Will webinars ever beat real-life presentations? Nope. 7 Reasons.

Will webinars ever beat real-life presentations? Nope. 7 Reasons.

In my humble opinion, online presentations ...

... are the weak, little brother of live events
... will always be the second best solution
... not executed properly, will leave you with dull results.

Before we start, I'm talking about online live-streamed presentations. I'm not talking about online meetings or even pre-recorded presentations. These can be very effective, sometimes even better than the real stuff if prepared well.

But, I disagree with some fellow speakers and companies proclaiming that virtual events are outperforming live events. I don’t feel this to be true. I think online webinars and presentations are the pale version of real-life presentations - even for top tier speakers who may deliver an outstanding presentation. (*1).
That doesn't mean that webinars or online presentations have to be boring but that's a different topic (see last paragraph).

1. Short Attention Spans

In general, our attention spans are decreasing. While we could pay attention to something for an average of 12 minutes back in 1998, by 2008 that number was down to a dismal 5 minutes.
When it comes to our attention span online, the evidence is even bleaker. When we’re surfing the net, our attention span is shorter than a goldfish – 17% of all page views last less than 4 seconds. However, an online presentation is not the same as scrolling down webpages, so I would say that our attention span is around 2-3 minutes.
Because your audience is watching your speech on a device, it’s ever so easy to move your head slightly to the left to finish to peruse that pop-up article on the latest corona news. Then, you’ll look to the right of the videoconferencing app and you’ll see you’ve just got a new email.
To think human beings still believe we can multitask. We cannot. The smallest events can completely divert our attention, and it requires a lot of discipline and energy to get reinvested into the story of the speech.
Those are just the distractions on your device - the small screen you're looking at. There’s also the world outside: that big truck steaming down the street, your children with their endless questions, or the beep of the dishwasher that steal your attention away.

=== PRO Speaker Tip:

It's your job to keep the attention. Now, you can't do that in the same way as before - you have to break your keynote into many smaller pieces of 3 -4 minutes of content, then transition into doing something with the audience. Ask them a quick question in the chat. Let them grab a green object in their environment which you may use to connect to your topic. Create breakout-rooms for 3 minutes to have a little chat about a statement. Print your slides instead of being stuck in the presenting mode. There are endless techniques to win back their attention. It isn’t easy, but no one ever said it was.

Check out this video for more examples to work in an interactive way.

2. Dealing with Technical Hiccups

'Can you hear me?', 'Is my camera on?', 'Where is the chatbox?'
These are probably the most common questions asked during video presentations worldwide (more so, maybe, than questions involving your actual content!). You would expect people to be familiar with videoconferencing tools, but it's something new and not everyone is an Elon Musk.
It’s hard because one meeting is done via Zoom, the next one is via Microsoft Teams while number 3 will take place in Google Hangout. There are so many platforms trying to get a piece of the videoconferencing pie, that it’s all becoming very confusing.
As a speaker, you have to pay attention to those technical thorns in your side, making it all the more harder to deliver a worthewhile presentation.

=== PRO Speaker Tip:

Ensure that you prepare everything in advance. Give clear instructions like 'go to the bottom of your screen, next to the little microphone and video icons, you’ll find the chat button. If you click that, a different screen will open where you can type a response to this question.'

3. An Emotionally & Physically Exhausted Audience

Your presentation might be squeezed in between the 10AM meeting with colleague X, and just before that the kids are about to be homeschooled so they need to have their lunch.
Your audience doesn’t have the benefit of acclimatizing to your topic. During a physical event, it’s a lot easier for an audience to ‘merge’ themselves into a topic when they are following a half/full-day event.
We don't realise all the little things that usually break up our days, and these have temporarily stopped.
Online meetings can often be back-to-back, giving little time to take a break and recharge.
That may otherwise happen as we move from one space to another. You might grab a coffee in between meetings, walk to another part of the building, or spend some time travelling to another meeting.
Even taking five minutes to drink some water and have small talk with colleagues allows for some respite before you need to focus again. Online meetings, (sometimes several hours a day), take an emotional and physical toll.
Again, there’s an extra challenge as a speaker to bring in some extra energy from a distance.

=== PRO Speaker Tip:

Allow participants time to get a coffee or take a quick break before the start. Play some music, and say that the real content starts when the music stops. It may be beneficial to build in some reflection time at certain moments in your presentations to allow participants to see how the content can be used in their own circumstances.
Or, do an exercise where they have to move in their own home. You could ask them to find a certain object & integrate it into your presentation (as a metaphor or example).

4. No Non-Verbal Communication

This, for me one of the most difficult issues in an online session. As a presenter, you’re standing in front of a screen with 40 other mini-screens. You can’t even see all your audience members. It’s a challenge to pick up on emotional expressions and you can’t lock eyes with your audience.
Everybody is muted (it makes sense, the various background noises would drive you up the walls), but it also means that you don't hear their reactions. You don’t hear a gasp, or any ‘positive reinforcement’ sounds like ‘Yes', ‘Mmm ah’, …
The one thing that I miss the most is laughter.
I’m a speaker who uses quite a lot of humor and the nice thing about being together in person is that when one person laughs at a joke, the rest of the audience usually joins in. You don’t see that in online presentations. At best, you’ll get a smile from a participant whose face is so small you even see it.
Several studies show that online meetings remove many of the non-verbal cues we rely on for effective communication. Our minds and bodies experience a disconnect, which can lead to exhaustion. The absence of those non-verbal cues makes it a lot harder to deliver an engaging presentation.

=== PRO Speaker Tip:

Look at the camera because this way the audience gets the impression that you’re making eye contact, not just staring at your slides. It also helps if you can have some ‘real’ human beings live in your room as an audience. Just a few people may be enough to feel their energy.

5. Harder to Connect to Your Audience

In most online sessions, there’s no chance to have an informal chat with the participants before you enter the ‘digital stage’. There’s no before and after-presentation energy (except perhaps the ’stress’ time before a session to test the technical stuff).
Participants log in 1 minute before the session starts (if you’re lucky) and boom … immediately you have to deliver your content. After you’ve shared your story, participants are leaving the digital room because their next meeting has already started. If you agreed to it in advance, you will get some feedback from the organiser, but participants seldom line up for a quick conversation afterward, as they would in a live session.

=== PRO Speaker Tip :

Invite participants to login 10-15 minutes earlier for an informal chat. It’s not quite the same as in person, but at least you get a chance to say hello to people as they come in for a short informal chat.

6. Limited Mobility (for Audience & Speaker)

You're bound in your movements because you can’t do anything outside the frame of the camera. You don’t have a big stage that you can use to amplify your story. The movement options for your audience are limited, too (although, one could reasonably argue that this is the same in a live conference because people are stuck in chairs or an auditorium).
I want to move around!
At least you had the option of asking people to stand up to have a quick conversation with their neighbour. Or, doing a shared exercise with the audience. For example, a quick stretching exercise - which can feel a bit weird if you have to do this stretching exercise on your own in your home. The translation of these techniques from on-site to online can make for a very awkward presentation.

=== PRO Speaker Tip:

I’m now recommending some of my clients who want to do a webinar or online presentation to hire an empty auditorium or theatre space with a professional camera operator.
Most of those locations are now empty anyway (so it might even be possible to hire at a lower fee). I then have space to move around, bringing a stronger story because I can move, while my slides are behind me. I’m once again in my natural professional environment, which helps me to embrace my professional top-speaker energy. It’s a completely different energy compared to delivering presentations from my home (where I’m also readily drawn away by an array of household distractions).

7. Becoming a Jack of All Trades

During an online presentation, you aren’t just the speaker. Oftentimes you are also the moderator, the IT person, and the film crew if you choose to record it, which many speakers do.
Most of us don’t have these specialists around when we deliver a presentation from our home office. At bigger events, these roles are allocated to experienced professionals. As a speaker, you walk in on a red carpet and deliver your speech. You are solely responsible for the speech, while now your attention is divided between different roles.

=== PRO Speaker Tip:

Preparation is key. You know that you will need to take on several roles, so make sure you prepared for the technical stuff coming up.
Integrate the moderating role into your presentation, or ask the organiser to be the moderator. Let them explain the technical things that have to be shared at the start ( where the chat box is, materials that participants may need), and you can prepare an introduction for the moderator to go through before you start.

(*1) This might offend some of my fellow speakers but I think a large group is doing a very mediocre job. Online presentations and live ones are chalk and cheese! You can't just deliver the same speech with the same slides in the same format as before. I've seen speakers who are just reading off their slides for 45 minutes, finishing with a Q&A via the chat (sorry to disappoint you, but that's NOT an interactive speech). I've seen speakers pause their video for the audience to better concentrate on the slides (huh? If I want to read a book, I'll do so, but please use all the digital tools you can because their attention spans are already so much shorter). Professional speakers, a lot of us need to up our game if we want to stay relevant in this online stage!

But that doesn't mean that online sessions should be boring!
All this being said, don't get me wrong. I belief that online presentations won't reach the level of quality compared with live face-to-face events but they are the best option at this moment (when live events are not allowed). And it doesn't mean that online presentations have to be boring. Wouldn't it be great if we would have brilliant, interactive, fun webinars and presentations? We can do this!