I’ve recently participated in two great webinars. Each one helped me confirm that webinars don’t have to bore us to death. I will describe each and you can see what you think about my conclusion.
The first was by Doctor Atul Gwande, the best selling author of Being Mortal, – if you haven’t read his book you should! Here is what made the webinar great. To start with it was an interview, which I find much more interesting than presentations. Interviews feel spontaneous and even the small amount of interaction between interviewer and interviewee gives the feeling of a conversation. The interviewer in this case was Lucian Leap, who like Atul, is a surgeon and is himself well known for his work in patient safety. So Lucian knew a lot about the subject, which is always a help in an interview, and he knew a lot about Atul’s career, having been a mentor of sorts. So he was a skillful interviewer.
The interview was conducted before a live audience - I could even hear them laugh once in awhile. As an on-line viewer, the fact that there were people in the room didn’t make much difference to me, but you could tell it mattered to both Lucian and to Atul. For one thing, they did not look straight into the camera, but looked mostly at each other but often at the audience as well. Having had the experience of talking to a camera, I can assure you that it
feels very different than when you have an audience – different in that, at some level, if the audience is live you feel connected to the people you are speaking with. I sensed that Atul and Lucian both felt connected to the audience in the room and by proxy to me.
The format was an interview for the first 30 minutes and then audience questions for the last 30 minutes. I think that division is about right, 30 minutes is the outer limit of what most of us can take in. And though Lucian was good at changing up the subject, after 30 minutes it was helpful to have other voices asking the questions. I also liked that I could see the person who asked the question. Each person identified him or herself before asking the question, so I
even got a bit of context, which is often missing in on-line chat questions.
There were no PowerPoint slides. Enough said!
The camera work was skillful, moving from close ups of Atul to longer shots of he and Lucian together and sometimes of just Lucian as he thoughtfully framed the next question he wanted to ask. As I watched the two of them together, I could see the admiration and respect each had for the other. Their smiles, nods and gestures added a kind of warmth that I often miss in webinars.
The webinar held my attention for the whole hour. I wasn’t tempted to check my email or to fold the laundry. That is very unusual for me, because I usually have at few non-cognitive tasks ready-to-hand when I know I will be on a webinar.
When the hour was up Lucian thanked Atul for the interview and the audience began to applaud. I found myself raising my hands to join in the appreciation, that is, until I sheepishly realized that I wasn’t in the actual audience. How’s that for verisimilitude?
The post Webinar events are also worth mentioning. The webinar was sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Heath and on their site you can find Atul’s and other health related webinars. As you play a recorded video, a script of what is being said appears below the picture. It moves forward as the video advances. The script is searchable, so you can find passages you want to hear again. And there is also a function that allows you to email those passages to self or others. Wow!
The second webinar was very different but equally engrossing. The webinar was Etienne Wenger-Trayner, author of Communities of Practice and Digital Habitats, and his partner, Beverly Wenger-Trayner. Etienne had written an article on the topic of the webinar, which a number of people had requested. Those who received the article as well as interested others were invited to the webinar with a note that Etienne and Beverly would not be presenting on the paper – so to please read and prepare any questions or comments.
The webinar began with Etienne and Beverly setting at a desk each with a microphone in front of them. It was a bit of a ragged start with them talking to each other and to others who were in the room to help with the webinar. I liked that. It felt like walking into a
room where an interesting conversation was taking place. After a few moments they welcomed the on-line guests. They spoke directly to some people whose names they saw in the on-line list of attendees. There were about 30-35 people on line with them – a nice size.
They put up an initial slide that was a picture of a landscape and explained that the image was a metaphor for the concept they were discussing. It was the only slide they used during the whole webinar. Etienne and Beverly traded comments back a forth about the image for a few minutes and then turned to the comments and
questions that were on the chat. The slide reappeared from time to time, but more often the camera was on Etienne, Beverly, or both.
After those first few minutes the rest of the webinar was guided by what was going on in the chat. Attendees posted comments, resources, and ideas as well as asking questions of Etienne and Beverly. Often one or both responded directly to an individual by name or in some cases ask a question of someone on the chat. Once in a while someone would reference a particular passage in the article to ask for a deeper explanation. Sometimes participants even addressed their questions to another participant rather than to the presenters. It felt very much like a conversation among a group of people about a topic they were all interested in and all had something to say about the topic. I sensed that the ideas of chat participants were valued as much as the ideas of Beverly and Etienne.
When the hour was up I had to sign off for another call, but the conversation was still going on. Clearly the attendees were engaged and didn’t want the webinar to end. That’s pretty amazing!
So what made these two webinars so compelling?
For me a central element was that both had the feel of a conversation rather than a presentation. In a presentation the listener has the sense that the presenter has his or her mind made up about the topic. The presenter’s task, as they see it, is to transfer their knowledge to those who are less informed. But a conversation is a different animal altogether. In a conversation it is possible that even the “expert” might come to see something different as a result of the exchange. A conversation assumes both parties are open to influence and learning.
A second critical element for me was that the attendees rather than the presenter guided much of the content. As a presenter it is difficult to understand what your audience already knows about the topic and what they are interested in knowing more about. We all make guesses based on or experience, but it is so much more effective for the learners to guide the conversation in the direction that is of interest to them. Thankfully, the technology of “chat” makes that possible. We can now see what people ask and what they comment on. But to make use of that edifying capability the presenter has to attend to the chat rather than to his or her slides. Some presenters have a chat monitor who collects questions to be answered near the end. Others have a monitor who watches for useful questions and breaks into the presentation so the presenter can respond in a more timely manner.
That’s what happens in a conversation, isn’t it? One person is talking for example, about their “theory of responsibility”, and the listener breaks into to ask how the speaker is defining “responsibility”. The listener doesn’t want to wait until the end of the talk, because that piece of information is necessary in order for the listener to make sense of what the speaker saying and to connect it to existing ideas. Etienne and Beverly didn’t have someone collecting questions for the end, nor even watching the chat for them, rather they were themselves focused on the chat. Much the same as when, in a face-to-face conversation, each speaker listens to the other’s response using it as a cue for what to say next, e.g. to clarify an idea, to go deeper in the topic, to move to a new topic altogether sensing the other has lost interest. Atul did not have the advantage of chat, so used a different technique, that of laying out some of his thinking and then devoting, not just the last few minutes, but a full half of the time for the audience to guide the content through their questions.
And very important, both were streaming video instead of slides – seeing the face of the “expert” makes a real difference to me. I had read Atul’s books but I discovered something important about him from seeing him live. For example, he took his time to think through his answer before he responded. I felt he was working at being transparent and searching his mind to see if what he was saying felt right. A couple of times he even backtracked on an answer he was giving and modified it. Those actions reflect on who he is as a person and what he values. I cannot pick up the sense of the person from a series of slides or the few minutes of Q&A at the end of a presentation.
In an earlier post I suggested nine practices that made an effective webinar. Six of those practices correspond with what I experienced in these two excellent webinars. But three of those practices assumed the speaker was going to use slides – they were about how to make those slides more interesting and how to change things up from just seeing slides by using polls, video, chat, etc. However, here I experienced two webinars that did not use slides at all – a very different way to think about a webinar.
Perhaps that is what we need - a total rethinking of webinars. Perhaps we have just been blindly copying what we typically do at conferences, without really thinking about how to make use of the unique capability of webinar technology. What if we started that rethinking by asking, “What can I do on a webinar that I can’t do at a conference?” What if we asked, “What do we know about how people learn and take in information that we could design into a webinar?” What if we asked, “How do we make better use of the knowledge of the participants as well as the experts?”