With so many events, big and small, gone virtual these days, we’re all getting a crash course in video etiquette. But even if different kinds of live events feel similar or use the same platform, the way you run them is different depending on size and format.
I’ve been running webinars for the better part of a decade at this point. And it’s not the same as running a virtual meeting, a virtual classroom, or a webcast. (Although the boundaries between them can be very porous, and you can often use the same platform for different kinds of events!) So I’ve had a lot of colleagues asking for tips on how to moderate their own webinars for the first time.
Here’s a couple of tips that will help you make sure your webinar runs smoothly.
Have a moderator.
Presenting and also handling the chat or Q&A at the same time is really hard. It’s extremely difficult to speak coherently while reading something unrelated, so either your chat will be neglected or you’ll end up trailing off in the middle of sentences while you try to keep up with the questions. Find someone to help. It could be a coworker, a TA if you’re an instructor, someone you can trade favors with. It helps if they know something about the topic. But even if they don’t, they can still help wrangle the queue.
What if you’re totally on your own?
Here’s a couple potential suggestions if you’re expecting a lot of participation. (If your group is quiet and asks three questions all night, it’s not really a big deal. This is for if you’re expecting them to be chatty or to have a lot of questions as you go.)
- When you don’t have a designated moderator, can you promote one? If you’re running a marketing webinar, you’re obviously out of luck. But if it’s an internal event or a large class in webinar (as opposed to virtual classroom) format, see if you can get a volunteer. All they have to do is collect the actual questions (as opposed to “my sound turned off” or “thanks, I have to run!” comments), keep track if you’ve answered the questions naturally during the presentation, and periodically alert you that there are questions. That way you as the speaker can still focus on your presentation.
- If you expect lots of questions, build specific points in the presentation to stop for those questions. Make sure to let people know ahead of time roughly when those stopping points will be. So maybe you’ll stop for questions at the one-quarter mark, the halfway point, three-quarters, and at the end. Or maybe you’ll stop for questions after each subtopic. Let them know that you’ll be focusing on the lecture until you get to that point, at which point you’ll look at the chat. That way, they don’t have the expectation that you’ll be able to keep up with the chat while also talking.
- If you want to buy yourself time, put in a quiz at each of the Q&A points. It could be a “did you just listen to me” quiz about what you just talked about. But it could also be a totally fun quiz that doesn’t matter (which is the best dessert: ice cream, cake, or brownies, etc). The point here is to give the audience something to do while you skim through the chat and get caught up, so they don’t feel like there’s dead air.
When to answer questions
Many webinar platforms have multiple ways to answer questions. You can answer privately or publicly in writing. You can also choose to answer a question out loud on air.
- If you have a moderator who knows the topic, you can clear out a lot of the basic questions during the webinar. Anything that is specifically applicable just to person who asked the question, or is off topic, or is so esoteric no one else would care, just answer privately in text.
- But if you’ve got a great question that lots of people would benefit from hearing the answer to, it’s worth holding onto! The moderator can reply something along the lines of “Great question! We’ll bring this up at the next Q&A period!” Then, I often will paste the question into a side document I have, so I have a clean list of questions ready to go when we get to the Q&A and I don’t have to go scrolling through the chat. It saves a lot of time once we get to the Q&A, so we can dive right in.
- You can also try to answer questions on air as they come up. Unless they’re really short, though, I don’t recommend it. It’s hard to stay on top of, and easy to get derailed. Better to get through a complete section and then pause for questions.
Chat vs Q&A
Many webinar platforms have both a chat and a Q&A. The difference is that the chat allows participants to talk with each other, and the Q&A only allows them to talk to the speakers/moderators.
In a small group, a chat is lovely. It lets the group build a community, helping each other out and rallying like-minded people.
In a large group, though, moderating it can be a nightmare. It only takes one or two disruptive members to create a bad experience for everyone. But more likely, even if everyone is lovely, it’s really, really hard to moderate both a chat and a Q&A. People will put questions in both, which makes it hard to make sure all questions get answered. People will accidentally answer one format in the other.
If you expect a large, highly participative group, and you want to have both a chat and a Q&A, the best practice is to have a moderator for each one separately, so no one has to bounce back and forth. The moderators can use the moderator chat to keep each other up-to-date, and share which questions should be asked on air.
If you don’t have enough moderators, consider turning off the chat feature. You do lose the sense of camaraderie. But it might be better than having someone feel neglected because their questions got lost, or finding out after the webinar that while you were wrangling the Q&A, one of the participants was being a jerk and ruining everyone else’s day over in the chat. You know your audience – make the decision that will make for the best overall experience.
What if no one asks a question?
Some topics don’t really need a Q&A, and that’s fine. But sometimes I’ve found that if I open up the Q&A and all I hear are crickets, it’s not that there are no questions. It’s just that no one’s willing to go first. Or maybe just that they need a minute to digest the information.
That’s when you want to have one or two sample questions in your back pocket. Note: these should NOT be softball questions. No “Your product is the best, why are you so great?” questions. Instead, pick one or two topics that you could go into a little more depth than you did in your presentation – actual information people would be glad to hear. Make sure they’re ones you can answer in a couple of sentences, not a 15 minute discussion. Have the moderator ask the question and the speaker answer it. Very often, I’ve found, you just need one sample question to get people started. Suddenly, they’ll think of their own questions, and you’re off.
What if people do ask questions? Then you overprepared, which isn’t bad. Ignore your questions. (Don’t skip real questions so you can answer your fake question.)
If no one asks a question after two prepped questions? Then you did a great job, and they don’t have questions! At least you gave them a minute to think about it before shutting things down. Thank them and say goodbye.
Are you recording?
If you’re recording the event, let people know at the beginning. They’ll ask, otherwise. Then let them know again at the beginning of the Q&A. I guarantee, someone came in late, and they’re going to ask. It’s probably my single most asked question. You’ll still get asked. But maybe it will be once or twice instead ten times!
How is moderating a webinar different from moderating a webcast?
A lot of these tips can be used in a larger format, like a townhall meeting. Some can also be used in a smaller format, like a group meeting or a virtual classroom. The biggest differences in this case, really, are whether people are able to speak on camera, and whether they have a chat or not. The boundaries are blurring between these events (which is why it’s great to have a platform that can handle both live and real-time events!) Think about your event, and whether the tip makes sense for your particular set-up and audience. Everyone has their own moderation style – you should feel free to find your own!
Not sure what the difference is between a townhall, a webinar, or a virtual conference?