Shouting into the Void: Tips for Presenting an Online CLE

presenting an online cleAn email lands in your inbox. It begins:

Following recently updated guidelines from the CDC, we have made the difficult decision to move the course you’re scheduled to present this month to an online webinar session.

If you’re scheduled to present a CLE in the next few months, you may have received a similar email. You had committed to a CLE presentation in front of a friendly crowd of attorneys seated in a nice conference room that had decent snacks. Instead, your commitment now is to a small laptop in your “home office,” also known as the room in the back that you should have painted years ago. And now your colleagues are going to see THAT shade of yellow…

To add to that, you like presenting in front of people:

  • It’s a chance to get out of the office.
  • You can read the room and gauge the temperature of the audience.
  • Participants like your jokes – self-deprecating and witty but non-threatening.
  • You come across as someone who knows what they’re talking about, exuding confidence on the topic.
  • Your presentations are as much events as learning sessions – people chat, laugh, interact. It’s an enjoyable time.

Now that you must present online, the tools you’ve come to rely on don’t seem so useful. So, how should you prepare?

Below are some simple considerations when presenting an online CLE for the first time. NOTE: I’m assuming your audience includes 20 or more attendees. Smaller groups have more opportunities for comment and open discussion and can be run more like a meeting.

Don’t just digitize your in-person course

Consciously or not, we all adapt our sessions based on what has worked in the past, which is why a similar course can feel very different with different presenters. The online environment isn’t the same as an in-person presentation, so don’t treat it that way. Lagged responses, the lack of non-verbal cues, and difficulty in facilitating discussions need to be taken into consideration.

Try to set some ground rules for discussion beforehand and remind attendees of the rules throughout the session. Rules might include:

  • Stay muted until it’s time for the discussion.
  • Use the feature to comment.
  • Avoid commenting while someone is speaking
  • Try to add to the conversation, rather than negate what has been said. Without body language, opposing opinions must be navigated carefully.

The first 10 minutes are everything, so engage from the start with questions or an interactive element. It’s fairly easy to maintain audience participation after a good intro, but very difficult to engage attendees after a dull start.

Avoid off-the-cuff comments or humor where possible. Everything you say as a presenter needs to be anticipated. In an in-person session people can see you preparing to speak, but not so much online. Therefore, sudden interjections from the presenter carry more weight and can throw a discussion off.

Participant comments and jokes are fine, but as a presenter try to avoid jumping in. Instead, consider summarizing the comments as part of the discussion and add your twist there.

Avoid detailed slides with a lot of content or complex images. Remember, someone is watching on a 13-inch laptop. If you have multiple thoughts to present on a topic, split them up across slides or use simple icons (PowerPoint has a lot of great icons in the Insert tab).

When on the web, use the web. In a classroom, you’re usually limited to a screenshot of a resource with a plea to “check this out for useful information.” With a webinar, people are right there online – encourage them to explore what you’re talking about firsthand and in real-time.

Consider challenging activities that people can work on for a couple of minutes. Unplanned silence isn’t great, but planned silent work can be, especially when there is a chance for the audience to contribute. Top tip: There are online countdown clocks your producer can bring up on the screen during this time, which gives the participants structure while working on the activity.

Get help from a producer

When you’re in front of a group, you’ll likely have a clicker to forward slides, an easy view of the room to answer questions, and a couple of back-up activities in case there’s a technical glitch.

However, when presenting a CLE online those tasks can be handled by someone else. Dead air, while you’re trying to pull up resources, can leave your audience wondering what’s going on. By having a producer advance slides, triage questions, and troubleshoot tech issues, you’re freed up to deliver answers, focus on follow-ups, and keep an eye on the time.

Learn the tools of the webinar software at your disposal. Polls, chat rooms, whiteboards, and breakout sessions could all replace the question/response section of your presentation. When leveraging these tools, a producer may be willing to walk participants through a short instructional session if needed.

As mentioned previously, encourage participants to use the “raise your hand” tool to comment. However, a producer can easily mute all audience members and only unmute those selected. This can prevent dominant personalities from hijacking the session (more on that in my blended learning blogpost).

Prepare your environment beforehand

Presenting a CLE online is a learned skill and, like most things, needs preparation. Take time to familiarize yourself with the software you’ll be using and with how your presentation will look on the screen.

My advice is to break your session prep into three smaller sections: practicing with the software, running through the presentation, and setting up your environment.

Some more preparation tips:

  • Have a dry run. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from those who have experience in this area if you’re not sure how a feature works. New features and teaching techniques are being developed constantly, so no one has a lock on the perfect webinar.
  • Test the features you plan to use to make sure you’re comfortable with them and they work.
  • If you’re using your laptop, test the camera beforehand during the timeframe you’ll be presenting to check the lighting and background. Ideally, the light source will be in front of you to avoid shadows on your face.
  • Finally, be okay with not looking and sounding like a rock star. There are teleconference systems that run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and make you look like you’re in the room with the participants. You don’t have that, and no one is expecting you to.

My final piece of advice for presenting an online CLE is to take everything I’ve said with a pinch of salt. You’re there to share your expertise. If you’re thinking about how the participants can access you, your knowledge, and your experience, you’ll be just fine.

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Dan Davies
Dan Davies is the Education Manager at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. He manages the Commission’s educational programming aimed at promoting a more professional, civil and inclusive legal profession. Prior to joining the Commission, Dan was a learning manager at the YMCA of the USA, where he designed learning solutions across topics including diversity and inclusion, achievement-gap programming and data-based decisions, and fiscal management. In his free time, Dan can be found spending time with his wife and two teenage sons, coaching travel soccer and riding a motorcycle, when he has the chance.

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Dan Davies
Dan Davies is the Education Manager at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. He manages the Commission’s educational programming aimed at promoting a more professional, civil and inclusive legal profession. Prior to joining the Commission, Dan was a learning manager at the YMCA of the USA, where he designed learning solutions across topics including diversity and inclusion, achievement-gap programming and data-based decisions, and fiscal management. In his free time, Dan can be found spending time with his wife and two teenage sons, coaching travel soccer and riding a motorcycle, when he has the chance.

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