How to Run a Great Webinar

Before the pandemic hit, I traveled around the world as a professional speaker to deliver presentations on equity, diversity and inclusion, authenticity, and empowerment. I’ve literally presented to tens of thousands of people globally. Never did I ever think that a virus would force me to become a full-time webinar speaker (or “Webinarer”, as I call it!), especially since I can count on one hand the number of times I’d done a webinar pre-COVID.

I did 158 virtual keynotes and workshops from April to December 2020 (and I’m back at it in 2021!), and I can tell you that there’s an art to delivering excellent webinars, where your content is quickly absorbed and the audience feels like they’ve been immersed in a truly interactive experience.

Here are my 5 critical ingredients for a great webinar.

1. Nail the Fundamentals

How many times have you watched a webinar where the audio cuts in and out and you can barely make out a speaker’s facial expressions because they’re backlit? It’s not good.

Nailing the fundamentals — great camera, microphone, and lighting — is key for a great webinar, and of all the things that can detract from a quality webinar experience, these are the easiest to remedy. Much has been said online already about why and how to create an excellent audio and video experience, so I want to focus on the importance of investing in good lighting.

As a Brown girl, I’ve always been adamant about good lighting when I’m on a stage (otherwise I’m just eyes and teeth), and in the world of webinaring, this is even more important. I recommend a combination of natural light and a ring light. My webinar station (more on this in a moment) faces a window so I have natural light all day, and I double up with an 18-inch ring light, which helps on cloudy days and for evening webinars with my global audiences. I even change up the ring light filter depending on the time of day to prevent an ashy look.

Good lighting is worth the investment!

2. Create a Webinar Station

If you webinar a lot, you’ll want a webinar station (think of it as the “set” for your very own TV show). I recommend creating a webinar station that is separate from your regular workspace. Here’s why: it psychologically signals that you need to get into “speaker mode”. Plus for viewers, it doesn’t feel like you’re sitting stiffly at a desk.

My station consists of a height-adjustable standing desk (sometimes I sit while speaking and sometimes I’ll stand), my ring light, a laptop stand, speaking notes stand, and lots of room for papers/books/water, etc., all off-screen. In the background is a painting, a bookshelf, a few knickknacks against a white wall, and that’s it — the focal point is me as the speaker and not any curated props.

Having your station ready to go saves set-up time, is dependable (you don’t want to freak out 30 minutes before you speak because you can’t find your laptop stand), and creates a visually pleasing experience, and I feel good presenting from there — all of which helps me to be on my game when I’m speaking.

3. Treat Your Webinar like a TV Interview

Thanks to interviews on TV and YouTube, we’ve been conditioned to intake info in a certain way, and it’s served me well to position myself on screen as though I’m doing an interview on CNN. (I consistently hear that my webinars feel natural and that people feel more connected because of this style.)

As animals, humans are highly impacted by the non-verbal cues of others. Our facial expressions help to draw others in and settle their nervous systems. Given this, you want the webinar screen to primarily be filled with a close-up of your face and upper body (I leave about 6 inches above my head and 6 inches to my left and to my right in the frame) and your camera to be positioned at eye-level. If I’m using slides, I’ll only put each slide up for a bit to illustrate a point and then take it down so the audience can focus on me instead.

As with an interview, you want to present without reading verbatim from your speaking notes. Because our brains have been conditioned to see people on a screen speaking off (what appears to be) the cuff, you want your words to come across naturally and not like you’re reading from a teleprompter or a script. Otherwise, you run the risk of coming across as rigid, sterile, and unnatural.

That said, speaking notes are important. For webinars (I have a different approach for in-person speaking), I print out my speaking notes in bullet point form, handwrite timings along the margins, highlight the places I want to engage the audience, and then place the notes on a stand in front of my laptop. This way the audience can’t see my notes, and I just look down here and there when needed, which still looks natural. Other solutions include using a double monitor set-up or having your speaking notes open on the screen. Try a few approaches to figure out what works best for you.

4. Actively Engage Your Audience

Without an engaged audience, it can feel like you’re speaking into a void, and as an attendee, well, it just sucks. I’ve experimented a lot with how to engage an audience during a webinar, and here’s what I suggest:

  • Chat board — use the chat board to check-in with the audience, to ask questions, to share resources, and as a way for the audience to chat among themselves. I’ll push some type of chat board engagement every 5–10 minutes when I’m speaking, and I find that it takes less than a minute to unpack audience responses.
  • Polls — sprinkle polling questions throughout your webinar to learn about your audience, ask difficult questions, and highlight a range of viewpoints. In a 60-minute webinar, I might use 2–3 polls, knowing that it takes about 2–3 minutes to run each poll and then unpack it.
  • Q&A — encourage audience questions through the chat board, the Q&A box, or have audience members unmute their mics. Keep in mind, it may help encourage participation if you promise to keep questions anonymous. Also, try not to leave Q&A just to the end of a webinar; instead, stop about every 10 minutes to take questions.
  • Breakout rooms — leverage virtual breakout rooms as a way for attendees to engage in meaningful conversations in small groups (2–4 people). I usually give 5–10 minutes per breakout and hold 2–3 of them in a 2-hour webinar (it’ll offer you a break too!).

A final point here: it’s important to know when to enlist others to help you. For many of my 150+ webinars, I played the role of both speaker and facilitator, but this can be too much to manage with a larger audience (over 800 people). Instead, enlist 1–2 people to manage incoming questions and run the polls.

5. Relax and Be You!

Obviously, I’m biased because I wrote an entire book on being authentic and embracing what makes you unique, but I know from experience that being yourself is absolutely critical for delivering webinars that are impactful and memorable.

If you’ve attended my webinars, you’ll know that I’m very authentic in how I present. 2020 was a very difficult year for teaching about equity, diversity, and inclusion, in the midst of the COVID environment, no less, so I’ve shared vulnerably in webinars, I’ve cried, and more. I want attendees to feel like we’re in the experience together, as though we’re sitting across from each other in a coffee shop, sharing an intimate moment.

If being authentic over video feels harder for you, I suggest getting lots of practice. While a very different type of virtual skill to webinaring, my experience recording videos for my personal empowerment platform and my YouTube channel really helped me prepare for corporate webinars, as did offering a bunch of free webinars. In fact, I continue to run monthly free webinars to help me practice and test out content — so if you want to see me in action, you can join me at my next free webinar!

As you can see, holding a top-notch webinar really is an art. It takes effort, mindfulness, and practice, but once you master these five elements, you’ll make webinar magic.

See you online!

Ritu Bhasin is an award-winning speaker, author, anti-racism educator, and expert in equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Ritu Bhasin is an award-winning speaker, author, anti-racism educator, and expert in equity, diversity, and inclusion.