Do you make this #1 mistake when you present online?

no polls!What’s your most precious resource? Think about it for a second.

Don’t spend long though, because I’d say:

The answer’s your time!

It’s precious because it’s a finite resource for which competition is fiercer than ever.

No prizes, then, for guessing what your audience’s most precious resource is. Yup, they’re time-hungry too, just like you and me.

So what’s the number-1 mistake presenters make, especially online?

It’s wasting listeners’ time, or more accurately, failing to show you’re not wasting people’s time. Time-wasting’s a big enough problem in face-to-face talks (think “death by slideware”), but it’s even more so online, where people are even less patient.

I’m willing to bet that you sometimes waste people’s time if you present online. I know I have at times! That’s because there are a couple of near-universal time-wasting habits that webinar presenters use. And not only do everyday presenters use them, recognised webinar experts advise people to use them, too!

(By the way, you don’t have to run public webinars to be an online presenter. Even if you present at internal work meetings using something like Live Meeting, GotoMeeting, or Adobe Connect, then this post’s for you too.)

Here are 3 of the commonest ways to waste people’s time (solutions to which you’ll find in this follow-up post):

  • Spending too long on introductions
    Time spent introducing the presenter – or how to use the technology (like audio controls and chat features) – just isn’t engaging. The equivalent in a face-to-face talk would be starting by spending 5 or more long minutes saying where the bathrooms, fire escapes and local cafés are.

    Yes, some of those things might need to be discussed, but not for 5+ minutes, and not necessarily as your opening words. In fact online, sometimes speakers spend a lot more than even 5 minutes on introductions, which seems like an eternity to the audience – if they stay around long enough!

  • Staying too long on any slide
    As I’ve said before, our brains are wired to tune out to sameness, and to notice differences. That’s why you need to keep up a lively pace, so your changing visuals repeatedly draw people’s attention. (Not so brisk a pace that people get left behind though. So yes, it’s a fine line to tread!)

    To give you some metrics, PowerPoint MVP Ellen Finkelstein suggests at most 2 minutes per slide (which she says is very generous), and webinar specialist Ken Molay suggests a ballpark average of 1 minute per slide.

    However, if you’re like almost all presenters, the place you linger longest is on the slide you show when answering questions. Nearly always, presenters show just 1 slide during their whole Q&A, even for 10 minutes or more.

    In fact recently I saw a well-known author spend 10 minutes with the same slide on-screen during his Q&A, having sped through almost 180 slides in the previous 50 minutes! (Yes, he’d spent only around 15 seconds per slide on average, until he suddenly went comatose for his whole Q&A! For more details about this example, please see this comment below.)

  • Fixating on “interaction” instead of value

    Most webinar experts are just plain wrong

    This is my pet peeve, and I believe it’s where most webinar experts are just plain wrong. Experts and everyday presenters alike tend to focus on interactions – especially polls – as a way to fight audience-isolation. But I believe polls often bore and disengage audiences, because frankly most polls suck!

    In a face-to-face presentation to a big crowd, imagine asking your audience for a show of hands on some question. That’s a good way to engage people. But then imagine making people wait while you count how many hands are raised for each response – what a waste of people’s time!

    That’s in effect what happens during webinar polls. They’re far too long, too frequent (within any given webinar), and too widespread (among webinars in general), so to me they’ve become obtrusive and a cliché. And there’s a crucial missing element that’s needed for the interaction to have any value – namely you need to engage the listener’s mind.

    So in a webinar – or indeed any presentation:

    Worthwhile interaction happens
    by engaging the listener’s mind
    not just by asking a question for the presenter’s benefit!

    Often in a webinar, it might take several minutes to present each poll question in context, to gather responses, and then to discuss the results. To many listeners, that’s boring, and not very helpful!

    Polls are mostly about other people’s answers!

    People are mildly interested in how other attendees answer a poll, but most of all they want the presenter to respond to how they’ve answered it. So polls can be very frustrating because the presenter asks for your input, but then usually just discusses it in general terms. After all, polls are mostly about other people’s answers! Hence, people multi-task – or leave altogether.

    I once attended a webinar where the presenter ran 3 or 4 polls back-to-back, which was so disengaging! Polls are far quicker to do face-to-face, with a show of hands, so they’re one place where technology isn’t very helpful.

    That’s why I really can’t resist this phrase:

    Don’t poll-arise people in your webinars!

So what can you do to avoid those 3 time-wasters? In an upcoming post, I’ll offer solutions for them all.

Over to you

What do you think is the #1 mistake presenters make online?
Please enter your comment below.

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9 thoughts on “Do you make this #1 mistake when you present online?

  1. I like polls and do find them engaging during webinars. I particularly look forward to the results to understand how others have voted.


  2. First, thanks for mentioning me in the article! I find that audiences are quite interested in the group. For example, I often ask people what type of presentation they give — sales, internal business, training/education or motivational/inspirational. People like to know how they fit into the group. I sometimes ask questions and then use the answers to fine-tune my presentation.

    Even if I don’t use polls, I always ask the group questions and ask them to write the replies in the chat box. Then I read out the answers. This creates quite a bit of conversation and I like that informal approach. Most of the webinars I do are training and I need to know what people’s problems are. Of course, I also answer questions.

    One thing that I think does distract people is a chat box in which everyone can see everyone else’s comments. People end up talking to each other so they obviously aren’t listening to me. It does create a nice sense of community, however, and is good for certain types of topics and groups.


    • Thanks for commenting, Ellen.

      I prefer the chat box to live polls, because it’s more immediate. Mind you, recently I attended a webinar where 1 or 2 people kept hijacking the chat by copying their previous comment or question and pasting it in repeatedly – perhaps a dozen times in a row! So a chat system that lets the organizers block people who cause problems is much better (or where only the organizers can see what everyone else has typed).

      Please see my earlier reply to Ken about asking questions during registration. To me, that seems a much better approach than using live polls, because you can still show the results to the audience, but you get to really address the feedback when putting together the slides, and there’s no waiting around for everyone to answer. I’d be very interested in your and Ken’s different thoughts on that approach.


  3. Hi Craig,
    There are all kinds of great insights in this post. You touch on a lot of different specifics when it comes to engaging audience attention and interest. I was particularly interested in a comment you made on my post about polls in webinars (

    We both agree that polls are too often used poorly and serve only to make the presenter feel better, without being clearly presented for the audience’s benefit. I tried to give some quick tips and considerations to make polls more effective. But in your comment, it seemed like you were saying “Polls suck. Don’t use them.” I can’t support you there. It reminds me of a Business Writing teacher I had in college. At the beginning of the term he told us, “I’m tired of seeing semicolons used incorrectly in student papers. You people just never learn. So I’m telling you right now… If I see a semicolon in any paper you hand in, I’m reducing your grade.” This isn’t instructive or helpful and it ignores the value that a semicolon can add when used correctly.

    I do believe that polls can offer value FOR AUDIENCES and can engage their interest. But only if they are planned, designed, and delivered appropriately FOR YOUR AUDIENCE’S INTERESTS. I’m right with you on reducing their frequency within a given webinar, but not on eliminating them from the world of webinars.

    If I ask a question about audience background knowledge, I honestly do use the responses to alter my subsequent presentation. How much background and explanation do I need to give? If the audience sees that not everybody listening is like themselves, they can better appreciate why my information level is structured as it is. If I have a large audience of people interested in or experienced in a common subject area, the results of a poll can be of great interest to them in seeing whether their concerns, priorities, or experiences are commonly shared. It’s all in how you frame and set up the poll. As a presenter, you need to clearly indicate what’s in it for the audience.

    Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water! Ditch the bad polls, eliminate the time wasters that are there to give the false illusion of interactivity, and focus on making your remaining polls valuable and interesting for the participants.

    Keep spreading the word about good presentation habits! Boy, do we all need it.


    • Thanks for your kind comment, Ken.

      (Admittedly, this post complains about polls but doesn’t itself give an alternative – that’s where my follow-up post comes in, which suggests asking questions during registration. There’s a link to that post at the end of this one, but I’ll now add a link to the follow-up post at the start too.)

      So I say: Why not ask questions during registration, rather than in the webinar? Surely it makes more sense to ask (for instance: how much knowledge the audience has) before the presenter makes the slides.

      That’d make it far easier (and more effective) to alter the presentation to suit the results – instead of designing the slides one way and then using them differently.

      Also, asking in advance seems to achieve all of the pluses of using a live poll, without slowing down the audience when they’ve already had to turn up at a time set out by the organisers. (Slowing them down slightly during registration is better, because it’s at a time of their choosing, and crucially they don’t have to wait while all the answers are collated.)

      I have in mind adding literally just 2 or 3 questions to the registration – enough to get helpful demographics, without being onerous. What’s more, having a free-text field might give the best insights, and there’d be a lot more time for the presenter to read people’s answers (and for people to think about what they type) than there is when using the live chat panel.

      There might be times when live interaction is better than asking upfront e.g. the chat panel doesn’t have the lag that polls do, so it can be useful if managed well.

      Overall though, isn’t it better to ask most questions beforehand, so you can use the results to truly shape the whole presentation, and then show and discuss the results in the webinar just like you would with a live poll?


      • We are in danger of turning this comment area into a private conversation, Craig. So I’ll keep my answer short and hopefully non-contentious! 🙂

        I agree with you that many questions can be asked ahead of time, and I have advocated engaging the audience before the webinar and giving them a stake in the content. Adding more inputs to registration pages is always dangerous… Every additional box reduces completion rates by some percent. I often like to do it by inviting response from the initial registration confirmation email and in reminder emails.

        Where I disagree is your absolutism on using this method exclusively and prohibiting live polls entirely. I think you are too extreme in your views. One (maybe two) live polls in an event, properly constructed, framed, and run can give an audience a sense of live participation and involvement – a sense of immediacy, and a reason for being a part of the live session instead of just watching the recording. That said, I am like you in that I prefer to rely on chat for my primary audience feedback and involvement.


  4. Good stuff, Craig, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with one point. Communication benefits from pace, pause, pitch, and variations in those things. The same is true with slides (and I’m the guy who usually shows up with 100+ slides and go through them quickly). That said, absent a visual, a web conference is an audio conference…and I think it’s okay, if managed appropriately, to mix/match.


    • Thanks for your comment, Roger.

      Depending on how the slides are used, having 100+ of them can certainly work. And varying the pace is great for engagement.

      In the case I mentioned, though, the speaker just got faster over time (rather than varying the pace on purpose). So there was a real sense of rushing to get through all the slides. The effect? The talk seemed poorly prepared.

      As most of his slides were just pictures (with at most 2 or 3 words on them), he could have happily left out literally dozens of slides and nobody would’ve ever known. Actually, that would’ve really helped!

      Having little text is great. So is avoiding bullets, which he did with complete success. But with so many slides (170+), which were nearly all just photos or drawings (with no charts, diagrams, quotes, or other visuals that make people actually think – and for variety), a real feeling of “blur” set in.

      In other words, the effect was very similar to having dozens of bullets: My eyes glazed over. And of course, preventing eye-glaze is (ironically) why people avoid bullets to begin with.

      Because viewers can only take in so much information, the more slides there are, the less value each one has to people. When there are dozens of slides, it’s also very hard for viewers to tell what’s important. So having “too many” slides is just as harmful as having “too few”. (Of course, those quoted terms are hard to define!)

      In my post about avoiding blur, 2 tips I suggest are: Stick to just the top 3 points, and pause to let your message sink in. With almost 180 slides in under an hour, there was really no way he could apply those 2 tips!


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