Turn your subject matter experts into webinar wizards

Jan 29 2014 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Many companies today are doing more internal training (or at least informing) of their people with in-house Subject Matter Experts Ė otherwise (and rather confusingly) known as "SMEs" and sometimes pronounced SMEE, like Captain Hook's right-hand man. This is a good thing, but it is often not as successful as we would like.

On the up side, webinars are a terrific tool for leveraging the brainpower in your organization. If you have someone in Guam who's a recognized expert in a certain field, or a team member who is a whiz at a certain skill, you can easily share their knowledge with the rest of the company. Whether you call it 'training', 'lunch-and-learns' or whatever, it means that you can have your best engineer demonstrate the features that make your software or product special. That, of course, leads us to the downside, which is that they'll probably present like an engineer.

The bottom line is that people who are experts in their field are not always great communicators. Add to that the challenges of working with unfamiliar technology and not allowing them to get the multiple subconscious cues we pick up from a live audience and the results can be long, dry and boring.

This is definitely a fixable problem. Here are five ways you can help turn your Subject Matter Experts into webinar wizards:

Insist they sit through a webinar before trying one themselves. If you want your presenters to deliver well-led, interactive and engaging webinars, they need something to base it on. If the only webcasts your SME has seen are dry, hour-long "PowerPoint, a poll and hold-your-questions-til-the-end" lectures, they will think that's what a webinar is. Since for many experts this is their default presentation style, you'll get exactly what you'd expect. Additionally, most people are unaware of the interactive nature of these tools. Make sure they understand what you want from them, and you can hold them to those standards. If nothing else, they'll identify what they hate about webinars and attempt not to impose that on other people. Baby steps.

Create a template and hold them to it. You can't blame your SMEs for doing what's gotten them to this point. Left to their own devices, they'll build their presentations the way they always have. Often that's an endless barrage of bullets and text on a white (or worse, some crazy PowerPoint template) background. Too many slides, no interaction and a minimum of questions, are usually the result.

So help them design an effective virtual presentation. If you expect people to use polling throughout the presentation, or pause periodically to take questions instead of holding them til the end, build those cues into the slide deck. This will also allow you to create a common standard for your webinars and your audience will know what to expect. Hopefully that's a good thing.

You drive, let them do what they do. Many organizations have taken to improving the audience experience by having an experienced person conduct the webinar and let the SME focus on their area of expertise without worrying about the administrivia associated with online presenting.

So have a host greet the audience, set the ground rules and introduce the speaker. They can also "drive" the technology, freeing the speaker of distractions. You can run the polls, check chat or the Q and A box for questions or problems and watch the time. Overall, this leads to a smoother, less painful experience for speaker and audience. You, on the other hand, will work your tail off.

Rehearse. Really rehearse. Eight out of 10 online presenters are let loose for the first time with innocent victims on the other end. They don't get a chance to practice before presenting in front of an audience. This creates obvious stresses (will the technology work? Will I run long or short? Will I make sense to a lay audience?), as well as unexpected ones, like suddenly discovering the time it takes to actually conduct and debrief a poll or a chat discussion.

So it's vital that you build into your timeline a real, full tech dress rehearsal. A rehearsal doesn't mean muttering to yourself while flipping through a PowerPoint deck. It means logging on, using all tools and exercises in real time, and getting feedback from a third party for clarity and professionalism. The hardest part of this is you'll have to insist that they get their presentations done long before show day, and build rehearsal into their schedule.

Make this an honor, not a chore. As much as they may complain about it, Subject Matter Experts actually like being seen as experts. So their webinar series should be seen as an honor, not something to be endured. Set expectations with your experts before they commit. You want them to look good, so deadlines, rehearsal and strict formats are to their advantage. If they can't or won't commit to those things, someone else will. Furthermore, as you evaluate your webinars and get feedback from your audience, those who get higher ratings will be asked back, those who don't can go back to work.

Eventually, a rising tide of quality will raise everyone's boat.

more articles

About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.