I did it again a couple of days ago, I registered for an organization’s webinar with no intention of actually going. Although I really did want to attend the event, I had looked at my calendar and had a conflict. But I signed up anyway. I knew I’d be sent the recording after and I could watch the session on my own time and get the same information.

Flash back to me facilitating a webinar for the public a couple of months ago. I had capped the numbers at 20 people so I could keep the session small and participatory. However, when the time came for the actual session, only 13 people actually showed up. Even though the session was still great, I was disappointed because I had people on the waitlist and I could have offered them a spot if the no shows had let me know they weren’t going to be there.

Hmm, here we have a juxtaposition, don’t we? In both situations we were using the term “webinar” to describe our virtual events. But my use of the term implied “participatory, experiential event where it matters if you show up” and the other organization meant “an event in which you listen to a presentation and it will be the same whether you’re there or not.”

So what are we to do? How we can be clear about what we’re offering if we are all using the same term to mean different types of virtual events, at very different points along the engagement spectrum?

One of the things I started to do right away in the pre-session communication for my next webinar was to include messaging around its participatory, interactive nature and the fact that I only register a certain amount of people to help make it so. I realized that if I wanted people to both show up and participate in the webinar I needed to prepare them for what it was. How were people going to know the “rules of engagement” for my session if I didn’t tell them? How were they going to know how interactive the webinar was going to be if I didn’t explain and get them excited and prepared for it?

Like a scientist testing her hypothesis, I noticed that after I changed my pre-session communication for my next webinar to set expectations of engagement and attendance with participants all 20 of them showed up. And here are a few things the participants said about the experience:

  • “Thank you so much for this incredible session.”
  • “Today’s session was AMAZING! I loved it, loved it, loved it!”
  • “Thank you everyone, such great community online, so great to meet you all.”

It worked!

If you’re wondering how to change your pre-session communication to get the same result, here are some of the phrases I and other facilitators in my network have been using recently to prepare participants for the way we do webinars…the interactive way:

  • “This is not a webinar, but an online workshop. Therefore please come prepared to interact, have your camera on, and share with others in the chat and group discussions.”
  • “This call will not be recorded.”
  • “This practice group is hands on and uses active learning.”
  • “We have capped the numbers at 20 because we believe in facilitating interactive sessions, for enhanced learning experiences.”
  • “This is not a broadcast-like webinar, it’s a participatory virtual workshop.”
  • “If you can’t come to the session, please let me know so I can give someone else your space.”
  • “Please feel free to show up ten minutes early to the session to check your connection and hang out and chat.”

Now, let’s circle back to the webinar that I registered for the other day. I’m not saying these virtual presentations shouldn’t ever be offered because even I sometimes still do sign up for them – to watch the recording later. (But maybe they could have just made a video?) But I’ll always still believe more strongly that if we’re going to make people show up at the same time for an online event, we should engage attendees and not just act like they aren’t even there.

If you’re truly a facilitator (not a presenter) and your goal is to create collaborative, interactive, participatory learning experiences in a virtual space, prepare participants accordingly for what to expect and how to show up effectively in the brief online world that you’re going to create. And yes, you’re probably going to have to still call it a “webinar” until someone invents a more magically descriptive word, but don’t stop there. Use some of the pre-session communication phrases above or invent new ones. Our participatory webinars are diamonds in the rough and we need to help people uncover them!

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