By now, most lawyers have earned some CLE credits by watching a webinar, at least in the states that allow on-line classes. If you’ve ever watched one of these live or on-demand webinars, you know that some look good, are informative, and are easy to watch. Others … aren’t.

Why do some of these webinars work while others don’t? In my office, we’ve hosted an annual five-hour live webinar for six years, and I’ve personally given about a dozen different webinars. I’ve seen things that work well and things that don’t. If you ever decide to give one of these presentations for your local bar association or some other group, here are some tips that will give your webinar a chance to succeed.

This article will focus on “pure” webinars—as compared to a live presentation in front of an audience that happens to be recorded. A pure webinar usually features a slideshow and may show the speaker in a tiny box above or below the screen. In a pure webinar, there is no live audience.

Get Ready to Have No Audience

To start preparing, find out exactly what the audience will see. Some webinars don’t show the speaker at all, just the slides. Others show you only from the neck up. This is critical in deciding what to wear for your presentation. If you can get away with wearing jeans or shorts and those make you feel more comfortable than a business suit, you should do it.

The single most important part of your webinar will be the presentation itself. Even if you’ve given a lot of live presentations and you feel comfortable giving them, it’s not much help in getting you ready for a recorded presentation like this. It’s an entirely different speaking approach. The key reason why it is so different is the lack of immediate feedback. With an in-person presentation, you can see the faces of the audience. You can sense if they are bored or excited.

You can see if they are following you or if they have decided to follow other pursuits in the middle of your presentation. None of this works in a webinar.

With a webinar, you’re the only person who controls the emotions for the entire presentation. Even if live questions are emailed mid-presentation, they will likely only ask about specific points and not really get at the tone of your presentation or give you a sense of whether you are connecting with your audience.

Practice Your Webinar Many Times

Knowing that these presentations are different from live presentations, how can you prepare? The first step in making the presentation really effective is to practice it extensively in advance. Lawyers, in general, are fairly confident public speakers.

Many like to think they can breeze through a presentation with minimal preparation, especially if they are real experts on the topic. With an in-person presentation, this is at least possible (although a lot harder than many lawyers seem to think). With a webinar, it’s less successful. Lack of webinar preparation is almost impossible to cover up with a charming on-screen persona. It just looks unprepared. This is even more important if your presentation will be available long-term in an on-demand format. Your lack of preparation might be visible for years. Practicing the presentation multiple times is a bare necessity.

Jokes? No.

Find an old book that tells you how to navigate public speaking and you’re likely to see the suggestion that you should tell a joke at some point. I think this is almost always terrible advice for in-person presentations, and it’s even worse for a webinar. Who’s going to laugh at your joke? You? Do you want to broadcast to the legal community that you’re the type of person who laughs at their own jokes? There may be someone else in the room taking care of all the tech issues, but it is unlikely they’ll be focusing that much on your presentation. They have other duties and don’t always listen to what you’re saying. That probably only leaves a laugh track, which would be novel, but is probably not recommended if you want to be taken seriously.

A Good Example to Follow: News Anchors

If you want to engage your webinar audience, practicing your presentation in advance is not only advisable, it’s a necessity. With an in-person audience, knowing your key bullet points and having a decent notion of what you want to say is probably the best way to make a presentation.

But with a webinar, a good goal should be to make your presentation more like a persuasive news anchor. Here are four keys:

Use Your Visual Aids, But Don’t Read Them Out Loud

Just like an in-person presentation, using a slide show is fine as long as you don’t literally read the words on the slides. The slides are there to give your readers something to focus on while they are listening to you. They can complement what you are saying as well. If you want to give a full case citation, feel free to put it in a slide. Just don’t read it verbatim.

You’re Better Off With a Script Than Ad-libbing

With a live presentation, it’s generally a bad idea to read from a script. You can appear robotic and uninterested. But with a webinar, it’s better to read verbatim from a page than to be underprepared. This is especially true if the audience can’t see you or your image is so small that it doesn’t matter that you’re looking at a page. As long as you practice the presentation enough, an entirely written out presentation can be an effective approach to a webinar.

But you need to sound like you’re not just reading. Watching virtually any professional news anchor will show you how. You need to pause occasionally, with different lengths of pauses for effect. It’s also useful to modulate your voice when asking a rhetorical question or punching a key point. Avoid a monotone delivery and plan for a key point roughly every five minutes, and your audience is likely to stay with you.

Timing is Everything

Of all the webinars I’ve ever watched, picking the worst one was easy. It was advertised to last ninety minutes. But after an hour, the two presenters simply ran out of material. They had charged a set price for a ninety-minute presentation, which would have equaled 1.5 credits. But an email was sent a few days after the presentation stating that the presentation had been downgraded to only one credit. If you promise your audience a ninety-minute presentation, you owe them ninety minutes. You should absolutely assume there will be no questions. If you can’t squeeze everything in, your audience will not be as upset versus if you run out of material and the viewers don’t get the advertised number of credits. This is particularly the case when CLE reporting deadlines are looming.

A simple way to make sure you have enough material is the ten-minute rule. If your presentation is for an hour, plan six ten-minute blocks of speaking. After your first block, if you have two minutes left, give a good example from your practice to illustrate what you’ve covered. Then, when the ten minutes are up, move to the next topic. If you do this for each ten-minute block, it won’t be obvious at the forty-seven minute mark that you are out of material and stalling. Again, timing your practice presentations in advance should tell you if you have enough material. Keep in mind that most people go at least ten percent faster in the actual presentation than they do in their rehearsals.

Audience Questions? Trust Your Assistant.

With most live webinars, the audience can email questions as the presentation is being recorded. Talk to whoever will be helping before your presentation about how to deal with these questions. Watch enough webinars and you’ll notice speakers are easily distracted by the mere possibility of an emailed question. It’s their only real audience interaction and some will simply stop their presentation and bluntly ask, “Is that a question?” This can really derail the rhythm of the presentation.

Trust that the person getting the questions will know whether they should pass them on to you or not. Some questions have already been answered by the time they reach you so they should be disregarded. Some are nonsensical or even mini-presentations that may not relate to your topic. Some are merely technical questions about watching the webinar. Trust that your assistant will be able to tell the difference between a good question and one that isn’t.

Don’t Dwell on What Your Audience is Doing While They’re Watching

Webinars fundamentally require the audience to be on their honor. But we all know that some lawyers are probably multi-tasking while watching some of these on-line presentations. Some may be checking emails or reviewing a brief while they are watching. Some may be at home, still wearing their pajamas. Some may be working out on an elliptical.

It doesn’t do you any good to try to compete with any of these possibilities. The best you can do is create and deliver a professional presentation and expect that your audience will recognize at the start of the presentation that it’s worth watching. If you convince them early, you’ll hopefully have their attention for the rest of the presentation.

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