The role of webinars in technical communication

Last week I was co-presenter in a webinar. It was an interesting, invigorating and fun-filled experience. There was even enough of a dose of terror to give a pleasant buzz afterwards. 🙂 Since then, I’ve been musing about the role of webinars in technical communication. I’d love to know what you think, and hear any stories of your own webinar experiences. Are webinars a good tool for technical communication? Can we and should we be thinking about doing more of them?

The details of the webinar itself are in two earlier posts: the invitation and the report, which includes a link to the recording.

The plus points about webinars as tech comm tools

We can gain new insight into the product that we’re documenting. When putting together the material for the webinar, I realised it was a great opportunity for me to think of the product in a different way. I didn’t want to repeat the material that’s in our documentation. Instead, I took a look at the product as it’s seen by a large group of customers and by the developers who build the product and its add-ons: a wiki as extensible platform.

A new slant in the user assistance for a product is valuable to the audience too. It gives them another way of taking advantage of the product and of the community of people that provide services around the product. By coming at a product from a different direction, people gain a broader understanding of it and will be able to make deductive leaps when using the product for their own requirements.

One attendee tweeted:

“it’s a bit embarrassing to learn so much in 1 hour after 8 years of using [the product]”.

Thanks for that tweet! It was very rewarding to hear. And I don’t think it should be embarrassing. Instead, it proves the point that a new angle can work wonders.

There’s a strong aspect of marketing in a webinar. You’re representing your company and the product. A webinar provides a focal point for buzz generation. Tweets and blog posts flock around the webinar, both in the leadup and in the report and analysis afterwards. This marketing aspect ties in well with recent discussions in the technical communication world, about our changing role. Maybe webinars are a good way of adding value to our organisations, over and above the day-to-day tasks of a technical writer?

In preparing for this webinar, I collaborated with our marketing team. They converted my slides to the corporate template. I’d thought my own slides were pretty cool, but Terrence Caldwell (product marketing manager) added a distinctive touch of class. Thanks Terrence! The marketing team also handled all all the organisation of and hosting of the webinar. Our technical writing team often collaborates with the marketing team on special projects and documents. It’s great to learn from them – a mutually enriching experience.

Another plus point was working with co-presenters on the webinar. As the first speaker, I made sure that my presentation introduced the other two speakers, and included some material that would act as a lead-in to their sessions. I loved sharing the responsibility with them, knowing that their different viewpoints would make the webinar a good learning experience for the attendees. I have learned a lot from their presentations too.

Interaction with customers and other interested people is another good result of a webinar. During the session, people asked questions by typing them into the online chat. I was kept very busy answering them! Afterwards, many people have tweeted comments, sent email messages, and added comments to blog posts.

Finally, preparing for and presenting the webinar was invigorating and fun. It’s given me new ideas and new energy. I recommend it to anyone who’s brave enough to sit in a room and talk to the ether without knowing what the ether is thinking. 😉

The cons

Preparing for a webinar is time consuming, and it’s hard work. We need to weigh up the effort involved and the resulting benefits to the company. Our marketing team is enthusiastic about webinars as a way of engaging customers. They also see the value of having a subject matter expert give the presentations. We sometimes invite external speakers, in so-called “voice of the customer” webinars. From that point of view, it makes sense for a technical writer to present a session about using a wiki for technical documentation.

The technology is good, but things can go wrong. For our webinar, we had one presenter in Australia (that’s me), one in Europe, and one with the webinar hosts in the United States. The person in Europe had problems with his Internet connection, and we had to delay his presentation while he searched for a better line. Luckily, we could just shuffle the order of two of the presentations, and it all worked well in the end.

Time zones can be a problem. For me, the webinar started at 1 a.m. Yes, the dead zone! I was happy to be awake at that time, but of course not many other Australians were able to attend the live webinar. Instead, we recorded the session and it’s now available online.

Presenting a webinar is scary. But that’s part of the fun. 🙂

So, what’s it like to present a webinar?

Kai Weber wrote a great post recently: So what’s it like to present a tech comm webinar? I’ll just add a bit here too (repeated from my earlier post announcing the webinar recording).

It felt a bit odd, sitting all alone and  speaking into the ether at 1 a.m, hoping that people were listening. It was great when I saw all the questions flooding in, and knew that people really were there. The webinar hosts later told me that more than 200 people attended. That’s so cool.

One tip I’d give to people who are planning to take part in a webinar: Practise beforehand. You’ll need to play with the webinar software, and to run through your presentation. The software is fairly easy to work with, so one practice session is enough to get to grips with that.

Running through your presentation is even more crucial. I’d recommend doing the run through at least twice. Also, do it in the same place and if possible at the same time as the real event. Speak your presentation out loud. You’ll feel like a banana (in other words, a bit silly) but it’s better to feel that way when you’re practising than during the actual event. Why should your practice session be at the same time as the actual event? It helps you to identify any possible hazards, such as loud noises or the need for an extra light. In my case, I decided to hold my practice session during the day time instead of at 1 a.m. As a result, I didn’t realise how dark it would be in the room where I was huddled at the bottom of the house, trying not to wake everyone else. So I had to rush around looking for an extra light just before the webinar started!

Something almost as scary as presenting a webinar

This photograph is quintessential Australia. It shows a spider on a web attached to a Scribbly Gum tree. I snapped it while out walking in the bush this morning.

Spider on web on Scribbly Gum tree

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 15 April 2012, in technical writing, trees and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hi, Sarah, thanks for the shout-out to my blog.

    On top of recently presenting a webinar, I’ve been attending about one a month for the last year or so. From that experience, I think webinars are a very good tech comm tool – for certain subjects.

    I’ve found them most helpful to learn and understand conceptual stuff, such as recent tech comm trends or content strategy or documentation metrics. Guided tours through new features in my tools have given me a convenient and exciting first taste of stuff I want to explore in detail. For me, a webinar works best in lieu of a conference session.

    In my opinion, marketing in a webinar is fine to present yourself, your product and services as competent, especially if you can avoid repeating existing content in yet another channel. So I think you’ve found a perfect solution by looking at the product in a different and helpful way. 🙂

    I’ve found webinars less helpful when they’ve been overly sales-y. I’ve been on a few which teased at a best practice – but then held back applicable advice in favor of saying “We can help you with that”. Since I attend many US-based webinars in the early evening hours from my home, these examples are as annoying and intrusive as telemarketing during dinner time.

    • Hallo Kai

      Thanks for a great comment!

      I agree with you that webinars, from a tech comm point of view, should be focused on providing information rather than on selling a product. There’s nothing more frustrating than to be told, “We can help”, but not how.

      Cheers, Sarah

  2. I strongly believe that we have a role in webinars for our companies. That’s why I wrote my new book: 8 Steps to Amazing Webinars. Buy it to learn how to set up and manage the webinar series for your company. And it’s harder than it looks!

    We spend our days explaining stuff and organizing information. Those skills translate to running webinar series really well.

  3. Sarah, you did a great job on this webinar and on the one that I attended this morning. You don’t sound nervous at all.

    • Hallo Pamela
      Thank you! It’s great to hear that from someone who attended. I’m looking forward to seeing the recording, so that I can see how it went. 🙂
      Cheers, Sarah

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