Once you have made the decision to introduce virtual meetings to your organization or network, it is important to recognize that this is not just a technological shift, but a cultural one. In any group where training and relationships have been built over years through face-to-face meetings, it is a major change to make the shift to interacting virtually.
This was the situation we experienced in working with the Ontario Network of CAPC and CPNP projects – a group of 150 projects doing very innovative work to support marginalized families across the province. The projects are located in every part of the province – from inner-city Toronto to rural areas and the far North. The diversity and range of experience among the projects is amazing.
The Coordinating Committee for the Network decided to investigate virtual meeting options to support professional development opportunities, and as a way to allow project staff to share experiences and develop relationships with each other. Most of the Network members had very little previous experience working virtually. They were used to teleconferences, and they had an electronic message board, which mainly served to transmit information from the funder to the projects. Webinars and virtual meetings were a largely unknown quantity.
The first challenge was to decide on an appropriate platform (which I discuss in the previous article in this series).
Piloting the webinars:
Next was the process of introducing participants from the Network to the new technology and a new way of working together. We decided to organize a series of small group webinars (25 participants or less) with well-known speakers to introduce the members of the Network to the virtual meeting culture.
For each of the pilot sessions we designed a series of three webinars:
- In the first webinar, we were able to get the Network participants used to the process of connecting to the webinar, and the features of the platform. We designed this webinar so that Network participants cold talk about their own experiences and questions they wanted the speaker to address. The speaker mainly listened during this call and incorporated the feedback into the design of the session, to make it as relevant as possible for the group.
- In the second webinar the speaker was able to present his/her session. We tried to make the session as interactive as possible, pausing frequently to provide opportunities for participants to voice their questions. The presentation took up about 45 minutes of the 90 minute session, with facilitated discussion for the second half.
- The third session was an evaluation session. We wanted to get feedback from the participants on their experience, including things like: their experience with using the platform, ease of getting connected, the design of the session, the relevance of the speaker, etc. We also did a follow-up session with the speakers to get their feedback on the experience the technology.
Designing effective webinars – Lessons learned
Our pilots gave us great insight into how to optimize the webinar experience for our participants. Some of the lessons we learned:
- Work with your presenter before the sessions. Even an experienced presenter might not be familiar with the peculiarities of webinars, or the platform we were using. Meet with your presenter ahead of time to review the presentation, ensure the amount of content and pacing are appropriate, ensure that opportunities for interaction are built in throughout the session, check to see what special elements (e.g. videos, visuals, etc.) they might want to include, and to ensure they are comfortable with the webinar platform. It might be useful to schedule a “dry run” with the presenter to go through the presentation.
- Don’t overwhelm the audience with content. Sometimes there is a tendency to try to cram too much into a session – this can be especially problematic in a webinar where you don’t have ongoing visual cues from the participants as to when they are getting overwhelmed or not following.
- Take regular pauses during the presentation to check in with the audience to see if there are questions or comments. This helps to make the webinar more interactive and decreases the tendency for participants to drift off and do something else while listening.
- Use visual elements effectively. Watching a “talking head” becomes very boring. Think about how to use the visual element by bringing in short videos, photos or slides that can illustrate specific points.
- Use personal anecdotes to make the presentations more interesting and to allow listeners to relate to the material.
- Use interactive elements to engage the listeners. For example, make use of real-time polling to ask questions of listeners; use the “hands-up” feature to ask questions; use the chat feature to ask questions and solicit comments.
- Record the webinars so that participants can watch again at a later date or share with their colleagues who weren’t able to participate.
- Ask for feedback from presenters and participants to identify areas for improvement.
All of these lessons helped us in our experience in working with the Network to design webinars that were effective, entertaining and educational.