One of the more discouraging problems you can run into as a presenter is to lead a webinar that’s packed with information, only to encounter a silent room. It’s hard to gauge how well you’re doing, or how interesting your presentation is, if you never get any feedback from the participants. Are they interested? Does what you’re saying make sense? Audience participation doesn’t just make presenting easier though—if people are engaged, asking questions and sharing their experiences, they get more out of the webinar.

So, how do you get your audience to interact?

  1. Ask your audience questions. One of the easiest ways to encourage your participants to join in is to give them the opportunity to ask questions. But don’t wait until the end of your session for the Q&A. Waiting can, in our experience, lead participants to focus on the problems they’re having rather than the webinar itself. Instead, call for questions between each section of your presentation. At Idealware, this is typically around every 10 to 15 minutes. This way, participants are able to ask the questions they came into the session with, as well as anything they may have thought of throughout.
  2. Help your audience get involved from the start. It can be intimidating for people to ask questions in a webinar. Some may not want to ask their question because they think that everyone else already knows the answer or because they feel as though they’re interrupting or steering the topic in the wrong direction. It can be helpful then, as a presenter, to “Break the ice” a little in the beginning. From the very start of the webinar, ask participants to introduce themselves, to share what they’re hoping to get out of the session, or to share their current experiences. Doing this can clear up any questions or expectations about the session early on and also give you an idea of which participants you might be able to call on later.
  3. Check comprehension instead of only asking questions. In a traditional classroom or other in-person setting, it’s fairly easy for a presenter to gauge whether or not the participants understand the material. Puzzled expressions, glazed-over eyes, or an air of distraction are clear indicators that they’re not following along. However, those aren’t cues you can use in a webinar. Instead, when segueing between topics, don’t just ask for questions, but also ask participants what they felt the takeaway was, or (especially for longer sections and more complicated topics) if what you just discussed makes sense. If the webinar moves too quickly for participants to grasp the concepts, or if something gets passed over without clarification, then your audience won’t get as much out of your presentation.
  4. Conduct a poll. Most webinar and conferencing tools have the ability to insert a poll into your presentation. This can be a useful feature for engaging your participants…if used correctly. Don’t just poll for the sake of polling—poll with a purpose. For example, when Idealware led its Social Media Policy Toolkit, we used a poll to ask participants if they’ve ever had to deal with someone posting negative comments on their organization’s Facebook page. Discovering through our poll that more than half of our participants have dealt with that experience allowed us to jumpstart further discussions on that topic, and even helped us tailor part of the session to this specific topic.
  5. Make them laugh. Unlike a live presentation, a webinar has the tendency to feel a little impersonal and disconnected. A good way to make your session more approachable is to have a little fun with your slides and images. A light-hearted picture here or there can help your participants connect with you as a presenter. It’s important to note here that you shouldn’t try too hard to be funny, and it’s especially important to not be self-deprecating. You are still the presenter, and accordingly the participants need to see you as the authority or expert on your subject.
  6. Have a ringer. Sometimes, despite breaking often for questions or polling your participants, all you get are crickets. It can be helpful then, to break the ice with an extra voice you already know has something to share. Before the session starts, look through the registration list for attendees you already know and whom you will feel comfortable calling on. You can also use your poll results to prompt a conversation by asking a participant about his or her response. If all else fails, make someone up. Keep your own list of questions that you expect people to have and present one of those as a participant question to break the ice. Used sparingly, leading off a round of Q&A with a “John is asking…” or “I often hear this from people…” can signal to the group that it’s OK to ask their questions now. However, avoid using this tactic too often since the goal is to answer real questions about real issues your participants are facing. You shouldn’t take up their time with your own assumptions about their questions.
  7. Call on people. If you can see the names of your attendees, you can always call on individuals to share their point of view or experience. Try to avoid calling on people who haven’t asked any questions or otherwise participated so far—there’s nothing worse that calling on someone who has walked away from the computer or isn’t paying attention. If you don’t want to call on individuals, you could also ask people to use the “raise hand” button as a way to make sure every question is answered in an orderly manner.
  8. Solicit case studies or examples. As we’ve alluded to before, the anonymity of a webinar can actually make people MORE reluctant to speak up than if they were attending a live presentation. As a presenter, part of the goal of a webinar isn’t just to talk to these people for 90 minutes, it’s to give them a platform to share their experiences and learn from each other.