How I learned to stop worrying and love the webinar: Part 3: Reading the room

| presentation, speaking

Many speakers tell me that they don’t like webinars because they can’t read people’s body language. We rely so much on watching people’s body language when giving a presentation. Is the talk too slow? Too fast? Do people agree? Disagree? Doubt? Are people too warm or too cold? Where in the talk do people nod? Where do they tune out?

Body language gives important feedback, and you get that feedback even when people don’t consciously think of giving it. People who might not raise a hand and say that your talk is boring, but if they’re falling asleep, you can tell that you’ve got to work harder at engaging people. Likewise, you don’t have to stop and take a poll if you want to know if people are interested. Are they leaning forward? Are they taking notes? You’ve got your answer right there.

When you can’t read the room, you run the risk of going off track, of going too fast or too slow, of losing your audience without even knowing that you did. Feedback becomes a little more structured, a little less natural. If you need to take the temperature of the room, you have to stop and ask. You’ll only get responses from people who were already engaged, so even your feedback is skewed. It’s tough.

But remote presentations have a strong advantage that many speakers overlook. Why settle for reading people’s body language, when you can read their thoughts?

Enabling the text chat and encouraging people to use it allows you to keep an eye on what people are thinking about, what they have more questions about, and what engages them. Frequent polls give you feedback, too. Many sophisticated web conference systems even allow participants to indicate their status throughout the presentation: if they think it’s going too fast or too slow, if they’re happy, if they have a question… Although most attendees will still not be used to these practices, you can help them become familiar with the tools, and they may become part of the standard ways people interact with teleconferences.

The feedback you get in the official conference environment will probably be biased towards the positive, so you’ll need to make an effort if you want to know more. Make it safe for people to ask questions or indicate confusion, and never embarrass your attendees for asking. In fact, you might want to ask someone to keep an eye out for possible questions and ask them during your session. If he or she thinks of something to ask, other people in the audience probably have the same question, and they’d be relieved if someone stepped forward and asked it for them. That can also show people that you really do welcome questions and conversation.

If you have feedback channels that aren’t displayed—such as Twitter, perhaps with a hashtag you’ve suggested—you may be able to monitor that for more honest feedback (or at least it will be frank until people realize that you’re watching ;) ).

Being able to read what people are thinking instead of just guessing their thoughts is a great help when you’re giving a presentation. If it’s difficult for you to watch the chat or the interactions while giving a presentation, ask a buddy to do so, or take occasional breaks to review what’s being said.

Again, this might not work for all presentations and all audiences. If you anticipate a hostile audience, you probably want to be there so that you can make a personal connection and read the room. Some cultures seem to be more comfortable with the idea of chat and feedback than other cultures are. But if you’re probably going to have friendly, engaged participants who are willing to interact with you, make the most of the feedback that they’re happy to give.

I find that it’s much easier to adapt my talk to the responses from participants when I’m giving a virtual presentation compared to when I’m giving a face-to-face one. Even with all the current limitations of online feedback channels, reading people’s thoughts can beat reading people’s body language. Give it a try!

This is the third part of How I learned to stop worrying and love the webinar.
Part 1: The best seats in the house
Part 2: From audience to participants
Next: Taking the next step

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