You’re probably familiar with the basics of webinars, but do you know how to create a webinar experience that actually keeps listeners engaged? The world of webinars is full of potential, but that potential will remain untapped if participants aren’t interested in your ideas. Here’s how to make them listen.
Almost all of us have dialled into a free webinar, but as we’ve come to learn, free doesn’t always mean quality. Advertising it as free draws in the numbers – people devour free content, especially from experts. But being an expert and passionate about what you do doesn’t exempt you from being boring. Even those at the top of their game are guilty of rambling on, dwelling on topics that no one cares about and making people question why they signed in to listen. They’ve got the knowledge, but communicating ideas in an engaging, participant-focused way needs some extra work. Without engagement, those participant numbers will plummet as quickly as they rose.
Webinars are, by nature, ideal for communicating to a pretty much unlimited size of audience. While advantageous in terms of scope and potential reach, delivering material in the online sphere is an entirely different kind of craft to face-to-face presentations. Webinar participants are a tough crowd. In person, people have no choice but to listen to you. Online, they’ve got the freedom to exit your webinar with a single click. You’ve got to put in that work to keep your audience engaged.
So, how do you create the calibre of webinar that keeps people engaged from your opening to closing act? All the answers you seek are somewhere in this guide. We’ll cover everything from storytelling to software, in chronological order to reflect the sequence you’d actually go through when creating your webinars. We grant you this gift in the hope there’ll be fewer boring webinars in the world, because the world needs fewer mind-numbing experiences. Enjoy.
Webinar guide contents
Presentations vs Webinars
Before we explore the realm of webinars, it’s important to recognise why they’re different to presentations. Some people think of webinars as presentations done online, which isn’t necessarily wrong, because presentation software still plays a critical part in the delivery of your ideas. Buffalo 7’s software of choice for webinars and presentations is PowerPoint, because it gives users everything they need to deliver an outstanding, engaging experience for audiences, while providing necessary support for the speaker.
PowerPoint’s inbuilt tools include advanced transitions and effects, but also a range of user-friendly features like pre-designed layouts and seamless integration of charts and graphs. As a software, it’s intuitive to use and really reliable, which is why it’s the go-to presentation software for most people. PowerPoint’s popularity gives it another advantage: people are familiar with the software, having used it at some point in their career, so assembling a presentation is never too difficult. But it’s important to note that while we’d advocate building in PowerPoint for both webinars and presentations, the content itself needs to take a different shape.
The principal difference is that the focus of presentations is the speaker, whereas the focus of webinars are the slides themselves. Presentation audiences absorb the information by watching and listening, in silence, to the speaker in their physical form. Webinars, on the other hand are, in a nutshell, an interactive online seminar that anyone with an internet connection can access. The slides act as a visual magnet and focal point of people’s screens, with the speaker taking on a more supplementary, explanatory role. That’s not to say that the speaker is redundant, rather that the speaker’s role is to facilitate understanding of the slides, instead of the slides facilitating the speaker.
Content for webinars
Structure your webinar like a story
To master audience engagement, you need only look at the techniques deployed in every single successful story. They always begin with a hero – the central character without whom the entire journey would be pointless. In the context of webinars, this is your audience. Position them as the hero of their own story. They’re the ones who need to take the next steps and embark on their own journey of discovery. So, before you start building your slides, take the time to understand who you’re delivering the webinar to and what they truly care about. This information will help you frame your material to be completely user-focused.
You need to start strong. All openings should have an impact, hooking listeners straight away and demonstrating that you understand their perspective. Begin with an idea they recognise and identify with– something they can relate to. You could address a shift in the industry, emerging trends or share a particular insight on their situation. This will establish common ground and trust. If they perceive you as someone who gets the situation they’re in, they’ll believe in what you say, and each slide will carry much more credibility.
You, as the webinar instructor, are the mentor who encourages and emboldens them to take the first steps. The content of your webinar is what guides them to an alternative state, leading the way to a new, improved reality. Each idea you share is going add value to their lives or save them somehow. Maybe from overspending, inefficiency or overconsumption. Perhaps you’ve got a solution that’ll accelerate their processes, save them time or ease some sort of internal pressure. Whatever it is that you can help them with, always align your solution to a challenge they’re facing in their daily lives. This conflict and resolution is usually the apex of the story, and the main body of your webinar. This middle section has to connect to them on a personal level if you’re to keep them engaged throughout.
Finally, your closing slides need to end with a summation of how much better their lives will be if they adopt your ideas. Close with a refresh of the main benefits, your key messages and a definitive call to action. There’s no point building all that momentum if it doesn’t lead anywhere. The quality of your ideas will convince them it’s worth the effort, so give them some ways to contact you. If contact details aren’t your style, we’ll come back to impactful ways of ending your webinar a little later.
Your job is to educate listeners. The role of a mentor is completely undercut if your mentee doesn’t understand what you’re saying. As we’ve discussed, having a clear beginning, middle and end will help the participants follow what you’re saying, but the actual language you use when vocalising your ideas is super important to maximise lucidity. This comes down to word choice, coherence and sentence structure. Opt for words that people will understand, but if you need to use jargon, make sure you explain the terminology. After you’ve composed each sentence, read them aloud to make sure they actually make sense. If you are covering a particularly complex subject, you could check in with them verbally at different stages to make sure they’ve understood. A simple “Does that make sense?” or “Do you have any questions?” will suffice.
The perfect companion to clarity is simplicity. The first step is making sure your audience understands what you’re trying to say, but the second and for some the most important step, is to make it easy for them to retain the information you’re providing. An effective way to do this to limit your ideas to just one per slide. Some people worry that a higher slide count dilutes the impact of your messaging, but your audience isn’t keeping a tally, and having more slides doesn’t necessarily mean you’re talking for a longer duration. The length of your script doesn’t need to change, only the visual format it’s presented in. Doing this will simplify your ideas, breaking them out into digestible chunks that listeners can take in one at a time.
Beat waffle with editing
Having a lot to say doesn’t mean you need to say everything. The antidote to waffling on is editing. Every sentence you deliver has to add value for your listeners, whether that’s to make a key point, provide context, give evidence or establish credibility. Each point has to pass the “why should they care?” test. If you can legitimise a message, keep it. If you can’t answer the question, leave it out.
How to design a webinar
Bullets, orphans and widows
Now that you’ve refined your story, you can start to think about how you’re going to visualise it. The first thing to do is chuck out those bullet points. They’re only really permissible in the classroom and your listeners deserve more than a GSCE-level experience. Also, watch out for widows. A widow is a very short line, usually one word that sits on a line by itself.
An orphan is when that single word, or a single line leaves you no choice but to start a new column, or a new slide entirely. Both of these things aren’t particularly slightly and stand out on a slide for all the wrong reasons. Luckily, the fix is a simple re-jig of your lines.
Choose your type
But none of this matters if your text isn’t legible. Typeface is so important for any kind of educational material. If people can’t read your content, any hope of teaching your listeners something valuable is gone. Fortunately, PowerPoint’s very own system fonts give you more to play with than Ariel and Calibri. We’d recommend nice, clean fonts that are easy on the eye like Tahoma, Verdana and Palatino. These fonts are legible, professional and classic, but with enough personality separate them from the more formal fonts like Times New Roman. If formal is the tone of your webinar, go for Times New Roman or Garamond for a more literary style. If you decide to use custom fonts, your listeners will be able to see them when you share your screen but, they’ll need to have them downloaded to their computers if you send the deck out to them after your webinar.
Give your message an icon
Next up is iconography. Icons offer users a visual format that they’re familiar with. You need only unlock your phone screen to see an icon-dominated style of organising information. As PowerPoint is the gift that keeps on giving, it now has its own icon library with a variety of different types, all of which are fully editable. While we wouldn’t advocate an icon-only slide, we would endorse cutting each line of text down to a few key words and giving each line an icon to accompany it. Icons capture the core of your message and can convey an idea much quicker than a sentence can. Together, they’re a formidable force for communicating a message. For some, icons are just easier to understand than words, and more memorable.
Use images to visualise ideas
Speaking of being memorable, it’s time to give imagery some much-deserved attention. Images could be the thing that jogs your listener’s memory when they tell their line manager what they learned from your webinar, so choose wisely. Think high-quality, high-resolution images from trusted sources. The best images are relevant, thought-provoking and emotive. They get people thinking. But, you want people to be thinking positive things. Some images, like stock photos, will only make people question your judgement and taste. The world doesn’t need any more pictures of people hi-fiving in suits. Do us all a favour by opting for the more contemporary, sophisticated images found free of charge on Unsplash.
Give your webinar some movement
Slides without animation are like a lemon drizzle cake without the drizzle: dry and not as indulgent. While slides can still look good without it, animation accentuates all the right bits in all the right places, but only when the everything is perfectly balanced. Too much and your ideas will be swept away in a tide of fly ins and dissolving text. Too little and your deck will lack the zest and consistency it needs to be so good your listeners can’t forget it.
So, how do you choose wisely? It depends on the vibe you’re going for. Decide if your webinar needs to have a slick, polished, professional feel or a more lively, playful tone. If you’re leaning towards the professional side, go for animations like fade. If you want to be more playful, opt for ones like zoom. Here you can find a lowdown of your best animation options and how to add them in.
Time it to perfection
It’s about time we move on to timing. People tend to animate their text at the speed at which people read which ostensibly makes sense, but in actuality, everyone reads at a different pace. This makes it impossible to capture the optimal speed, so scrap this idea. Generally, we’d recommend having everything in place within two seconds to give your listeners enough time to decipher your ideas before you move onto the next. It’s important to give them room to digest.
Timing also helps with making complicated messages easier to understand. Animation can prioritise bits of information, showing them in order of importance or in the logical sequence you intend for them to be read in. So, instead of showing your participants everything at once, you have total control over the pace of delivery. If your ideas warrant more of an explanation than a single slide, you can link multiple slides together so fluidly they’ll look as though they’re one slide to your viewers. Check out Morph if you want the technology to do the work for you.
How to deliver a webinar
Project that voice with confidence
Like we said earlier, a webinar instructor shouldn’t try to replicate the experience of a presenter. Once you’ve introduced yourself and the slides commence, the spotlight will shift from you to the slides. Your listeners probably won’t be able to see you anymore, at least not as the focal point of their screens, so you lose the advantage of communicating through gestures and facial expressions.
Your voice is what’s left to guide them through the experience. So, project it with confidence and believe in what you say. You should definitely use a microphone to accentuate your voice, but you should still make an effort to articulate every word clearly. Enunciate the key points and stress the parts of the sentence you want them to pay attention to most, or pause to give them time to take it in and anticipate what’s coming next.
Your tone is also really important. It’s your tone that will command authority and build trust. Set it to reflect the tone of what you’re presenting – for example, a matter-of-fact, commanding tone will give you that credibility when talking through technical details. Or, if you’re trying to inspire empathy, speak with more emotion. Remember, people expect your voice to have a level of professionalism, but you don’t want to come across as robotic.
I know you’ve heard it before, but the best remedy for nerves is practice. Find a quiet room and read through the webinar aloud, as many times as it takes for you to feel more confident. The more you read through it, the deeper you’ll ingrain it into your memory and the more conversational you’ll sound when presenting. When people know their material so well that parts of it are memorised, each idea rolls of the tongue naturally. We’d also recommend doing a test run with some of your colleagues dialling in to check the experience from a listener’s perspective.
Make the most of speaker notes
Webinars, like presentations, can be daunting to deliver. At least with presentations, the number of people listening to you is capped at the capacity of the room. Webinars on the other hand, invite an almost unlimited audience. But there are perks to webinars that could quell your nerves. One of the best things about the webinar format is that the audience can only see your slides. If you choose to read a script from your speaker notes, your audience will be none the wiser. As long as you maintain that conversational tone, following a script won’t detract from their experience.
Live vs pre-recorded webinars
You may think live webinars are superior by default, but it really depends on the kind of experience you want to create. Live webinars offer listeners a more interactive, personal experience. They’re able to communicate with the speakers via different features in the webinar software, and the speakers can communicate with them by checking in periodically or asking questions, which we’ll explore in more detail in the next section. Pre-recorded webinars are more convenient, because they enable viewers to look at the information when it suits them. They can work through the content at their own pace, and at a time that works for their busy schedules. You also have full control over what your audience sees, so even if there are some technical issues or disruptions, you’ll be able to edit them out later. Although both formats work for different purposes, we think that your choice should be determined by the type of content you’re delivering. Pre-recorded webinars are great for teaching the basics or fundamentals of a topic that isn’t likely to change over time. Live webinars work better for the more complex topics that warrant detailed explanations.
Connect through interactivity
In the early days of webinars, participants would be happy to just sit and listen to the instructor, but as webinars become a staple of digital communications strategies, expectations have changed. Participants are coming to expect interactivity as part of the webinar package. And without the dynamic of a face-to-face experience, webinar instructors need to do more to keep their participants engaged. A lot can be said of the power of having beautiful, professionally-designed slides, but you need to go beyond this by using digital tools to your advantage.
Remember, a webinar is not a soliloquy. You’ve got an audience to take care of. Polls and surveys are an effective way to make your listeners feel valued. They give you an opportunity to collate valuable data that will help you adapt your webinar, and they’ll give participants an opportunity to voice their opinion. If you’re a proficient webinar instructor, you could even use polls to get real-time feedback and adapt the flow of the webinar as you go along to align with listener preferences. If you’re not so comfortable with doing this yet, sending out a questionnaire afterwards will give you lots of useful information to work with for future webinars. Or, you could even ask them to send in their questions via the chat box and do a live Q&A at the end of the session. The chat box is a really useful feature of webinar software like Zoom, because it gives people a chance to send in their thoughts as they arise, without disrupting the speaker.
Another straightforward way to get them involved is to ask questions throughout. Encourage listeners to share their names with their responses to create a more personal, intimate atmosphere. If you’re not sure what to ask, try a “Does that make sense?” or a “Are you guys following what I’m saying?”. This will give you an indication of what’s going in well and what warrants more of an explanation. As webinars are mostly educational experiences, asking “Why are you attending this webinar today?” will give you an understanding of what people want to know and how to share your expertise in ways that actually add value to their lives.
How to prepare for a webinar
Choose a software that can scale to your needs
As webinars are exclusively conducted online, the software you use to host the webinar needs to tick a lot of boxes, but the criteria itself will differ from instructor to instructor, depending on your needs. The essentials for every webinar platform are: scalability, ease of use, screen sharing and screen recording functionality. By scalability, we mean the strength to support your audience size, whether that’s a maximum of 100 participants or 10,000. The last thing you want is the software to crash because of demand. Ease of use is critical, because you and your colleagues needs to be able to navigate the software intuitively for you to use it successfully. Screen sharing is imperative so that your listeners get to experience the nifty new slides you’ve been working on. Your webinar won’t feel legit without some sort of visual aid for the listeners to look at. Screen recording gives listeners the chance to catch up later if they miss something you’ve said.
For us, Zoom provides everything we need to deliver webinars. We spoke about the ground rules you need to set for Zoom calls before, and why the platform works so well for us. But to summarise, Zoom’s webinar-specific features include a waiting room that gives you full control over when participants can join the webinar, private and group chat settings for attendees to get involved throughout, in-built Q&A and poll functionality, and easy screen sharing / recording.
Equip yourself with a full set up
The equipment you use will play a significant role in the quality of your delivery. You need a full in-house set up to create the ultimate webinar experience, especially if webinars are part of your marketing strategy. If you really want to impress your listeners, it’s on you to deliver a webinar that screams high production value, starting with the essentials.
You can’t do anything without an internet connection. Streaming a webinar consumes a high bandwidth, so checking the strength and speed of your connection will help reduce the chances of delays or lagging during your webinar. You also can’t do anything without PowerPoint, or at least some form of presentation software (but why wouldn’t you use PowerPoint?). But we already covered this earlier, so we’ll move onto the tech.
Audiences appreciate being able to see the webinar speaker, even if it’s via a tiny little box in the corner of the screen. Seeing the person behind the slides helps them connect to the speaker and, to an extent, recreates the face-to-face experience. So, it’s worth investing in a high-quality webcam, or if you’ve got a laptop, the built-in webcam should do just fine. Grainy screens diminish the experience and make people want to look away from the screen. The higher the definition, the better. A laptop or a computer is a no brainer. Ideally, you’ll have two screens: one that enables you to monitor what the viewers can see and one that has your script on it. A professional mic is also an essential investment because your voice is such an integral part of the webinar experience. A standalone microphone will give you that superior sound quality and guarantee that audiences are able to pick up on everything you’re saying.
Test before going live
As we’ve all come to experience, with technology comes the risk of malfunction. Test everything before you go live. Go into full rehearsal mode by turning all of your equipment on and using it as you would in the actual webinar. Make sure everything is connected and coordinated. Every wire needs to be plugged in and every glitch needs to be identified before the broadcasting begins. But here’s the thing, webinars depend on technology, so if you are doing a live webinar and there are a few bumps in the road, don’t fret – most people will understand the struggle. It’s impossible to prepare for everything, but do what you can by planning some back up measures just in case.
Subtitles and live captions
With subtitle and live caption functionality available in PowerPoint, there’s no reason why your webinar can’t be more accessible. 1 in 6 people have some form of hearing loss. It’s important to accommodate them along with everybody else. Transcribing subtitles is an easy way to make sure your material caters to those with hearing difficulties. Subtitles are also useful when people inevitably zone out as it gives them a bit of leeway to catch up with what you’re saying. And they help support non-native speakers, who sometimes need a second glance at a sentence comprehend it. Your ideas deserve to be heard by the widest possible audience and subtitles only broaden your reach. You’ve nothing to lose, go for it.
Follow up emails
The end of your webinar could be the start of a fruitful, mutually-beneficial relationship with some of your listeners. Your closing slides are there to tie up any loose ends and summarise key points but you can also wrap up your webinar by recommending useful educational resources, inviting them to join your next session and offering your contact details to keep the conversation going.
You could even reach out to them by sending a follow up email thanking them for their participation and offering a link to a recording of the webinar in exchange for some contact details. Follow up emails are also a great opportunity to collate feedback on the webinar and show them that you really value their experience. Send a link to a questionnaire and make it clear that any feedback is welcome. If you didn’t have time to cover some of the Q&A questions in the webinar, you could use this space to provide some answers.
That’s all folks
If you’ve made it to the end of this guide, you’ve proven your commitment to delivering a webinar that’s worthy of your listeners. Now that we’ve covered what you need to know to get started on crafting your webinar, it’s time for you to get the ball rolling. This guide will serve as a useful reference point throughout the development of your webinar. Just as you’re the mentor of your listeners, this guide is your very own mentor. But the full version of the encyclopaedia of webinars actually lives in the minds of our experts. Get in touch to learn more.