Allison Rossett: when webinars go bad

For me, Allison Rossett is a lot like author John McPhee: no matter what she’s writing about, I’ll probably find it interesting.   Rossett and two colleagues (Antonia Chan and Colleen Cunningham) earlier this year wrote an article for Chief Learning Officer: What Stinks about Webinars?

“Webinar” as a term tries to straddle traditional “delivery of content” with the wide reach of networked tools.  I think it shares with “podcast” a faint promise of being better than the Bad Old Days (podcast good, lecture bad).   The ways that Chan and Cunningham interact with webinars will pay off, at least for me, as my current project develops some for the not-always-thrilling world of continuing education in the insurance industry.

Cunningham (who’s probably not alone) wants a well-planned webinar with “a start, middle and an end. The start tells you what to expect from the presenter and what the presenter expects of you, along with how the hour will be used, including what the takeaway will be.”  She’s also eager for PowerPoint slides — if they highlight key ideas and organize the session — because English is her third language.

The article makes points I want to keep in mind, and triggered a few others as well:

  • First, I'd like to review our strategic vision...Remember: it’s easy to leave a webinar. Chan’s observation — which isn’t always obvious to those who plan or conduct webinars — underscores the futility of trying to control what your audience does.   Heck, people mentally check out when they’re physically present.
  • Get going. As Rossett points out, many webinars (and, if you ask me, not a few in-person presentations) spend way too much time getting ready to start.   People haven’t joined in order to hear the background of the presenter, the history of the company, or even fifteen Mager-style objectives.
  • Make a concrete difference. You’ve probably seen many dynamic online presentations, very low on text and very high on striking imagery.   They’re excellent ways to convey some crisp message (and an excellent exercise to try and create), but they’re not a panacea.   If people need to process auto-insurance claims with the new system, or if they want to create and administer a wiki, they’re after facts, examples, pros and cons, and suggestions for going further.
  • Connect with your audience. Robert Townsend, CEO at Avis during the “We Try Harder” era, suggested that executives call parts of their organization to find out what roadblocks the company had set in the path of customers, supplies, and prospects.   In the same way, people who conduct webinars need to experience (or endure) a few.   If you’ve got 40 people in a webinar, maybe 15 will ask a question.   If you’ve got 80, maybe 20 can ask one — there isn’t enough bandwidth for much more.   So the presentation, the interaction, the organization needs to anticipate and address what people will want to know more about.
  • Figure out and follow up. If you plan to make a recorded version of the webinar available, don’t store it in the box next to the Ark of the Covenant.   Provide a clear and brief path — and test it yourself, preferable not from your own computer.   And if people fill out a form ahead of time, for pity’s sake don’t ask them for that information again.   (When I’m forced to deal with my cable company, the voicemail asks for my account number — and, without exception, so does the person who eventually takes the call.   Next time, I’m making up a number.   How would they know?)

Rossett, Chan, and Cunningham offer a view from the other side of the webinar.   It’s worth a look.

Photo by xdjio / Joshua Gardner.

3 thoughts on “Allison Rossett: when webinars go bad

  1. Kia ora Dave

    It’s not the joke. It’s the way you’re telling it.

    It’s not the technology, it’s the way you’re using it.

    I have recently been introduced to the idea that PowerPoint is bad. Why is it bad? Because people talk to PowerPoint presentations. And PowerPoint is designed to present images AND text, in one form or another. Listeners suffer cognitive overload if the speaker speaks and also presents text to accompany the images in a PowerPoint presentation.

    I’m not a great supporter of PowerPoint, but I’ve seen some good PowerPoint presentations being used properly in my time.

    Too often it’s the way the technology is being used that condemns the technology. Just take a glimps at the reusable learning object (RLO) and weigh the stresses. Most of the criticism of RLOs was because of the way they were churned out, ‘commodified’, I think the term was.

    I have no doubt that there’s an art in podcasting, the same as there is an art in giving a lecture. Just sit and try to get bored by a lecture from Ken Robinson. Yet how many keynote speakers read the damned thing directly form their notes at conferences?

    This comment is well over 200 words.

    I guess I’m warmed up now :-)

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  2. Ken, I’m a big fan of Gresham’s law (“bad money drives out good”) and its extensions into nearly all fields. Bad PowerPoint drives out good, for example. In part that’s because people don’t question the first model that comes to mind — bulleted text, Microsoft’s too-large titles, the soporific blue background. And in part it’s more work to do something that’s both different and effective.

    You’re absolutely right about podcasts. Their chief virtue is that they’re easily stored and easily played on demand. Period. Otherwise, they’re still one-way experienced. But that doesn’t mean the one-way experience is bad. If the podcaster’s planned well, if the podcast uses effective techniques, it can readily hold your interest and expand your knowledge.

  3. Thanks for kind words about our article in Chief Learning Officer.

    Oh, I wish I thought that webinars had improved…. well, maybe a little.

Comments are closed.