How do you get your online audience to respond?

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You are presenting an online class or talk and you ask your audience a question. You wait, and wait some more … Rather annoying when no one responds.

‘Why is it always so easy for you?’, one participant asks me during our workshop on online presentations. She is a teacher and struggles with interaction during her online classes. ‘Everything happens during those first few seconds when you are online,’ I tell her. ‘Straight away, you should be setting the stage for interaction.’

The cozy living room or cold isolation cell?

What is the audience’s first impression of you when they log on? Do they see a frown on your face and your lips pressed together because you just can’t find the way to share your screen with the others? Or are they welcomed with an inviting smile and a relaxed look from you? As a speaker it is your job to make your participants feel at ease in the virtual room. The more enjoyable the atmosphere, the more likely they are to actively participate.

I’d like to share with you five simple things you can do to make the first few minutes go smoothly:

  1. Test out your online tool and technique well in advance, rather than a few minutes before the start. That way, you avoid technical messes and stress in front of your attendees.
  2. When you open up the virtual room, smile and look into the webcam to make eye contact with your audience.
  3. Address participants by their first name. ‘Welcome Eric. Maria, how nice to have you here.’ If someone posts a message in the chat box, read it aloud and mention their name.
  4. Ask a question, such as ‘Dreadful weather we have here in Antwerp today, just perfect for a webinar! How are things over with you?” and let the participants answer via the chat box. You’ll get instant leads for an informal chat while the other participants log in.
  5. Open the virtual room a few minutes before the official start time. Usually there are already some early participants. Welcome them and start the conversation. Participants who log in after them will immediately have the feeling of stepping into a cozy living room, instead of a cold isolation cell.

Make it easy for them

‘How would you solve the climate problem? Add your answer in the chat.’ Do you think you’ll get many responses to this question? Probably not. Why? Because the question is too broad and not easy enough to answer quickly.

But what if I let you choose from five options in a poll? Chances are, then, you’ll get a response. Because this time the effort is small and the answer remains anonymous.

If, as a speaker, you still notice that not many responses are coming in, then you can nudge the audience. For example, ‘I see that 11 people have already responded, what do the other five think?’ A poll works well to elicit a response from a large group of participants. Afterwards, you can then ask them to write in the chat box why they chose a particular option.

Use it wisely

We are sometimes too focused on interaction. As if an online presentation without polls or breakout rooms is as bad as a café without good coffee. Of course, audience engagement is important, because it makes your message stick better. But use it wisely. Your audience wants to listen and learn something from you first and foremost, rather than having to put themselves out there.

Do you want to group participants together in threes? That sounds fine. I often do this during our workshops, to have attendees give each other feedback. But don’t over-utilize those breakout rooms, because that could backfire. Why not opt for a shorter presentation that is to-the-point, with room for questions toward the end, rather than a stretched-out session with a forced exchange.

I could ask you right now what you think about interaction. But I won’t. Instead, after your next presentation, tell me which tips you applied and how your audience responded to them!