Gone are the days when a synchronous online conference was a rare event. These days it seems that everybody is doing it. From publishers to teachers associations, from companies to individuals, there are a host of online events that one can attend, from short one-hour online presentations (or webinars) to synchronous events spanning several days.

And long may it last! Attending an online event is fantastic for your own professional development. Better still, attendance is usually free, you can drink coffee (or a glass of wine) during it, and you can even attend in your pyjamas (as long as you keep your webcam turned off).

In the last two months, I’ve spoken at two online conferences, and these are my eighth or ninth online conference engagements of the past few years. Even though many of us do plenty of face-to-face speaking, we are often unsure about how to do it online. I thought it might be useful to put together a few tips and techniques for online presenters and for online moderators.

Let’s first check we are clear on the difference between an online moderator, and an online speaker. Basically, the online speaker, well, speaks, and the online moderator, ermm, moderates. In this post we’ll look at same tips for online SPEAKERS (and in my next blog post, for online MODERATORS). Hopefully that too will make the difference clear.

Tips for online speakers:

Tip 1: Keep it short

Don’t let the online conference organizers persuade you to talk for ages  Try to NEVER talk for more than 45 minutes (and even that’s a lot). Even if you know how to keep an audience enthralled for hours on end face to face (unlikely), expect 50% of that kind of concentration at best from your audience online. If you think you have 20 pearls of wisdom to share with your audience, cut it down to 10 pearls. The best scenario for an online session is 30 to 40 minutes of you, plus 15 minutes for audience questions. Max.

Tip 2: Engage your audience

The first rule of face-to-face speaking is to engage your audience, so make sure you do the same when speaking online. Listening to you doing a monologue online for 45 minutes can challenge even your keenest fan. The temptations for your online audience to simply walk way to the fridge, to phone a friend, or simply to log off and go out to the movies, are huge. You can’t compete unless you make your talk interesting and engaging. How?

One way is to make sure that you integrate little activities that require audience participation during your talk. Here are some ideas that I have used (and that seem to work):

  • At the beginning of your session, find out where your audience actually are. Right now. One of the fabulous things about an online seminar is that people are usually attending from all over the world, so get them to mark their location on a world map you put on the shared whiteboard (if there is one in the conferencing software). Or ask the audience to type their location, the time, and the weather into the text chat box. You could even ask them what they are drinking or eating at that moment (believe me, almost everyone is usually drinking something).
  • Give your audience an overview of the session, and what you hope you will all have learnt by the end of it. If you are using PowerPoint slides, you could include a brief outline on your first slide. Letting your audience know what you hope to achieve, and where you’re all going, allows those who are in the wrong place to leave early!
  • While talking about your topic, check whether your audience have heard of or done these things/used the tools you mention/have the same opinion of something, and so on. Do this regularly, not just once. You could ask a simple yes or no question, and get your audience to type yes or no in the text chat box. If the conferencing software has features such as indicating agreement or disagreement, you could get your audience to use those in response to a simple question from you.
  • Get your audience to actually do something during your online talk. Ask them to type in a definition of a term in the text chat box, before you give them the definition you plan to work with. Or get them to guess what a certain topic/tools/concept is, by typing one line in the text chat box. Getting the audience to follow you by answering questions, or predicting content, will keep everyone engaged and busy (and therefore away from the fridge and glued to their computer screen).
  • Make sure you respond to what your audience contributes in this way, by saying things like. ‘’Ah, Donna says xxx, great idea, Donna – thanks’’. This may mean you briefly pause during your talk while responses start to appear. Don’t be afraid to pause for a few seconds while waiting for audience to come back to you. They are busy, they’re engaged, and a few second of silence is fine. It is a good idea to move the focus off yourself and onto your audience like this at least every 10 minutes or so. There will be less snoozing in the audience.

Tip 3: Try stuff out

Don’t be afraid to experiment. If you’re talking about a new technology tool, for example, why not set up a demo account that your audience can go along to and try out during your presentation? You could set a very short (and achievable!) task for the audience to complete using the new tool/application during the session. Let everyone see that everyone else is successfully completing the task. Then pull everyone back into the main conferencing tool. I get people to type ‘I’m back’ to show when they have completed the task, and are back in the main conferencing room. I then solicit audience feedback on the task, or point out certain features that the audience have now personally experienced for themselves by doing the task. Don’t let this kind of hands-on task go on too long though, or your audience will lose focus – a few minutes is plenty of time.

Tip 4: Round up

Apart from providing a brief summary of what you’ve covered in your talk, round up with a short fun activity. This could be as simple as asking the audience to type in two adjectives to show how they feel about the talk. Or you could ask them to type one line summarising one thing they feel they have learnt from your session. Or they could draw a quick picture of the main point of your session on the whiteboard… The idea here is to pull everything together and to get an audience reaction and some informal feedback.

Tip 5: Say thanks

And finally, don’t forget to thank your audience! Remember that they could easily have logged off during your talk and found something a lot more interesting to do…. the fact that they are still there is worth you thanking them for 🙂

I look forward to any tips or techniques you might have for online conference speakers…

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E
November 2009