Captivate your webinar audience and create an engaging online event

When we were first hit with the news of the Coronavirus pandemic, many of us were anxious and overwhelmed. Let’s face it, things were pretty confusing, and with a global lockdown, we were left wondering, ‘Hmmm, what now?’

We came to realize that this virus is here to stay, and that rather than being scared of it and hiding in our shells, we need to be proactive and think of how to work around it. The thought of all those postponed/cancelled events and missed deadlines was daunting, but then we realized that by tweaking our strategy we can still deliver.

So what was that strategy? It was simply to move everything online and use the available channels to deliver our message to our audience.

One such channel is the webinar.

Webinars are a highly effective, versatile way of reaching out and communicating with your audience. They allow you to connect with people across the globe within incredibly flexible timeframes.

Although there are massive advantages to using webinars to present ideas, presenters find there is a completely new set of challenges.

The greatest obstacle is how to keep your audience engaged when they have a thousand other distractions begging for their attention. This is a greater challenge when you are communicating online than when you are physically in the room with them.

How do you keep them glued to the screen? How can you tell if they are engaged or not? Are there certain tricks and tips you can use to make sure they stay tuned in?

The number one tip for keeping a webinar engaging is to keep changing things up.

Whether this is through guest speakers, breakout sessions, polls, or video clips, you need to keep your audience anticipating that something new is just around the corner.

The quickest way to ensure your audience gets bored is to keep things monotonous. With a dozen things that could distract them, you can’t afford to be boring if you want to be effective.

Curious to know what you can do to keep your audience highly engaged? Read on to find out 5 ways to create engaging webinars.

Carefully set the scene

1. Be clear about the benefits, before you start.

Tell the audience what you are going to tell them. Cut directly to the chase. You don’t need to pour out all your content, but cover the topics and emphasize the benefits and why the information is important.

Get your audience invested from the very beginning by sharing the big picture. This will help them stay focused if you end up in an area or topic that they find less than alluring (i.e.boring).

2. Provide clear instructions on how to use the tools.

Although you may be familiar with your hosting platform, be aware that many of your attendees may not be. Even if they have used the interface before, they may have forgotten how it works.

Walk them through the features, functions and tools they will need to tune in and get active. Explain to them how to answer questions or use the polls and surveys.

You can even start the session with a quick interactive exercise where they can learn how to answer a poll question or input their feedback. If they don’t know how to communicate with you, you’ll get silence from their side.

3. Have participants check in.

Start using the chat box right away.

Get the attendees familiar with it by having them introduce themselves by sharing their names, what they do, and where they’re from. Be sure to keep it snappy, especially if you have a lot of attendees.

This sets the scene by creating an environment where conversation and active engagement is positive and encouraged.

4. Bring in some help.

Balancing the flow between providing information and answering questions can be challenging, or if you have several hundred attendees, impossible.

If an attendee has a question that doesn’t get answered, or gets a little lost along the way, they might mentally check out. Once you’ve lost them, it can be difficult to get them back on board. At the same time, you cannot stop every 30 seconds to answer every query that might come up.

This is where enlisting technical or admin help can save the day. A producer or co-host can quickly respond to messages, ensuring attendees don’t feel lost or ignored.

Artfully use questions

1. Asking and answering questions.

As all speakers and trainers know, this is the most straightforward way of getting attendees to engage with what you are saying, but in a webinar, this can be somewhat different.

A best practice is that after every 4 or 5 slides or points, you should pause to ask a question of the group.

When you are creating the webinar, come up with relevant, energizing or challenging questions, as opposed to general (and boring) “…does everyone understand this?” type questions.

Answering questions as they come up will help participants stay engaged.

While this can sometimes be difficult if you are presenting alone, you can balance this by letting participants know that you will be pausing regularly to answer their questions throughout the session.

Optimize this by turning the tables every so often, sending the question back to the audience. It will switch the voice, while keeping attendees active.

2. Activate their reward systems.

Start off by always taking a moment to appreciate a participant’s participation. Validate and thank them if necessary, but always acknowledge that you appreciate their activity (e.g. by saying “You’re an excellent group. Keep those questions and comments coming!” or “Thanks a lot, [Jane], for this question. It’s very relevant.”)

You can take this to the next level by providing some sort of prize or incentive for active participants. You will be surprised how motivating even small incentives can be.

How you choose to arrange this is up to you. It can be quantitative (e.g. the most active person) or random (e.g. as soon as you participate you are added to a list where you can be drawn to win something), but initiating some sort of reward for participating can instantly entice your audience to get busy.

Optimize discussions

1. Incorporate lots of small group discussions.

Sitting and listening to a presenter speak for longer than 20 minutes can be taxing.

Split up your sessions with small group discussions in breakout rooms (most webinar platforms are able to handle breakout groups, and an assistant can help you do this quickly and effectively during a live session). These discussions do not need to be longer than 5 to 7 minutes, and should include no more than 5 people each.

This will give people a chance to participate more intimately, while giving them a break from listening.

Best practice tip: assign one of the attendees to be the facilitator or leader. They can get the discussion started and ensure that it ends on time. Also make sure you “pop in” to each group every few minutes to help build more personal connections with the audience and to ensure that conversations are on track.

2. Encourage chatting and hashtagging.

Give your attendees plenty of opportunities to ask questions and participate through external online discussions. Introduce social media links and the webinar hashtag at the very beginning of the session and be clear about how you see them being used. But be careful that it won’t take their attention away from your live session and the webinar platform.

If you want to keep discussions private, use the chat box, create an online forum, Facebook group, or message board specifically for your webinar, these also make great follow-up tools.

Even after the webinar has ended, keep as many lines open as you can. Communication between you and the participants is key to their engagement.

Enlisting someone to help can make a huge difference here. A producer, co-host or chat monitor can quickly respond to posts and messages, ensuring that everyone’s questions get answered and they don’t feel ignored.

3. Invite specific people to attend your webinar.

Invite invested people to join your webinar, choosing them specifically because you want them to share their perspectives during discussions — not just to listen.

They should not be shills (a.k.a. “plants” or “stooges”.) You should clearly let other attendees know that you have invited them to share alternatives or new perspectives on topics.

You can also ask the invitees to share their alternative or opposing ideas via the chat box, and then use them later to initiate robust discussions.

But don’t limit these invitees just to discussions. Read the next section to find out more ways that these guests can add dynamism to your webinar.

Change the voice with guest speakers

1. Have an expert present a specific topic.

Changing the speaker during the presentation is a great way to switch gears and re-energize the mood in the virtual room. Invite an expert, colleague or partner to come in, and deliver a specific portion of the presentation.

A change in perspective and voice can re-engage listeners by adding in some new energy. This is particularly effective if there is a specific area that you are less well versed in, or the topic has multiple or opposing aspects.

2. Invite guests for interviews and panel discussions.

Get creative with how you present the information by asking a guest to join in for an interview. You can send them the questions beforehand, but make sure the interview doesn’t end up sounding too staged.

You can create a panel-style session by having your attendees ask you and your guest(s) a series of questions. This is effective because you are giving them some control of the session and changing the “sit-back-and-listen” mentality.

Ask for questions from the attendees beforehand to make sure you don’t end up with too much dead air: wasting yours, your guests’ and your attendees’ time.

3. Use a video of an expert laying down ideas.

Getting a guest speaker to join in with your webinar is not always feasible. Arranging schedules and costs can sometimes end up setting you back, outweighing the benefit of having them join.

A video, on the other hand, can make things extraordinarily easy.

You can ask them to create a custom video, where the expert records a two or three minute explanation or presentation that you could play during the session. Or just jump onto Youtube or Vimeo. There is also an amazing wealth of free content online you can draw from: organizations like TED or RSA have masses of engaging videos on just about every topic.

Infuse your webinar with multimedia

1. Use strong imagery often.

Incorporate graphics, photographs, cartoons, graphs or designs into your presentation to activate your attendees’ visual cortexes.

Just listening and reading copy can get dull quickly: so switch things up with strong imagery. Use the imagery to introduce a new topic or generate a discussion, show the connections between topics, or visually display info.

Just remember, keep changing up your imagery: 10 slides of graphs will be just as boring as 10 slides with bullet points.

2. Split slides into multiple pieces.

Many speakers like to use slides with multiple pieces of information on them. It’s not a good idea to display these all at once.

To avoid visually overwhelming slides, spread the information into multiple slides where each additional element builds on the previous slide one by one, so the speaker’s words will only relate to the information that has just appeared on the screen.

This way even if a speaker has 10 bullet points, the fact that each appears one after the other will help the audience focus on the explanation and not struggle with reading all 10 points at once.

3. Go to the polls.

You can use the built-in webinar platform’s polling function, or a tool like PollEverywhere, which allows users to respond (they can even send a response by text or tweet) and the software charts their feedback in real time.

If you know you have a long segment to deliver, ask your audience to get engaged by dropping in a quick poll halfway through. Keep it relevant, and ensure that it supports your content rather than distracting from it. It can take 10 seconds, but will add a boost of engagement to keep your audience from fading away during a longer talking segment. You can also use open-ended questions and a virtual whiteboard where participants can add their written input.

4. Collaboratively build a concept map.

Use your webinar platform’s whiteboard tool (or Prezi if your platform doesn’t have one) as collaborative spaces for concept mapping or group brainstorming.

If you are using Prezi, do a screenshare with the Prezi editor displayed, or have participants work together on the same Prezi. Maybe use the webinar software to control the audio feed.

These are superb tools to work with during breakout sessions, especially if you have larger groups.

5. Show a simulation, animation or summary video.

It’s one thing to hear about how something works, but it is another thing entirely to see it in action.

By sharing a captivating animation, simulation or video you can offer your attendees another perspective on your content. For instance, Merlot.org has an incredible bank of peer-reviewed resources, including a huge collection of simulations and animations that you can use during your webinar.

We would love to hear your ideas, either as a webinar presenter, attendee or producer, on how to successfully host a webinar. What really works, and what doesn’t? How can you tell if the audience has checked out, and how do you re-engage them?

You can find us on Twitter, or contact us here.

What to read next:

An earlier version of this post was written by Esther Snippe featured on SpeakerHub on 06 June 2016. See the original article here.