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Thursday, April 02, 2015

Five things I learned about running online webinars

Online webinars have become a popular form of online product, especially for trainings and learning events. However, have you ever participated in one of these online sessions, where you just sit in front of your screen, a presenter goes through the slides, but you have no idea about who else is attending the session and what questions have been typed in the chat? I personally feel very lonely being in these types of webinars!

Knowing how I did not want to organize a webinar, last week I co-facilitated an online webinar about “Using Dgroups in all its features(see presentation below). This was the first of a pilot series of three webinars co-organized with Dgroups and ECDPM to support Dgroups users in learning the ins and out of the Dgroups platform, the basics of online community building and tips and tricks that are at the heart of online facilitation.


I have to admit I’m very lucky to be working with with good friends and colleagues Lucie Lamoureux and Ivan Kulis in the design and delivery of the overall Dgroups webinar series. I guess that knowing each other from the KM4Dev community - and sharing similar ideas in terms of effective knowledge sharing and facilitation - definitely helps to plan and run these online sessions.

But as this was not the first webinar I’ve designed and facilitated in the recent months, I thought to share a list of five things I’ve learned about how best to conduct effective and engaging online webinars.

1. Plan in detail 

Even more than in the facilitation of face-to-face events, to run online webinars I think preparation is key. You don’t want to lose time fiddling with technology, or not knowing what should happen when. For me, this means:

  1. Developing a session design and storyboard document
    Before the session, we used Google Docs for the session design and storyboard, so we had all our links and references at hand and had a clear plan of what should happen, when. It’s so easy to run longer in a presentation, or to allow too long for Q&A and finding yourself having to catch up. The storyboard was our reference document to check where to speed up and where to pause, where to allow for more interaction and questions and where to refer users to post-webinar interactions.
  2. Timing your presentations - and adding presenters notes
    I had to practice a couple of times and time myself to make sure I could fit my slides in the slot allocated for each part of the presentation. I also used the presenter’s notes to write down my script, to avoid losing my train of thought while presenting but also as a contingency measure: had my connection failed, one of the other co-facilitators could have continued delivering the presentation, by reading through the script on each slide.
  3. Preparing your room layouts and materials
    We used Adobe Connect as our webinar platform. One of the (many) great features in Adobe Connect is that you can create different layouts for the different part of your sessions. So we had separate layouts for the presentation and discussion parts, for example with a larger chat window in the latter. All materials were already loaded in the room before the sessions, and ready to be displayed for each presentation session.

2. Build interaction into the session design 

The session was designed to last for 90 minutes - and it was content heavy, I was aware of it. So we designed the webinar to alternate presentations (for max 15 minutes) and discussions (for 10 to 12 minutes) sessions. But we also asked participants to use the chat and write down their questions as they emerged during the presentation. By using an open chat window, participants become presenters themselves as they integrated the contents of the slides also with comments and additional tips or suggestions. Besides leveraging the possibility of peer learning, this is also a great way to keep participants attention and engagement.

3. You need a facilitation team 

You cannot run an interactive webinar on your own. In our case, I was the main host and presenter, while Lucie was managing the chat and the Q&A sessions and Ivan was the technical host helping participants that had experienced problems with audio for example (very few in reality). I believe this is the minimum you can think of in terms of roles and task division. Sure, for the next webinars we need to improve our teamwork, for example in terms of making smoother transitions between one member and the others, or from one part of the webinar to the next, but that comes with practice and better use of the back channels.

4. Not all back channels are equal… 

They are definitely not! In Adobe Connect, you have a presenter area on the screen which is visible only to meeting hosts and presenters. So as back channel we used a note pod (as the various content areas are called in Adobe) placed in the presenter area. However, this was a bit fiddly - we ended up writing over each other or having to wait for one to stop writing before the other could. Even more problematic was the moment that Lucie lost the connection to the meeting room. We had not planned to have also a Skype chat open as back-back channel in case something went wrong with Adobe. So thinking about all possible options will help us identify better solutions next time.

5. Some participants will not come… 

We had a limit of 25 seats in the Adobe Connect room so we kept participants’ registrations to that limit and had a few interested Dgroups users in the waiting list. But as always happens with a free online webinar, some people just didn’t show up, and it was difficult to bring in people on the waiting list after the session had started. So what we’ll do next time is probably not to set any seats limit for the registration, so anyone can register, while only the first 25 registered participants that will actually join the room will have the possibility to attend. This will prevent ending up with ‘empty’ seats in the room - and hopefully will also be an incentive for participants to connect few minutes before the start of the webinar, so it can actually start on time!

What are your top tips to organize effective and participatory online webinars? Let me know in the comments! 

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