Beyond the Webinar

The earthLet me confess right up front: I really don’t like webinars. Too often they feel “done unto me.” I am powerless, at the mercy of the organizers. I may have access to a chat room (Thank Goodness!) But more often than not, these are content delivery mechanisms with token participant interaction in the form of crowded Q&A segments or polls with varying degrees of relevance. What is worse is that I have been a perpetrator of these practices so I continue to try and change my evil ways.

Changing ingrained habits requires some reflection – of self and of the state of the practice of these so-called “webinars.”  Recently I had the chance to offer feedback on a webinar I experienced as a recording.  I’ve edited/generalized my thoughts to share. In a follow up post I’ll reflect on my own practice — this is where I need to cut to the bone!
1. Us/Them: It is logical for an organizer or organizing agency to want to  appear well prepared for sharing their work. We all like folks to know we “did our homework.” We get our slides spiffed up and appropriately formatted for the webinar tool we are given. We time our remarks. We practice speaking clearly and at an appropriate pace.

The challenge this presents is that the end product puts the speaker and/or the organization at the center. We create an us/them dynamic before the event even starts. Think about set ups where the only ones who can use the voice tool to communicate are the organizers. Those who bear the presentation file are in control of the message. The tool administrator(s) control the process (i.e determining that they speak for 60 minutes, then there is Q&A.)

The use of a one way style of presentation reinforces the power dynamics of the speaker/expert/organization as central, and everyone else as “audience.” All too often, the audience is never heard. Is that a good use of precious synchronous time? Why not send out a video or narrated PowerPoint? An online gathering is time better spent as a multi-directional mode of “being together” — even online. This does NOT diminish the importance and value of content we “deliver” to others. Here are some options to consider.


  • Move away from meetings that are primarily broadcast which holds control with the presenter. Sharing information is essential, but synchronous time should always have significant multi directional interaction. For my colleagues in international development, I think everyone has values of inclusiveness and shared participation. We have to “walk this talk” in webinars as well.
  • Small things can create or break down us/them.  For example don’t just show where you are on a map at the start of a webinar, add dots for all the participants and their locations. Better yet, use a tool that allows them to add their own dots. Help the group see not only you,  but “we” – all the people working together about something we all care deeply about.
  • Because we lack body  language online, it is useful to really scrutinize our language.From the wording in the slides and by the speaker, consider changes in language so that it is more inclusive of the participants.


2. Strive for  good practices for learning/engaging online. Webinars in general run the risk of being even less engaging than a dark room face to face with a long PowerPoint. There is a saying in the online facilitation world “A bad meeting F2F is a terrible meeting online.” So we need to be even more attentive to how we structure online engagements to reflect a) how adults learn b) the high risk of losing attention (especially due to multi tasking) and c) the cultural and power diversity inherent in your group. Quality content is important, but it alone is not a reason to use an interactive platform — you can deliver content in many ways. Choosing a synchronous mode, to me,  implies interaction.


  • Consider keeping online meetings to 60 minutes. If not, do a stretch break every at 30 and 60 minutes. Say “let’s take a 60 second break.” Stand up, stretch, look away from the screen and give your body a moment of respite. We’ll call you back in 60 (90-120) seconds (sometimes a bio break is useful!)
  • A useful rule of thumb is to break up information presentation with some means of audience engagement/participation every 7-15 minutes. Use polls, chat, “red/green/yellow” feedback mechanisms, hand raising, checking for understanding, etc. This may mean you have someone facilitating these other channels if it is too distracting for the host and speakers. (Over time it does get easier, but practice is critical!)
  • Take questions approximately every 15 minutes vs holding at end. People stop listening carefully and are thus less prepared to ask questions after longer periods of time. (They are also more prone to multitasking, etc.)
  • Don’t just deliver information – use narrative. Stories hold our attention better than a series of bullet points. In fact, ditch those boring slides unless you are using the printed information to make it easier for people coming from a different first language.
  • Deliver the useful content in a different manner and use the webmeeting entirely for questions and interactions. Send a recording introducing the team. Send a narrated PowerPoint about the topic. Keep these content packages smaller. For example, if you were trying to give an overview of a portfolio of projects, you could break it up into some sub packages. 1) about the team 2) strategy, 3) project descriptions, 4) monitoring and evaluation strategy, etc.
  • Secondary tip: Do not think of these information products as polished products — don’t waste energy overproducing. That sucks the human element out of it. Imperfection is a door to engagement… seriously. Moments of uncertainty, tough questions — these engage the participants.
  • Stay relaxed as a narrator and speak at useful pace for understanding, particularly for those who have English as a second (or third, fourth) language. Keep that human touch. Add little bits of personal information and affect. Be human.
  • Let participants ask question verbally, not just in chat if possible. While there are many technical complications and sometimes the burden of accents on unclear audio channels, voice brings again brings in that human element. (Video does too, but there are bandwidth considerations. When you can, consider using it.)
  • Encourage collective note taking in the chat room or with complementary tool. When people share this task, they listen more carefully and the begin to learn about each others strengths and insights as people add additional information or annotations.
  • When someone asks a question, note who asked the question. This helps everyone see that people are heard, even if the audio option is not practical (for various reasons, no mic, etc. )  At the end of the call, specifically thank by name those who asked questions to encourage the behavior for future interactions.
  • In Q&A sections, consider a visual to help people pay attention. Use the whiteboard for noting the questions, answers, links that refer to what has been spoken about, etc.

There are a few ideas. What are yours?

Also, here are some previous posts about similar issues:

Affection: must share from Wendell Berry

CC License Some rights reserved by Frodrig on FlickrThis morning from an #agchat tweet I spotted the word “affection.” I had to click. (Thanks @USFarmerMag!) And found this from March. Take a minute and enjoy. ( I read it while listening to Rene Fleming with YoYo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile creating music with “Touch the Hand of Love.” Mama mia. Great combo. I’ll embed it below so you can do the same if you wish.)

For the 41st Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities which he delivered on Monday evening at the Kennedy Center, Mr. Berry, American intellectual and agrarian-minded elder, described how and why affection, yes, affection!, ought be considered the cornerstone of a new economy. Berry tells us that affection does not spring up fully formed; it is gotten to by way of imagination. It’s a train of thought worth quoting at length: “For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world,” says Berry, “they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.” Affection, then, takes us beyond statistics and generalizations to the immediate and the particular. It focuses our attention on the beloved things right in front of us. This field,this child, this community.

Berry observes that we live in a time where affection is discounted. It’s true: rare is the public discussion where affection – or beauty, or hope, or joy – is brought forward as a good and weighty reason to do anything. But Berry believes that affection is deeply motivating. “Affection involves us entirely,” he writes. If he is right, love itself could be what moves us, finally, to care for the Earth.

You can read Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture, or watch a video of him delivering it.

via LocalHarvest News – March 30, 2012.

I loved this line: “affection does not spring up fully formed; it is gotten to by way of imagination.”  As I prepare to facilitate an agricultural planning meeting, this is so useful for me to have in my mind.

Where are you imagining and nurturing affection in your work? Your life? Who is imagining it for you?


Tree image from Flickr, LicenseAttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Frodrig

Responding to Negative Comments Online

Nice visual organization of useful/not so useful responses to negative comments online. Take a peek! Thanks @silkcharm / Laurel Papworth!

Between disagreement and cynicism

Flickr CC photo by Laura Whitehead (I wrote this in January – never finished, nor published it. I’m cleaning out some blog drafts and it felt worthwhile to try and tidy this one up and get it out. )

As I chew over my learnings of the past week in Rome for the Share Fair and work at IFAD (the International Fund for Agricultural Development, another UN Agency), one lesson I clearly needed to learn was the boundary between edge of disagreement and the pit of cynicism.  As a facilitator, I am often accused of abusing political correctness, or even of being a Pollyanna. In my advocacy of communities, I have been cautioned about the negative influence of groupthink and the erosion of tolerance for diversity. 

I often think of these admonitions as reactions reflecting past negative experiences of something. “I had a group exclude me, therefore groups are more about who is out than who is in.” Or “the politically correct forget the value of critical thinking.” I have always struggled to respond to these comments because they are always correct – some of the time. There are counter examples in every case, and counter patterns. Everything has a dark and a light side, so our generalizations are as damaging as they are helpful.

My only way to cope with this is to try and practice a set of principles that work to promote as generative and useful contexts for working as I can. But heck, like everyone else, I fail. All the time. I abuse my own values. 

I noticed one situation last week that really stuck out for me. I was getting very frustrated with the planning process of the Share Fair over the last few months. I felt a sense of fear to really live into the spirit of knowledge sharing. A protection of organizational rather than collective values as five organizations collaborated to create the event, and the oppressive weight of political formality that is embedded in some of the organizations.  I even got petulant and threatened to not come. Uh oh. 

But I flew to Rome. I was frustrated that the sessions I was to facilitate were labeled as “discussions” – faint cover for “traditional panel sessions,” and that I was assigned a technical session I knew little about. In short, I found a lot to complain about and expected little. Uh oh.

When did I slip from disagreement to cynicism? How could I then let my cynicism dampen or even hurt others who were trying their best to make a positive outcome? One of the lead facilitators, who was overburdened not just with the Fair, but with other work and the typical string of mishaps outside of work, said something to the effect that she had chosen optimism as her approach in the face of challenges. 

Where is the line between constructive disagreement and engagement and the heavy dampening of cynicism? How do we continue to push forward and not fall back to old habits, work with all the negativity, and still retain a sense of possibility and optimism? And why is this so important?

During the Fair, sure, there were a lot of cool things we could have done. Did they go as far as they could have? In many cases, no. But did they go far ENOUGH? There was a palpable sense of learning permeating so many of the sessions. There were people huddled in conversation in the booths and over coffee. (I have to say, I’m SO happy that the decision to have  a dedicated coffee/food bar IN the actual event area was preserved. I can’t say enough of the magical power of food and good Italian coffee to convene knowledge sharing moments.) So what if the opening was stiff and formal. What about the excitement of participants in the blogging session who said “NOW I know what blogging is all about.” Or the colleagues from different organizations who sat together in a panel discussion and discovered important intersections in their work.

In our aspirations to make something the best it can be, we can be blinded by the “rightness” of our own ideas. So, they might be right. But they are not the only possibility. Big ships turn slowly, but the people on them can still be individually and collectively nimble. Cynicism dampens the human spirit. Constructive and positive (in attitude and spirit) disagreement can stimulate innovation and growth. We should no more keep quiet with new ideas just because they are disruptive than we should condem others because they don’t see nor appreciate our divergent ideas. 

I was in a conversation with one of the responsible staff for the fair. I was chastizing him and his organization for not taking the leap of leadership into experimentation for positive change. I said people were being too safe. 

He looked at me, an outside consultant, and said “thats what we hire you for.”

If this is true, then my role as external agent of disruption must continue to offer divergent perspectives, but not fall into the trap of cynicism. Then my value disappears.


Photo: Uploaded on January 18, 2009 by Laura Whitehead

Language, usefulness and exclusion

I work a lot inside of communities of one sort or another and they often have their own insider language. You know, jargon. People complain that jargon is exclusionary and it sure can be. But it is also useful short hand within a community and can convey succinctly something with specific meaning. The challenge for us is using that language either outside our communities or with intent to exclude.

But dang, it can be useful. Here is a great example from travel guru/insider Joe Brancatelli who does a lovely decoding for us outsiders. This time it is about talking to gate agents at the airport.

One example: When you don’t see your plane at the gate, don’t ask the agent if the flight is on time. Ask, “Where’s the equipment?” That will force the agent to go to the computer and find out where your aircraft is and when it will actually arrive. If the plane is already at the gate, ask, “When are we scheduled to push back?” Looking for an upgrade? Don’t blindly inquire about your chances. Ask, “How are the loads today?” The agent will tell you how many seats are empty and your number on the upgrade wait list.

What kind of insider language do you use? How do you interpret it for others?

Amazing chocolate airplane and photo by Stevepreneur on Flickr