9 tips to design presentations for webinars – critique of Ellen Finkelstein’s post [Part 1]

owl-947741_640bDo you ever present online – at work or for yourself? If so (or if you’re about to for the 1st time), you’ll find superb tips on Ellen Finkelstein’s blog.

Ellen’s a PowerPoint MVP who presents and hosts lots of webinars, including the annual Outstanding Presentations Workshop.

Below, you’ll find part 1 of a review of Ellen’s post called:

9 tips to design presentations for webinars

In part 1, we’ll look at the first 4 of the 9 tips (plus a few of my own), which – among other things – deal with using your webcam, and interacting through polls or other means.

(Be sure to also check out part 2 for my review of Ellen’s tips 5 to 9.)

I’d summarise the first 4 tips like this:

 Ellen’s tip  My verdict – should you? 
1. Use your webcam Sometimes
2. Use interaction Yes, but use polls with punch
3. Use more slides Yes, even during your Q&A!
4. Intrigue people to look Yes, both verbally & visually

At the end of this post, you’ll find these sections too:

You can click any of those links to jump straight to the relevant part of this post. Or, just scroll down to dive in


1.  Use your webcam   [My verdict: Sometimes]Scroll up to Contents ↑

Ellen urges you to engage people more by using your webcam, and I slightly disagree.

Do you like to see webinar presenters on camera? I often don’t (at least not the whole time), because the webcam can be distracting. But Ellen’s post has a link to a short recording where the webcam feed was relatively small and unobtrusive, in the top right:

By all means, register to watch Ellen’s video yourself, and let me know what you think. (You might want to speed up the video to save time.)

There was plenty of room to see her gestures

Did you enjoy Ellen’s use of the webcam in that example? I did, and I liked that there was plenty of room to see her gestures (as the webcam was in widescreen mode), which helped keep me engaged. She also had an abstract artwork behind her, which gave visual interest (yet didn’t draw my eye too much).

I wonder if that video’s shortness (just 15 minutes) is also a factor in making the webcam easier to watch? When you present a webinar, it’ll likely be far longer than 15 minutes, and your webcam feed might be much bigger. Both those factors could increase the risk of your webinar becoming too tiring for people to stay focused on it.

Give your viewers variety, sparsity and democracy

Because it’s harder for people to stay focused on webinars than on face-to-face talks, I’d say keeping your online audience engaged means you have to meet 3 key audience needs:

  • Give them variety.
  • Give them sparsity. (In other words, don’t overload them.)
  • Give them democracy. (Meaning, recognise that people differ,
    and let each of them have their say.)

Use your webcam just some of the time

To help meet those needs, I suggest you use your webcam just some of the time. You can do that either the “easy” way or the “hard” way:

  • Easy: Switch your webcam on or off every few minutes.
  • Hard: Poll your audience about how much you’ll use your webcam.

Let’s look at each of those in turn

Easy way: If you switch your webcam on for a few minutes, then off for a few minutes, then on again for a while, and so on, you get 3 benefits:

  • You’ll give people visual variety.
  • You won’t overload them.
  • You’ll appeal both to people who like watching the webcam and those who don’t (recognising that people differ in that respect).

The better approach is to poll your audience about your webcam

Hard way: The better approach is to poll your audience about your webcam (that is, at least until you get a feel for whether most people like webcams), which helps to meet your audience’s need for democracy.

For instance, your poll question (and answer choices) might be:

When would you prefer to see me on webcam during this webinar?

  • All the time
  • More than ½ the time
  • Less than ½ the time
  • Never

Using a poll gives each person in your audience a say in shaping your webinar, and lets you please most of them most of the time.

What’s more, it helps them all understand why you’re using your webcam a certain way – even if they don’t like it! (Ideally, webinar platforms should let each attendee choose whether to see the presenter’s webcam. But sadly, they often don’t.)

If you’d like to read more on the pros and cons of using your webcam in webinars, also check out To cam or not to cam? by Donald Taylor.


2.  Use interaction   [My verdict: Yes, but use polls with punch]Scroll up to Contents ↑

I strongly agree with Ellen about using varied interactions to engage people, but I disagree about the value of most polls – as you’ll see shortly.

Variety’s one of the best ways to keep people focused

She mentions a wide range of interactive options, and (as I mentioned above) variety’s one of the best ways to keep people focused. As Ellen puts it:

“As with any presentation, you need to do change ups regularly,
but do them more often during a webinar”

So true!

One thing I’d say about interaction though is that many webinars rely heavily on polls, yet to me most polls aren’t engaging. So if you use polls, I urge you to ask questions for which the results will either:

  • Fascinate your attendees (not just mildly interest them).
  • Help them solve a pressing problem.

Ellen says:

“Use polls to inform yourself about the audience’s views and to inform the audience about the views of other audience members”

Polls: can feel
like a cliché; waste time; don’t give much value

To me though, “to inform” isn’t a compelling goal, because typical polls:

  • Are so common, many times they can feel like a cliché
  • Waste time because there tends to be such a delay between
    asking the question and sharing the results
  • Most crucially, often don’t give much value to viewers

So I recommend you aim for this goal instead:

Use polls to adjust your webinar to meet people’s needs,
or to give them insights they can use afterwards

But how can you do that? Well, to adjust your webinar (on-the-fly) to meet your viewers’ needs, you could ask poll questions like these:

Or to give insights that your audience can use afterwards, you could ask:

  • Of these opening lines, which grabs your attention most?
    [Lets people see which type of line could help their own talks]
  • Which of these bad presentation habits annoys you most?
    [Helps people decide which of their habits to improve first]
  • How do you prefer to be first contacted after networking?
    [Helps people judge the best approach to use after they next attend a networking event]


3.  Use more slides   [My verdict: Yes, even during your Q&A!]Scroll up to Contents ↑

Good advice from Ellen here: Show your content spread across more slides, to keep things moving.

Use a few “builds”, which show your slide bit-by-bit

You might also want to try these tips of my own:

  • It’s helpful to use a few “builds”, which show your slide bit-by-bit. Rather like when you switch your webcam on or off, builds alter the dynamic slightly (away from a long series of separate slides in this case), which helps to keep your viewers focused.
  • Even when you’re answering audience questions (for several minutes), it’s wise to keep showing new slides, so people always have something fresh to look at. To do that, try a technique I call stop Q&A hypnosis.


4.  Intrigue people to look   [My verdict: Yes, both verbally & visually]Scroll up to Contents ↑

I think this idea from Ellen is great, where you make people more likely to look at your slide by saying something like:

“You can see the complete flow in this diagram.”

Or as Ellen phrases it:

“What you see on this slide explains the process clearly.”

Notice how both those examples use the word “you”. That helps to draw people’s attention if they’re looking away, because you’re talking about them.

Saying “you” is far more enticing than focusing purely on your content

Saying “you” is far more enticing than focusing purely on your content, like in phrases of this form:

“This diagram shows the whole process.”
(Not recommended – no “you”)

Another benefit is that this tip encourages you to put non-verbal content on your slides. That way, you give your audience a much more rewarding experience than if you showed slides full of bullet points.

As well as Ellen’s tip about intriguing people to look at your slides, I’d also add these:

Show a slide that looks incomplete and then gradu-ally reveal the rest

  • You can show a slide that looks incomplete and then gradually reveal the rest of it. That’s similar to my earlier suggestion to use builds, and it intrigues your audience about what you’ll show next, which keeps them paying attention. It’s helpful when you display a chart, diagram or other relatively complex visual, and it lets you show the relevant parts of the slide as you mention them, so people keenly follow every word.
  • You might like a related tip suggested by Roger Courville (a webinar veteran), too. He suggests you use a slide as a visual or written “punchline” (to complete a partial sentence you say).


Bonus tip: Watch videos faster!Scroll up to Contents ↑

Ellen called this tip “pure gold” when I shared it with her

By the way, here’s a really handy extra tip (from me), for use when you’re watching recorded webinars (or other videos) yourself. Ellen called this tip “pure gold” when I shared it with her. (I’d found it when I was frustrated that there’s no built-in way to speed up playback on vimeo.com.)

You might find this tip useful to speed up Ellen’s recording, because it works with many videos, not just ones on Vimeo. For instance, I’ve also used it to speed up videos by Emma Sutton on Facebook. You can use it in most browsers, too, like Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer. It goes like this:

  1. Start the video.
  2. Press F12 to open the Developer Tools panel.
  3. Click the Console tab.
  4. Paste this code into the Console tab, and then press Enter:
    javascript: var v = document.querySelector('video'); var t = prompt('Set the playback rate'); v.playbackRate = parseFloat(t)
  5. In the box that pops up, type the playback speed you want (like 1.5 for 1½× normal, 0.7 to slow things down, or 1 to return to normal speed) and press Enter.
  6. Press F12 to close the Developer Tools panel.


Your turnScroll up to Contents ↑

I’d love to hear what you think.

  • Which of the 4 tips presented above appeals most to you?
  • What tips can you recommend for webinars?

If you’d like to remind yourself of the tips, check out the table at the top of this post. And look out for part 2, where I review the remaining 5 tips


See alsoScroll up to Contents ↑


2 thoughts on “9 tips to design presentations for webinars – critique of Ellen Finkelstein’s post [Part 1]

  1. A quick comment about using polls. The suggestion to use polls to adjust your webinar to meet people’s need looks like an interesting idea, but unfortunately many webinars are either pre-recorded, or the accompanying slides need to be pre-uploaded. This means that in most cases it is very difficult, if not impossible, to change the flow of your presentation on the fly.


    • Thanks for commenting Marc, and that’s a point well worth discussing.

      If a webinar’s recorded with an audience watching, the presenter could poll those people about the order of topics. Then when you watch the recording, you’d see why the topics appear in the order that they do. (Whether or not there’d been an audience originally, the host would ideally split the video into separate recordings (1 per topic). So when you watch afterwards, you could choose the order you want.)

      If the slides are pre-uploaded, many webinar platforms still let you jump to slides out of order. For instance, when you present with GotoWebinar, WebEx, or Adobe Connect, you can display a slide list (that the attendees don’t see), which lets you present slides in any order. Or, your webinar platform might support hyperlinks between slides, in which case you can click those to jump between topics.

      It’s certainly not an easy technique, but its difficulty is balanced by the hugely positive impact it can have on the event (and on the audience).

      By the way, if you’d like to watch an example of a non-linear webinar, check out Ken Molay’s recording in this comment.


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