsibilities, I was really interested in the content of this webinar.

The presentation content was really interesting, and I was furiously jotting down notes about employer branding and engaging employees via their personal social media feeds (#lovemyjob), when suddenly I just lost the plot. I wanted to hear the information. I wanted to embrace what the presenter was saying, and yet… I couldn’t. My mind wandered and I found myself making shopping lists and staring around the conference room wondering what my fellow webinar-watchers were up to. Turns out the woman next to me was shopping for shoes online, and the guy on the other side of me was researching beard-trimming techniques (hipsters…what can I say?).

It occurred to me that if I was tuning out, and people in my immediate proximity were tuning out, then possibly any number of the 356 other people signed into the webinar were doing likewise.

And it struck me—while the information was interesting, the presenter wasn’t. Now, she seemed knowledgeable and all, and as I mentioned, her tips were really good, but her delivery was lacking. She would start a topic, and then it went like this:

Presenter: Sooooo….um… I want to explain why employee branding is a must have instead of a “nice to have.”

Me: (internally) K, cool. I’m listening.

Presenter: Aaaand, soooo the best way to do this is through social media. Using twitter? Or Facebook? Your staff can use their own feeds to tell the story of your company?

Me: Is she asking me or telling me? Now I’m confused. Does she know what she’s talking about? Hm.. I wonder if my lunch is still going to be good. I forgot to put it in the fridge this morning. Should I eat it anyway….

You get the picture.

In this case, It wasn’t WHAT the presenter was saying, it was HOW she was saying it that made all of us around the table tune out.

If the audience can’t see you, they don’t know how great you are.

When you only have one way to express yourself, you need to make it COUNT. You could be the leading expert on nuclear biophysics, talking to the Nobel Prize panel and if they can’t understand you, you’re not getting the award. Before you make that presentation, lead that webinar, or have that all-important teleconference, keep these things in mind:

How do you sound?

Your voice is all you have to go on. How does it sound? Do you sound confident, like you own your topic? Do you uptalk? Or Downtalk? Does your voice peter out at the end of sentences? Do you smack your lips or make “tsk” noises when you’re moving from topic to topic?

Identify, and then minimize, your filler words.

Do you start every sentence with So? Or use a lot of “um”s? Do you interject, “I mean,” or “I think” into your sentences? These unconscious “filler words” are killer when you’re presenting at any time, but especially noticeable when your voice is the only thing the audience has to go on.

Vary the volume.

If you notice that you tend to speak at the same volume throughout your presentation, you’re probably going to lose the audience. You’re more likely to end up sounding like white noise while your listeners are planning their summer vacation, or wondering how they ended up wearing mismatched socks. Change it up. Keep your audience on its toes. If you’re about to launch into a new topic, speed up your cadence.

Speaking is not the same as writing.

Maybe you’ve prepared for this presentation for months (or, who are we kidding…maybe hours), and you’ve written a full script to read during your presentation. You’ve timed the slides and created detailed speaking notes for each point. If your sentences are more than one line, you’ve created a written document, not a presentation. If you were talking to your mother on the phone, or making a lunch date with your friend, would you speak in lengthy paragraphs? No. You will sound like you’re reciting scripture and your audience will start snoozing.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

You can’t guarantee that your audience heard you the first time. Maybe their phone rang and they stepped out of the room. Or they had issues with the login and joined the conference late. Or they’re sitting in a boardroom shopping for shoes online and hoping your content is interesting enough to rid them of mid-afternoon ennui. If you want your point to come across, repeat it. And then repeat it again. If your audience misses your point the first time, they’re not likely to get it back.

Before your next presentation, record yourself. It’s going to sound awkward, and if you’re anything like me the sound of your own voice will make you want to climb into a closet and learn the art of miming, but it will be worth it. Listen to how you sound. Listen to the words you use (and overuse), the volume and cadence of your expression, and your sentence length and content. If you get bored and tune out halfway through, you can be guaranteed your audience will too.

Last: practice. No matter how awful you think you sound, know that you’ll always be your worst critic. Pick one or two things to focus on each presentation, and before you know it, people will be listening to you with rapt attention.

Got other tips? Experiences like these? Let me know!

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