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Talking into the webinar vacuum – “Can anybody hear me?”

By Ilan Azbel, CEO, Autochartist.

I would say that I’m a pretty confident public speaker; of course I’m not a professional, but put me on a stage in front of a few hundred people and I’ll be happy to speak for hours. I love sharing knowledge, especially in my field of expertise.

So when I was invited to give my first webinar (this was many years ago, of course), I thought that my public speaking confidence would translate directly into the virtual stage. Boy was I ever wrong! The best way I can describe what it’s like presenting a webinar is: imagine getting on stage in front of hundreds of people, blindfolded, with a noise-cancelling headset. Now start speaking! The lack of feedback is simply overwhelming. 

When I stand in front of a live audience I get energized by the audience’s energy – the noises, the smiles, the laughs, the moans, the body language; all of it stimulates my brain and makes me give 120%. But in a webinar I get nothing back. It took me at least half a dozen webinars to start getting accustomed to the lack of external stimuli. What makes things worse is that I was constantly uncertain of whether anybody can actually hear me. It took me even longer to trust that the technology is really transmitting my voice to the listeners.

Over the years I’ve developed some tricks that have helped me overcome this lack of audience feedback.

Maybe some of my tricks will help you:

  1. I almost always turn on my webcam. In fact, I only turn it off if I have a lack of bandwidth, or the webinar host explicitly requests I turn it off. I find that simply knowing that people can see me keeps me attentive to what I am saying, my posture, my hand gestures. It keeps my “physical presence” lively and dynamic. 
  2. I keep my webinars down to 30 minutes. I know that after 30 minutes my audience will be getting bored, so instead of wondering who’s listening I just cut it down in length so I can rest assured that most of my audience is attentive.
  3. Having a colleague join you in the webinar room helps in a multitude of ways – you can check that the technology works and your audience can hear you and see you. I also found that having a friendly attendee is akin to having a little safety blanket with you. Not sure why it makes me feel this way, but it does! Fuzzy and warm.
  4. Speak an audience member’s first name when reading questions – I found that when I speak people’s names it makes them more human to me. I know that sounds weird but saying something like “Mary just asked a great question……” makes my brain know for certain that I’m speaking to a live audience. I think it also makes the question more real to the rest of the audience to know that it’s not some pre-prepared staged question.
  5. Have a list of devices you need to silence before the webinar starts. Believe me when I tell you that there is nothing worse than having your mother phone you in the middle of a webinar! I have a sticky note on the side of my monitor with the devices I mute before a webinar. This is my list: Cell Phone, Email, Calendar, Slack, Upwork, Skype, Zoom, Hangouts, Whatsapp.I always run through this list before EVERY webinar; no exceptions. 

No matter how much I prepare and how much webinar experience I have, sometimes strange things do happen – once I even had a fire alarm go off in my building. You would be surprised how understanding an audience can be. The funny thing is that when stuff goes wrong and people sympathize is when I subconsciously realize that there are real people sitting somewhere in that black void we call “the webinar room”.