Making Webinars Relevant in a Sound Byte World

Last week I wrote about how training can solve the 5 top problems facing the accounting world today. In the first version of my article, a friend correctly criticized me for sounding like I’d declared all webinar training as worthless. I later re-wrote that portion of the article to better convey my intent – that much online training today is wasted because the learners aren’t engaged and often just show up to check a box that they’ve taken the training. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Webinars can be engaging, effective methods for training people when they are done correctly.


So what does an effective webinar look like? Before I answer that, let’s recall some key principles to adult learning. The older we get, the less tolerance we have for learning “theory” that doesn’t have immediate application to our lives. When adults attend training, the most important question on their mind is “how does this apply to me?” Additionally, adults view training through the lenses of their experience. These two factors greatly affect the success or failure of a webinar given in a continuing education setting.

Throughout all of recorded history, humankind used stories to teach about its past and relate critical information. Stories have the power to put the hearers into characters’ shoes and learn from others’ mistakes and successes. They also capture the imagination and help reset the timer to inattention during longer training sessions. So, the first principle of an effective webinar is the inclusion of stories.

A word of caution is necessary here. Not all stories are created equal. To be effective, stories need to be believable and authentic. Made-up stories with no depth are a sad substitute to stories personally experienced by the teller. The closer a trainer can get to relating a personal story, the more effective it can be. Stories also need to be related to the subject matter, just like ice breakers. After all, the whole point of a story is to create engagement, and you don’t want those hearing it to engage in the wrong thing. So choose stories that will place the hearer into a situation they don’t want to face, then follow the story up with training on how to avoid that.

In an accounting setting, imagine this scenario: a trainer was contracted to teach a group of entry-level auditors about proper auditing techniques. Following this principle, the trainer opens with a story about how she almost got fired as a new auditor for not taking a large enough transaction sample size. Relating the embarrassment of being chewed out by a senior partner in front of colleagues is something all of the new auditors taking the training would fear. This immediately relates how the material can apply to them and will help them understand the importance of learning the session’s materials. Adding additional authentic stories throughout the session will maintain engagement and increase retention.

The second principle of an effective webinar is attached to the first. Make sure learners understand, and are reminded of, the applicability of the material to them. Stories are a great start to showing applicability. When combined with other techniques such as application discussions, brief writing assignments, and break-out chat rooms, they can help the learner internalize the applicability of the material. Once this happens, engagement, retention, understanding, and effort go way up.

But what do you do when those techniques aren’t options in the webinar platform you are using? Consistently reference the need being met by the material. Don’t over exaggerate, but remind the learners of their fear, and keep showing how the material resolves that fear in a positive way. Stated in broader terms, keep the relevancy in front of the learner at all times, without being repetitious. Then piggyback application methods on top of the relevancy. This is how Pastor’s keep their congregations engaged every Sunday during 45-minute sermons.

The third principle of an effective webinar is to attach the new material to prior knowledge in the learner’s mind. Because people learn through the lenses of their past experiences, it’s critical to tie those experiences to new knowledge. Regularly bridging the gap between old and new knowledge reinforces the relevance and personal application of the new material. Weave stories into that bridging and it’s even more effective.

While good webinars aren’t rocket science, they do take a fair amount of pre-planning. Instructors must move beyond just preparing the material, and instead, focus on the learners and their experience. Having two hours of great material is worthless if the learners don’t retain any of it. Take caution though to not swing too far in the wrong direction. Two hours of entertainment with no retention of the material is just as bad as two hours of boring lecture. Remember, at best, an adult’s attention span is 12-15 minutes long. Mix things up, reset the inattention timer, do a new type of information delivery so they stay engaged.

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