I've been in the event business for 40 years. To say a lot has changed in that time would be the understatement of the century. What hasn't changed is the importance of being able to connect with an audience. From an audience of 5,000 to a Zoom call with five people, the objective in every presentation is to make what you have to say worth listening to.
In the current climate of nearly exclusively online connections, far too many people are simple doing what I call "lift-and-shift"--trying to transfer live events online. However, what works in a face-to-face setting doesn't translate well to an online event. Online has its unique set of challenges that go well beyond the basics of making sure you have a decent webcam and microphone.
Here are four mistakes I see in virtually every webinar, how to avoid them, and how your webinar can go well beyond the status quo to create an enduring human connection.
1. Forgetting that every presentation should tell a story.
People rarely remember numbers and statistics or pie charts and graphs. What they take away is a story. If that's missing, then your webinar is nothing more than background noise. Stories have an arc, they include anecdotes that trigger emotion, and they have a beginning, middle, and end. Unfortunately, many webinars meander aimlessly from speaker to speaker and topic to topic. They leave it to the listener or viewer to provide the connective sinew that holds the story together.
Instead, set up the story that you are going to tell from the outset. One technique is to begin by establishing an audacious goal for the webinar. For example, "In today's session we are going to take you on a journey that will forever change the way you look at customer service!" This is critical because it will immediately grab the attention of your audience and establish a goal that's worth tagging along for.
2. Relying on a deck.
Yes, you read that right: Shred the charts and graphs. I know how important the data is and how hard you've worked to create a killer set of pie charts that will win over the most battle-hardened CEO, but what you've really done is distracted people from the message. Slide decks create the illusion of a safety net; they lull us into believing that they can tell the story for us. That's not true in person and it's especially not true in a webinar. If you can't tell the story without a slide deck, then you can't tell the story. It really is that simple.
If you have the option of video, then simply having yourself on camera is the most effective way to go. If your webinar is audio-only, then use either just one or a few visually engaging images rather than slides littered with text. If you have lots of data you want to share, then provide a link where viewers can look at it later.
3. Reading from a script.
Practice telling the story, not reciting the script. Many people believe that if they are not actually being seen, they can get away with just reading a script. But humans are finely attuned to the nuance of voice and the emotion it conveys. Unless you've spent a lifetime reading scripts as a professional actor, you will come across drier than a camel's hump in a sandstorm. I realize how hard it can be to stay on topic for 30-45 minutes without slides. But trying to make it easy on yourself isn't going to score points with an audience.
Instead, rather than have one person talking for 30-45 minutes, use a two-person setup in which one person asks short pointed questions to which the subject matter expert responds. The job of the interviewer is to keep things on track and on point. The expert can then focus on just answering the questions.
4. Letting the ending fall flat.
The ending is one of the most universally overlooked parts of any webinar. The final 5-10 minutes are wasted in an inevitably anticlimactic "That's all, folks."
Instead, you should know before you even start exactly how you will end the webinar, and you should always tie it back to the way you started. Tell the audience how you have achieved the goal you set forth at the outset and leave them with a way to remember the core message.
A mentor once said to me, "Tom, whenever you get in front of any audience, think to yourself that if there are 100 people in the audience listening for an hour, that's 100 person-hours of work they've invested to hear you speak. What have you invested in them?"
Keep that in mind, no matter how your message is being delivered.