How do we create a webinar that’s engaging and interactive? The following ideas and webinar best practices were all submitted by professionals who organize online events, virtual conferences, and webinars and who attended my recent online workshop, Creating Dynamic, Engaging Online Conferences & Webinars. This list of engagement strategies is meant to help event planners, moderators and speakers make webinars more interactive. It’s a combination of online presentation formats and strategies to use when thinking about how to create a webinar presentation. Or to use when planning an online conference session. Each of these engaging webinar best practices is listed along with some of my own additional commentary about how to make for more interactive webinars.
Breakouts lead to engaging webinars and more interactive conference sessions
As a webinar best practice, I fully agree with the importance of breakouts to increase engagement in meetings, both online and offline. First, you need to have an outstanding, compelling speaker if you want to keep your attendees engaged for more than 15 or 20 minutes. Most speakers at conferences or presentations are not professional entertainers or speakers and just don’t usually have the capacity to carry a presentation for 45 minutes.
It’s much easier to put people into groups and have them discuss or share. Getting people to participate keeps them from drifting off into other work like email or texting, and really values the people in the room as well as their expertise. We could write an entire book on how and where breakouts could or should be used in conference sessions or interactive webinars. The bottom line is that the typical model of someone doing 30 to 60 minutes with a slideshow presentation will not usually beat people getting to talk and meet with each other on a topic that they care about.
Less intro but more content
For sure. I’m often mystified by the amount of introductions that people will do even in a 30-minute presentation where the introduction may be 10 minutes and three or four of those minutes may be reading almost the entirety of someone’s CV or the resumes of all five panelists. In most cases, all of the attendees already know who’s speaking; that’s the reason why they’re there in the first place. This isn’t to say that you should skip all of your introductions to make for a more interactive webinar.
One thing that we all see a lot of today is skipping any sort of explanation of the technology platform that we’re using to have the meeting; then 10 or 20 minutes in we realize that people don’t know how to mute and unmute themselves and we still have to spend that time and it really takes the energy out of the session. But as the old maxim goes: “Start where the action is!” For me, I try to get to small breakout groups pretty quickly to get people invested and engaged in the session and to feel like they’re connected to other people there. It’s not uncommon for me to introduce myself 10 minutes into the session. It’s a little unconventional but that pays off when it comes to front-loading good energy and webinar engagement.
Have a moderator or facilitator to handle the chat, admitting people, help with any technical issues, etc. Then the presenter just has to present.
As someone who is both a presenter and someone who is often running a meeting or webinar platform in the background, I can tell you that the person behind the curtain makes a really big difference. This is, of course, even more applicable when you’re talking about doing more involved activities where you have a larger audience. Just to keep track of what people are saying in a chat window when you have more than 10 or 20 people in a room can be overwhelming for a presenter and frustrating for attendees. As the old saying goes, behind every successful, engaging webinar presenter is a skilled online facilitator.
Have Q&A in various sections of session, rather than all at end, for a more engaging webinar
Totally! This is one of the easiest and most effective webinar best practice prescriptions that I write for people. If we think about why people go to presentations or conference sessions or webinars, it’s often because they have an issue or question that they want addressed or solved or want some feedback on. People are there for the questions, perhaps more than they are there for the content of the presentation. (For more on creative conference workshops and content, check out this other write-up.)
When we talk about a “flipped model” of presenting, I would actually use it more frequently in this context than in the way it’s usually meant. In many, many cases it’s probably more valuable for the audience – and less work for the speaker – to do 10 minutes of presenting content via a slide show and then take 45 minutes of questions. Or to take some questions in the middle of the session, particularly if that’s going to steer what’s discussed for the second half of the session. In the end, put a star next to this webinar best practice because it’s one of my favorites.
Side high fives to increase webinar interactivity
I’ve used the number of different activation like this, particularly at the beginning or end of sessions. They’re a good energizer and get people to think outside the very real box of being inside little square video conferencing grids. I think people get caught up being behind the screen and interacting with each other like computers instead of like people. These “side high-fives” are pretending to give someone on the webinar a high-five when you’re in the grid or gallery layout.
I’ve also done things like passing an object, such as a pen or a ball. (This is a meeting facilitation colleague of mine in Germany who did a neat little video of the #handover challenge and you can see how it breaks down the walls between people.) It’s fun and it gets people to laugh. Of course it doesn’t make any sense to watch it as the other participants because not everyone is in the same order. But it’s still pretty fun. If you get a big group, it gets old after maybe a half-dozen or a dozen passes; I wouldn’t advise trying to do this with a group of 20 or 30 people.
Take a “quiz” then poll participants about where they ended up; then the content is adjusted based on the largest response group
What I like about this is that it’s sort of choose-your-own-adventure. Speakers plan out every little bit of a presentation and this doesn’t lead to interactive webinars. And, on a larger scale, conferences will plan out every session weeks or months in advance. As such, it doesn’t leave room for new topics and new ideas. It’s important that presenters not be afraid of just having empty time to fill in a session. If you don’t know if the group wants to work on one idea or the other, give them that choice and then use a meeting technique that makes sense after that. I think it’s a good idea to adjust where a conference session or webinar goes based on the will of a group and using polling is a fun way to do that.
Bring the outside world inside: go outside during break; look out the window; bring an object and share something about it
This is indeed a webinar best practice, particularly if you’re going to incorporate it into a break. You should definitely have breaks from people sitting and staring at a screen for potentially hours on end. In a case like this, doing something like reporting on what’s happening outside could very much be a pretext to get people to leave their computers and give their eyes a rest and do something different. But you could also do something that’s functional and practical that uses the same idea to create engaging webinars. I was actually just talking with a colleague about having a group replicate an ethnographic study by sitting at their windows and recording what they see outside.
Assign reading in advance; skip the slideshow and have a discussion instead as a webinar best practice
I’m almost always in favor of an activity if it’s going to replace a slideshow or PowerPoint. Very little good comes of most slide decks with respect to creating engaging online conferences and interactive webinars. However my caution here comes from participating in book clubs over the course of years as well as thinking about the flipped model of education which has become quite conversation-worthy these days. This is a great idea … if people actually do the reading in advance. The world is littered with book clubs that come up with a book to read and then set a date to discuss it, only for everyone to arrive and have nothing to talk about because no one actually read the material. It’s definitely an idea with merit, but you may want to think about how realistic it is that people are going to do work in advance for your session.
You may also want to think about content becoming part of your session in a way. Maybe it’s a watch party followed by a discussion for a panel or a fishbowl (shown here in a typical classroom environment) or some brainstorming. I have a friend who runs a podcast club and its advantage over a book club is that we all come together and spend 30-60 minutes listening to the podcast before discussing it. It’s much easier to get buy-in to an event like that if you don’t require people to do work on their own and they can just show up. We adapted that podcast club fairly successfully to an online format using Zoom.
Assign staff roles and use breakout rooms! Use the meeting format vs webinar so it is more social and you can see people.
While there may be exceptions, webinar platforms (by definition) don’t build in a lot of the engagement opportunities that we’d like to see in a conference session or presentation. Webinar platforms seem to somewhat blindly replicate this staid format to which we’re accustomed: someone in front of a room talking and a bunch of people just passively listening. It’s a methodology that’s built on one-to-many communication. It’s almost adversarial where it’s the experts or speakers on one side and then an audience of groundlings in front of them who are neither seen nor heard. Yes, webinar platforms may allow you to ask questions or virtually raise your hand, but they just seem pretty hard to make engaging compared to online platforms designed for meetings or more engaging sessions.
In terms of assigning staff roles to breakout rooms, it makes sense to have a meeting facilitator or someone leading a discussion in a breakout room. This is especially true if there are more than four or five people in that room. It’s very difficult for groups to self-organize without a leader when you talk about 6 or more people online. It can turn into a rather awkward session of people staring around trying to figure out who’s going to talk and when.
Break-time activity like yoga or stretching
Breaks are good and help to create engaging webinars. You should have breaks in your conference sessions or webinars, especially if you’re going for more than an hour and certainly if it’s more than two hours. I’m a big proponent of using those breaks for a dual purpose. First, it gets people up and moving and adds some energy to a group that’s typically just been staring at a computer. And it allows them to take care of things that may otherwise be distracting them like taking care of a kid or replying to a text. But then you can also use breaks to do things that are fun, engaging or practical. I have been doing a lot of virtual scavenger hunts during breaks. I’ve been in sessions that have included more physical and kinesthetic activities, even something like improv.
It obviously depends on who your group is and whether they’re up to do yoga during your session, but it’s a totally valid idea. Even if you don’t do something like yoga, there’s probably a watered-down version of this like just rolling your shoulders or reaching for the sky that doesn’t feel like a big leap to most attendees or participants.
Choose a platform that allows for the webinar engagement that you are planning
The platform that you use for an online conference or webinar is indeed really important. Of course, what that platform can do doesn’t really matter if all of your speakers and all of your sessions are simply going to be one person or a panel talking to an audience that’s passively observing. To this end, think about what you want your conference sessions to look like and what you want them to do … and then go looking for a platform that will fit.
One of the big head-scratchers in the market today is virtual exhibit halls. If you ask conference managers what they want to happen in an exhibit hall versus what an online platform is delivering, it’s a very wide gulf in many cases. Think about what most webinar systems are built to do. Most of those are really designed to have one speaker or a panel address a room full of people or potentially thousands of people. But most of their systems invite very little true interactivity or engagement. It’s great if you have a platform that allows for a lot of flexibility and engagement, but I’d almost argue that it’s more important that your speakers or presenters are thinking about how to be engaging—and then you can think about how you can make your existing platform at least try to fit what your speakers or presenters are trying to do.
For example, I ran a session a few weeks ago using Zoom meetings and a tech snafu meant that we couldn’t use breakout rooms. Instead we ended up shifting to a fishbowl session and it went great. It’s not what we planned, but it still allowed us to do something different, more engaging, and more valuable than just having one person talk to a room of people who may or may not actually be listening.
Designate leaders for each breakout group beforehand
A big problem that organizers seem to overlook is they get to the point of saying that there’s going to be a breakout room or a small group and they put people in those rooms or sessions … and then they just hope that group will self-organize and hopefully some capable natural facilitator will emerge. It turns out that doesn’t usually happen; instead, you get a room with one or two people having an awkward conversation with 10 or 20 silent, bored bystanders. So assigning a leader or facilitator to each room makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, it’s actually not that hard to get groups to have good, meaningful, productive discussions among themselves without a leader if you give them clear instructions and you keep the groups relatively small, like three to five people.
Do more prework to start from a point that is further along
As we list out webinar best practices, there are a couple suggestions like this that talk about doing work before the webinar starts. I’m all in favor of it and – assuming it works. The point of failure here is that people are busy or lazy and there are no repercussions to not doing this pre-work. Part of this question, then, is also: How to get people to do the pre-work?
Ensure time zones are considered for domestic and international sessions
Considering optimal meeting times across time zones is pretty self-explanatory but makes a lot of sense when we talk about how to engage people in global online conferences or webinars. I’ve been on a number of international sessions where people are talking at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. If attendees are already yawning and rubbing their eyes before you even start your presentation, it really puts you behind the 8-ball.
Flipped classroom; reversing the classroom
This was actually a popular suggestion that came up a few times and we see the same spirit of a flipped environment appearing in a number of other suggestions for best practices for interactive webinar formats and conference sessions. Again, this makes a lot of sense but I have two points of push-back or consideration before offering a coronation of the flipped classroom as a great, viable approach to conference sessions, webinars, or virtual learning.
Quickly, as an overview the idea of a flipped classroom assumes that there’s content that’s typically delivered in a classroom that doesn’t actually have to be delivered during class time with other students or participants present. We often think about this as a teacher lectures about the history of the French Revolution, for example; a flipped approach would say that the teacher could record that lecture and post it, allowing students to watch it outside of class whenever they want. Then the class time is used for interaction and discussion, assuming that everyone has come prepared and has done the pre-work.
- My first push-back with a flipped classroom model is that we know a lot of that pre-work and pre-recorded content just isn’t going to be awesome. A lot of it is probably going to be fairly mediocre speakers talking about fairly uninteresting topics and perhaps doing it for 30 or 45 minutes. It’s hard to get excited for that as a student or participant. In many ways, it’s the same affliction of training, education, and presentations: that the presenter and the material just aren’t that interesting.
- My second point of push-back is that a flipped classroom or a flipped approach requires that people actually do the pre-work. If it’s a junior high history class, it’s not unrealistic to think that those students will feel compelled to do the homework before getting to class. Maybe. It seems less of a sure thing when we’re talking about conference participants or adult learning scenarios where there just isn’t much accountability or any repercussions to not doing that work in advance. And, of course, if people aren’t doing the work in advance, then the flipped model doesn’t really work the way it’s designed to.
Fun chat questions to get know people
Overall, it’s very important to consider that attendees do, in fact, want to get to know each other. Yes, even introverts. A lot of times it seems that organizers or speakers focus almost solely on conveying their own intelligence or imparting or sharing the wisdom they possess; they forget that there are other people in the room. The feeling of a room – be it online or in person – changes very perceptibly when it’s a group of strangers who know nothing about each other versus a group of essentially strangers who know even a tiny amount about each other.
It’s good to have chat questions that are fun, but my challenge to people is to think of prompts or ice breakers that aren’t just fun, but also serve some larger purpose. In our workshop that we just did on creating engaging webinars, my first question to attendees was to think of a favorite TV show or movie and to share that with someone that they’re just meeting for the first time. On the surface, it seems like just a dumb but fun icebreaker. But I chose a question because it tied into a larger theme that was going to be repeated over and over throughout the session: how difficult it is to create compelling content that people are willing to sit through four 30-60 minutes. There’s no reason that you can’t have fun questions in a chat or an icebreaker but those questions can do double duty.
Also, we can put too much emphasis on people having to come up with fun, funny, smart, or intriguing answers. It’s not uncommon for a facilitator to ask a group to share a fun fact about themselves. That can actually be pretty stressful and feel a bit competitive. A prompt that I heard not too long ago that I’ve been using and really like is the opposite of that. You simply ask the audience to share a boring fact about themselves. It might be that someone likes cheese or has an older brother. Still, it’s amazing how something so mundane and dumb manages to connect people and start conversations.
Gamify the opening. Do a virtual scavenger hunt to start things off (the first three people who find something in their house that is red, square, old win a gift card); participants rush to find those things
There’s a lot here to work with. Using gamification is great as a webinar best practice. Scavenger hunts work really well online. Offering some sort of prize is nice. This is a good idea, but my only caution is to be realistic about who your group is and what the norms are there. If you’re talking about a bunch of senior accountants who don’t know each other and show up in suits and ties to your webinar, you may have a vision of starting your session with a bang … and they just don’t bite and it becomes a flop right away. So if a virtual scavenger hunt to find three specific things is more complicated (perhaps 5 on a 10-point risk scale), what could you do that’s a “2” that would serve a similar purpose and not scare people off at first? Maybe that’s sharing one thing right in front of you on your desk, for example.
Have a host to connect all sessions
It’s pretty important that you have somebody running the show in terms of guiding the discussion and then also someone to handle the tech and make sure everything runs smoothly. In a well-run online session, these things can almost seem invisible and you can forget how difficult it can be to manage a group and to make all the tech work well.
Vary formats from session to session, have a “point/counter-point” with panelists with opposing views; bullet-point session with four panelists with three bullets each
Variety is indeed the spice of life. I very much support the idea of varying formats from session to session, be that in person or online. However, as a starting place I would think about adding a little bit of diversity before worrying about adding a lot of diversity. In other words, what we’re accustomed to seeing in most conferences and webinar formats is either a 45-minute individual PowerPoint presentation for a 45-minute panel discussion with three or four presenters.
Even if you add another two or three different webinar formats or different segments, it may pay huge dividends. And, to be fair, it’s not even that you have to blow up an entire session when you could just add to it or tweak it a bit. For example, you could still have a panel with three experts but instead of them talking for 45 minutes straight and then taking five minutes of questions, you could have them talk for 15 or 20 minutes and then have the audience generate questions for them. Or you could use other webinar formats where you break into small groups and generate questions or do small breakouts and discuss what was just said; then you can come back and have the panelists finish their discussion or reply to questions. It doesn’t take a huge amount effort to make a significant improvement in a session.
I also like the bullet point sessions and having opposing viewpoints. The bullet point idea forces a presenter to be concise in the same vein of something like a Pecha Kucha presentation. Or even an 18-minute TED Talk that distills a really complicated topic in a relatively brief amount of time. In short, we don’t usually need 30 or 60 minutes on a topic if we’re thoughtful about what the audience really wants to hear and needs to hear. And on the subject of a debate, that’s a really interesting and engaging format. People get scared off by adding some fire to a discussion but, as anyone who’s watched any TV will tell you, discord, debate, and disagreement definitely keep people’s attention.
Virtual career fairs
If done well, a lot of events and exhibitor halls that were happening in real life could be successful in a virtual environment. The devil, however, is in the details – and in the technology platform. It seems that a lot of the solutions that are out there now are really pretty passive and not very engaging. I don’t know much about virtual career fairs but I’ve been following online exhibitor marketplaces and virtual exhibit halls. The hype often overshadows the reality and they can miss the mark on why we even bother doing them. It’s hard for me to get excited about watching a video or clicking on a link and going to someone’s website or filling out a form as a proxy for a real exhibit hall at a conference. Exhibitors and attendees (i.e., potential clients) want to have some sort of meaningful engagement. There are a lot of good ideas to do that but I’m pretty cold on a lot of the approaches I’ve seen.
Having staff roles on the day-of: advancing slides, muting or unmuting, fielding questions, someone active in the chat box, and technical support.
It’s not that you can never have too much support for an online conference or a webinar, but having more hands on deck is certainly helpful. I was a presenter a few weeks ago and had a co-presenter, along with five people behind the scenes who were doing many of these jobs. Honestly, I can’t imagine having to manage everything on my own (at least with a bigger group) and I’m pretty adept at this work. This probably isn’t realistic for relatively small presentations and trainings; however, if you’re talking about dozens of attendees (and certainly if you’re talking about hundreds or thousands of people), it certainly makes sense to have a team working behind the scenes.
If you assign co-hosts, they can record breakout rooms if you want the content
This was actually a conversation that I was having recently about webinar best practices. This certainly adds complexity to the system, particularly if people are recording locally to their computers and not to a shared cloud account. It may not actually increase engagement during an online session or webinar, but it certainly would make watching those sessions more interesting and insightful if they’re recorded and used in the future.
If you use slides, make them graphical/photos; provide a separate handout with the content
Some of the best advice that I ever got about preparing a PowerPoint or a slideshow presentation was to never agree to give your actual presentation slides to people in the audience who are asking for them. Which isn’t to say that you can’t give information or you can’t give them a slide deck. If you go into a presentation thinking that it has to make sense for someone to look at and read through a year from now, in your absence, you tend to design a slideshow that is very, very heavy on text. You design a presentation that is basically a book or a research report divided up across a number of slides with some graphics. So you’re welcome to create that presentation and give it to people afterwards. But the presentation that you actually use should be really different that should not be heavy on text and your presentation should probably survive more on your speaking than your reading.
To summarize, do two versions of your presentation if you think people absolutely want to have the information. Or do your presentation the way you want to do it and then just send them a Word document or PDF with all your sources written up. Trying to present something that was designed to make sense as a research report is not particularly compelling or engaging.
Interactive webinars and events: stretching, ice breakers, fun backgrounds
A number of these elements are covered in other parts in this document but I’ll quickly talk about the fun backgrounds as a tool for engaging webinars. Honestly, a lot of “fun” backgrounds look unprofessional and they’re pretty distracting. (In fact, that’s true for non-fun backgrounds too.) This is doubly true if people don’t have a proper green screen and their background ends up becoming a kaleidoscope, as they fade in and out and colors jump around as the software tries to make sense of where the background should be. That said, there’s a lot of value in using backgrounds that are functional. For example, if you’re presenting on a new trend, it makes a lot of sense to use a background showing what a graph of the trend so that people can look at you and see what you’re talking about, weatherman-style.
The other way I’ve used fun backgrounds is kind of like an ice breaker. If you let people choose photos that are interesting or meaningful to them, it provides a pretty natural conversation starter for people to ask what the photo is and what the story is behind it. Sharing stories is a pretty easy and natural way for humans to interact with each other, much more so then accosting someone with a question like, “What do you do?”
Let people work at their own pace or out of sequence; get creative with timing and flow
This makes me think how sessions are typially structured where one person talks and talks and talks and everyone else just listens; everything happens in a very prescribed way and comes from one expert. I really like sessions were people can do their own work and build something on their own. I also like it when people can work independently or in small groups; here, an expert or a few experts may occasionally drop in on that table and offer guidance or answer questions. And, in a way, sessions like those can be more meaningful and successful for both the speaker and the attendees.
Bear in mind that a lot of speakers speak because they want a way to connect with whomever that audience is. And a lot of attendees go to events so that they can make a contact with the speaker. If someone is just up on a stage, real or virtual, talking to an audience and then the event ends and everyone turns off their computers, it wasn’t very successful if we think about why the speaker in the audience were there. Even if the speaker or experts only drop in on tables and don’t do a full presentation, it may be that everyone is much happier.
Limiting amount of content
Yes! We all are guilty of this I’m guilty of this. It is very difficult to feel like you know an awful lot about a topic and you’re passionate about it and you just can’t cover as much as you want. The analogy that I use is that it’s fairly easy to make a lot of food to put in front of someone and overwhelm them with a smorgasbord – but that person can only eat so quickly and it doesn’t matter how much food is piled in front of him or her. Think about this like packing for a trip. When you’re first packing, you put in everything that you think you might possibly need. Then you need to go back and take out all the unnecessary stuff to leave yourself with a manageable amount.
Planning and rehearsal; pre-interviews and dry runs
The reality is that most of us have probably thought that we need less planning and rehearsal than we actually do. But, on this point, it’s important to think about what’s realistic for you or for your presenters. Most people are not professional speakers. Most people have day jobs and then they occasionally do a webinar or speak at a conference. As a conference organizer or as someone hosting a webinar, we may have a vision for our presenters doing something akin to a TED Talk. However, the reality is that people who do TED Talks may spend weeks, if not months, rehearsing for what is only an 18-minute presentation (or shorter). Is it realistic that your conference presenter is going to spend 100 or 200 hours preparing for a 45-minute presentation? Probably not.
So while I totally, 100%, support the idea that planning and rehearsal improves engagement and online conferences and webinars, I also think it’s important to think about ways to structure presentations so they lighten the burden of planning and rehearsing.
Polls are good, but I’ve attended many online sessions that have advertised themselves as being “engaging presentations” or “interactive webinars” … and what that meant in the end was that someone did a poll or two. To be clear, one or two minutes of polling over the course of an hour doesn’t make for an engaging webinar or presentation. Polling is good but, on its own it’s not necessarily a home-run webinar best practice. Also, a number of webinar platforms seem to pat themselves on the back for having an online polling function, thinking that this is some sort of engagement panacea.
On a similar topic, people seem to get wrapped up in having high-tech polls. Maybe it’s Zoom’s poll function or it’s something like Mentimeter or SurveyMonkey or something like an app that’s doing cell phone voting. I’ve actually had pretty good results by using polls where people just raise their hands or visually use the height of where their hand is to signify how comfortable they are with something or how much they agree with something. I don’t think a poll has to be as tech-y as a lot of people want to make it.
Pre-record presentations and have the presenter available to chat during the recorded webcast
A really big issue today is how to deliver engaging pre-recorded content to foster interactive webinars and conferences. This can reduce some of the worry and headache that comes from producing a live event over technology that may not be trustworthy. This suggestion is one of the advantages of doing an online presentation or webinar; it’s like an individual musician being able to play three or four instruments on a song and then harmonize with him or herself on a number of different tracks. The technology lets you replicate yourself and be in multiple places at the same time.
Ultimately, there’s still a question about the quality of this pre-recorded presentation. If it’s not very good and engaging, then I have my doubts about how compelling the overall presentation is even with the presenter mirrored there in real time to be part of the discussion.
But I really like the idea that the presenter is still there and present and able to interact with the audience in a way that he or she couldn’t while in the middle of giving a presentation. It’s very difficult to both present and answer questions from the audience at the same time. It may not be a perfect solution but it’s a pretty good compromise to add in some engagement and value on top of something that could otherwise be pretty dry.
Provide networking opportunities to allow for discussion at the end between presenters and attendees
Whenever I see people trying to build networking into what we would usually consider content-driven sessions, it makes me happy. Doing this at the end is kind of a logical thought. After all that’s usually what happens in a physical space after someone has presented and there’s a time when people mill around and try and talk to the presenter. My challenge to organizers here is to think about how to provide networking opportunities before and during the session to allow discussion between the presenters and the attendees as well as attendee to attendee.
There’s a traditional philosophical divide between sessions that are supposed to provide content and those that are supposed to provide networking. When we look at a conference agenda, we see things labeled as presentations or learning sessions and then we see other activities labeled as networking receptions or the like. And the reality is that you don’t usually find much content in the networking sessions; no do you find much networking in the blocks that are built around content. I love it when people break down that wall and are able to do those things at the same time or in the same session. Here’s a list of fun networking activities for conference networking.
Seeing questioners on screen during Q&A
There is indeed a lot of value to this. It seems kind of crazy how excited we are to be able to have good quality, reliable video conferencing platforms today and then we don’t really use them the way they should be used. The beauty of having an event that’s connecting people with video is that it actually connects people with video and we can see what’s happening. This is another one of these pitfalls that we find in webinar platforms. They just assume that it’s the experts who are the speakers and they’re meant to be seen and heard and the audience is kind of an afterthought. There are a lot of benefits that come from having a question come from someone who’s on camera.
As a word of caution though, if you have really big audiences, it can be very problematic to just let anyone speak on a microphone for a variety of reasons. I like having some sort of vetting of questions before letting anyone grab the metaphorical mic and address the crowd. I don’t mean that you should censor tough questions. Instead, you should keep in mind the best interests of the entire group. We’re all very familiar with people who get up and ask questions where it’s clear they’re just doing it to show off or to hear themselves talk. There are people who are asking questions that just go off on a tangent or aren’t relevant to anyone but the person asking the question.
I like the idea of people submitting questions or chatting in questions or voting on questions or forming small groups and choosing questions from within that group. At that point, I feel pretty good about letting someone get on a mic. On the other hand, just inviting anyone to talk usually doesn’t net the best results.
Self-diagnostic to take during the webinar
This is similar to the suggestion about taking a quiz and then letting that determine the webinar format. Or maybe it’s a case of the audience doing something to better understand themselves. In any case it sounds like something that would pull people in and lead to a productive path.
Send handouts/exercises after the meeting (especially if there’s high attendance)
It makes sense, but the challenge is how would it make a webinar or online conference session more engaging at the time? One thing that I’ve often done is to have a group create something together and then distribute that to everyone afterwards. It’s easier to feel like you’re part of a team and you’re contributing to something worthwhile if you know that it’s going to result in some product that will benefit this whole team. In fact, that’s exactly what this is. This is a handout that I’ve added to extensively, but it all started with the best ideas from maybe 15 groups of three who had distilled their own 10 or 20 ideas to get to this list of best practices for engaging and interactive webinars.
Sending a “know before you join” email with webinar best practices and how to join
It’s frustrating how many people don’t read emails or instructions before events, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. One thing that I try and do for my own online presentations is to prepare people for an event that isn’t just going to be passive, but it’s going to have them talking and interacting and using audio and video. And then I also want them to be prepared with their technology, whether it’s having downloaded an app for having headphones available. This is a pretty small, easy thing to do with respect to webinar best practices, but one that can have a really big effect on engagement.
Sending everyone “lunch” via Grubhub gift certificates
This opens up a lot of really interesting possibilities in terms of engagement. Lunch is a good idea, but there are so many different things that you could send to people or have delivered to break down one of the really big barriers video conferences: that we’re not all in the same room at the same time having the same lunch or holding the same objects. Also, to be fair, if I was part of an online presentation that included lunch, it would probably send a message to me that something was new and different and my interest would be piqued.
Set breakout rooms according to participants instead of random groups
This is a really good idea. It just takes a good amount of thought and manipulation, as well as time, to get right. You can pre-set or at least pre-think about who you want to be in these different rooms. It’s really simple if it’s different committees within your board of directors and it’s a logical break-out that way. I use online name tags and labels in concert with who gets matched with whom in a breakout room.
It may be that I want to match veteran conference attendees with first-year conference attendees. It may be that I want to match board members with non-board members in a room. It may be that I want my sponsors or exhibitors to get to interact with real members and see if they can build rapport. It might be a session where it’s venture capital funders intermixed with startup founders and I want to make sure that the funders are only meeting with the founders because it doesn’t do them any good to meet up with other VC people. If people are willing to make a note in their name tag about their role or what they’re looking for, it makes this much easier for a facilitator.
Show videos of awardees in between sessions; virtual award ceremonies
I like this for a couple reasons. First, we know that a number of conferences do awards presentations and they’re struggling with transitioning those to a virtual environment. I eavesdropped on one of these the other day and, to be plain, it was not engaging. An online awards presentation may not be as glamorous as getting a plaque in front of a thousand people in a ballroom, but it’s something. Second, these videos usually have a fair amount of thought and production value applied to them. We expect them to be better and more compelling than a lot of the pre-recorded content that mostly consists of someone turning a webcam on him- or herself and reading a bunch of slides. Also if we think about people needing a break, to sit back and just watch some celebratory videos seems like a pretty light lift in a good way.
Silence is ok! We are so uncomfortable with silence in the virtual setting and it is ok to allow it in the virtual spaces the same we do in real world spaces
I’m really happy to see this suggestion. I try to build some silence into a lot of my sessions and it’s something that I wish I was better at doing. Usually, a couple times during a session, I’ll at least give people a minute or two to write down some thoughts or ideas, or to do a mini journaling exercise, or to record what it is that they’re taking away from the session. Also when I use a “hat storm,” part of the reason I do it is to give the room a minute or so of reflection where there isn’t a rush to type in answers and hurtling the session forward.
Solicit input from your members to be sure you are providing content in the format they prefer; (maybe it’s doing four half-day sessions instead of two full days)
This is an important, foundational suggestion. My challenge to organizers is to not just ask what people want covered but, yes, to ask how they want it covered. The problem, of course, is that most attendees have only seen a very limited spectrum of presentation formats. Most attendees have seen panel discussions and individual PowerPoint presentations. So it may not be that helpful to ask them what they want because they don’t have a frame of reference beyond that.
But, for example, if people are saying that they really want to learn how to do something or they really want to create something, my suggestion is to use your time to actually have them try it out or actually create that thing instead of just having someone do a presentation talking about how to do or what the ramifications are of doing it. If your audience tells you what they want, think about how you can deliver it in a way that’s more engaging than whatever the default might have been. Think about someone talking about “how to do X” compared to a session where people actually work through doing X.
Something specific to do; just talking isn’t an engaging webinar
It’s pretty common for sessions to talk about topics and have experts opine about topics. I’m amazed by the number conference sessions and webinars that exist where the word “how” is in the title, but no one actually learns how to do the thing that’s advertised in the end. I was recently talking with someone who had run a session about “how to write a grant” and it featured a very knowledgeable expert talking about best practices. However, what she realized in the end was the audience would have benefited from actually spending that time working on writing the real grants that they needed to work on. What can you do that’s hands-on or productive in the time you have that would really benefit your audience? Can you look at an example of something? Can you discuss a case study? Can you create something?
Spotlighting the speaker
In Zoom you can use a spotlight to make someone stand out in the array of attendees. This makes sense and there are probably a lot of related techniques in terms of who is on camera and who’s featured that would make a session more engaging or compelling.
Standing up to present
This is one of my webinar best practices and it’s been very helpful for me. Usually when we present in person, we’re standing. There are a lot of reasons for this, but when it comes to online presentations, it’s very common for people to sit at a desk and speak to webcam. A recipe for a dynamic, interactive webinar does not start with someone speaking to a piece of metal and glass for a long time. Nor should that recipe include sitting down and speaking to a piece of glass and metal. When we stand, we just have a different energy and a different presence, as well as more movement than we would if we were seated. This also touches on where your camera is. I use a standing desk and try to have the camera right around a natural eye-level for me. It’s a bit awkward and unnerving to have a presenter speak to you with a camera that’s pointing up and shot from under his or her nose, or pointing down from the sky. The small change of standing to speak can make a really big difference
Tap into collective knowledge
This is something that I get up on a soapbox and preach about all the time. Yes, you or your speaker may have 20 or 30 years of experience. But, inevitably, that person is addressing a room that might have 500 or 5000 years of cumulative experience. Also, there are certainly people in many audiences who are just as knowledgeable and just as passionate about the topic as the person or people who are on stage. And if you have an audience filled with people who have specific problems and questions that they’re looking for answers to, you also have an audience full of people who could potentially offer those suggestions and solve those problems. People love to be consulted and made to feel smart. The opposite of that is feeling like you have something to contribute and you have no choice but to sit passively in the audience.
Tactics to tap into the collective knowledge of a group also work well when you have an audience with a wide spectrum of expertise. If you have a lot of very junior people and a lot of very senior people in the audience, the speaker may shoot for a medium-expertise presentation, which is too advanced for half the audience and too basic for the other half of the audience. If you can match up people with low experience and people with high experience, both people may feel like they benefit. In a lot of cases where speaker or panel is trying to suggest solutions or prognosticate, the chances are better that more truth exists in front of the stage than on the stage.
Tech video before conference to help people get familiar with the platform
This would teach people how to use the video platform that you’re on, like Zoom. I would assume it would go through basic functions like muting, turning on your video, changing your name, switching camera views, and a few other basics. It’s a great idea.
Themes and interactivity (e.g., themed cocktail hour with costumes)
Depending on your audience, this could either be a huge hit or fall really flat. I’ve been surprised by how well some things like this have worked when I didn’t expect people would want to dance on camera in the front of a bunch of strangers, for example. One thing that I really like about this is it provides a lot of natural conversation fodder. Conversations tend to start themselves if you’re naturally asking fellow attendees what they’re drinking and how they made it and where they got the ingredients and how they learned about it or where they got the shawl or the necklace or whatever it is that they’re wearing. I’d only say to be realistic when planning this because people may opt out of an event if it’s billed as a fancy cocktail party and they’re not convinced that other people are actually going to show up; no one wants to be the person in a tuxedo among a room full of t-shirts.
Use interactivity where appropriate, possible, and consistently
This is probably a point that’s well taken, but my own feeling is that there’s so little interactivity in most presentations today that I might be willing to take some that’s inappropriate and inconsistent. To return to an earlier point about webinar best practices, I think about the number of webinars I’ve seen that use polls and surveys over and over and over again as if that’s what’s going to make the hour of content interactive and bearable. In that case, that attempted interactive activity is probably not appropriate. Use different webinar formats to increase engagement.
Use music during quiz/poll questions
Using music is a really nice addition in a number of places. Here it would seem that it’s being used at a time when you might otherwise have quiet, which is fine. I’ve used it in the beginning of sessions when people are entering. It sets the mood, partly because of what the music is and how it feels, and partly because it’s something different; it shows that the organizer is thinking more and cares about this session rather than just letting there be dead air. On that note, it feels pretty awkward at the beginning of a session when no one’s talking and nothing’s happening; music can fill that void. I also have used music as a timer and as a way to let people know how long a break is; when the music is over, then the break is over. And then I have used music at the end of a session to end on a high note or to provide some energy and enthusiasm, or some sort of parting message.
My experience with using music on a videoconference is that you’re best to do it directly from your computer. In other words, you could (a) play music from your phone near your computer and have your computer pick it up through the microphone (b) play music through your computer’s speakers and then have your computer’s mic pick it up, or (c) use an option in your videoconferencing platform to play the sound directly from your computer. This third option has produced the clearest sound for me. On Zoom, there’s an option at the bottom of the “share screen” window that you can check to “share computer sound” which is good if you were sharing a movie clip (on YouTube, etc.) or maybe even if you were playing a song and wanted the image available (of your Spotify window, for example). On Zoom, there’s also an option at the top of the share screen for “basic – advanced – files” and if you choose” advanced” you can select to only share music from your computer without sharing video (which is probably a more typical scenario when playing songs).
Using a white board like a flip chart with annotation
I agree with this idea although I’ve been disappointed by the results that come out of using a whiteboard. Some of the online collaborative whiteboard products like Mural or Miro might win me over more than the built-in whiteboards within online meeting platforms for this. To be honest, I really like Jamboard because it’s so simple and people tend to figure it out pretty quickly.
Virtual exhibit opportunities; virtual exhibit halls
This is similar to the suggestion about virtual career fairs. I’m more familiar with virtual exhibit halls than career fairs. To reiterate the point from the other section, a lot of the virtual exhibit halls are very underwhelming. There’s a real opportunity to do this well but that doesn’t just mean letting an exhibitor or vendor post a video and add a link that takes attendees to their website. I don’t need to go to a conference or a webinar to watch a video or click on a website link. The other side of this that I feel quite strongly about is the more opportunities you offer for people at an event to naturally mix and meet each other, the more likely it is that vendors, exhibitors, or sponsors will meet at in a way that’s productive and doesn’t require someone making a hard sell in a demarcated selling space.
Virtual scavenger hunt
We did this in our workshop and I use it quite a bit. It’s also come up a number of times in the other suggestions here so I’m not going to go into a lot of depth about it. I have been pleasantly surprised how well this works, even among diverse audiences. It’s really easy to do and the results are really nice. I’ve been using it as an activity that coincides with a break, but you can certainly build it into other parts of a presentation. As with the other suggestions around ice breakers, I would ideally like the object that people are finding to somehow tie into what we are talking about in the session. So while it’s fine to have someone go out and scavenge something green, as perhaps a slightly better webinar best practice, I have tended to ask people to find something that’s meaningful and connected to their work, for example.
Improve the production values of the session
This touches on a number of the other topics in our list of best practices for webinars, especially the one on a flipped classroom. I’m just generally pretty dubious that attendees want to watch something that’s low-quality. We’re in an age when people think nothing of turning off a TV show or movie that cost a $100 million. It may not be a solution for the quality of the video, but one of my most common suggestions to people is to replace a single individual doing some sort of presentation with two people having a conversation on the same topic. It ends up being a lot more natural and watchable even if the production value isn’t that high. Think about all the podcasts that are just people talking and it’s done with a microphone and no video. You also don’t need a great interviewer to produce a good interview. If you’re interviewing someone who’s passionate about what he or she is doing and has a lot of expertise, it doesn’t require a lot of art to get that information out of your expert.