Having just completed a series of eight webinars to train interns at a major research university about the science and art of technology commercialization, I’ve learned a few things about the challenges of conducting training remotely. Sure, there are advantages to training via webinar, but most of those relate to the saved time and costs by not having to travel. But I think it always helps to look at the lessons learned and share those with others.
First, let me point out that my advice applies whether all of the attendees are in one room (as was the case with the intern training I just completed) or in a highly distributed format (like when I’ve led trainings for Fuentek’s virtual team, with staff located all over the country). It also applies to one-time or series-based webinars, as well as to topics beyond licensing and audiences beyond tech transfer offices.
So here are my Top 5 tips for leading effective webinars:
1. Ask open-ended questions to stay connected with your audience. When you can’t see the attendees and the expressions on their faces, you have to work much harder to be sure they are understanding you. So rather than asking “Does anyone have any questions?” prepare some thought-provoking questions in advance: What if…? What do you do when…? How do you handle…? What options do you see for…? Such questions also help to generate dialogue.
2. Give attendees time to respond. The silence feels eternal when you can’t see that your audience is thinking. So although it feels endless or embarrassing, be patient and wait. Eventually they will respond.
3. Make prudent use of technology. The various online programs that make webinars possible do have some advanced features, such as polling, for managing the chaos of Q&A in a distributed environment. However, as a trainer you have to ask yourself: Is the time I spend learning more complex tools going to return value in terms of improving attendees’ learning? So be sure you’re using all of the low-tech options well. For example, consider having attendees submit questions (via e-mail or chat) to a facilitator (preferably in the room with you) who can pose them at the appropriate time and organize them for a more streamlined Q&A. And whatever tech features you do use, be sure to explain them to your audience in advance. (Also, remind them to put their phones on mute.)
4. Keep slides simple to keep the attendees focused. While slides can be a great way to help keep remote attendees on track with your session, resist the temptation to put lots of text on your slides. They don’t need to be a stand-alone source of your information. You want your audience listening to you, not reading your slides. In a similar vein, lag times with the refreshing of your slides on attendees’ computer screens can render the time you spent programming nifty animations worthless. So use those visual elements judiciously.
5. Always follow up to get feedback afterwards. Again, because you’re not in the room with these folks, it’s more difficult to know how the webinar went. So always follow-up with attendees afterwards to learn for yourself how well you conveyed your message. It can be as simple as an evaluation form or as elaborate as a follow-up audioconference where webinar attendees can return to ask questions after they have had some time to digest the information you have fed them. Yes, there is a cost associated with such follow-up, but really it could be as little as 30 minutes of your time with virtually no preparation. And the more you can do to ensure your attendees really learned what you were teaching, the better your training.
If you’re a trainer with experiences or advice to share, please chime in with a comment. We’d love to hear from you.
–By Danielle McCulloch