I recently gave one of my storytelling workshops for start-ups online through The Next Web Academy. While I do many things online, this is the first time I gave a webinar and it was quite an interesting experience.
We used GoToMeeting as the webinar software and while it’s very robust and works like a charm (wish I could say the same for Skype), it hasn’t been designed for giving online classes. Yes it allows you to connect reliably with up to 100 people. Yes it allows you to convey your voice and screen, and yes, that’s all that it does. Don’t get me wrong, it has plenty of neat tools like live chat, polls or questions modules, but it lacks the most obvious ingredient for a speaker, a sense of audience.
The audience is the single most important part of any story, that is obvious. No audience, no story. The beauty about communicating in the digital age is that it allows for bidirectional channels. Something that was previously impossible or ineffective with media like TV, radio or newspapers. The thing is, stories aren’t crafted for mass consumption. Good stories that is. Powerful stories are powerful because they resonate 110% with the audience. While there are universal stories that resonate with fundamental human values, most of the ones you craft won’t have that hallmark. Which means, you need to always keep a cue with your audience to keep the narrative interesting to them. If you loose that connection, there is no way to know if you’re deviating from your target or not.
As the wisdom goes, “you will never be able to hit a target that you cannot see“, and that’s exactly the problem with webinars. There are no audience cues. I was getting some questions through the moderator, but I had no idea who they came from and if the even came from the same person. That was like trying to hit a target with a bow and arrow 15 meters away but with your eyes blindfolded. No matter how good an archer you are, if you can’t see the target, you’ll most surely miss it.
Apart from knowing who asks what, the largest cue any speaker gets from the audience, is the body language. While you might have seen speakers deliver a pre-rehearsed talk or story that is the same, no matter what the audience is, for most, that’s not the case. Even with pre-rehearsed and memorized talks, there is always plenty of room for improvisation and adjustment. Actually, that’s what turns a dull story into an immersive story, personalization.
Even when you have access to the questions and who is asking what, you lack a visual connection with the audience. I had no idea if people were yawning, checking their Twitter or shuffling through their email (or a combination). That creates a major disconnect with the story.
The pros are that you can simultaneously reach a broader audience than you would do if in person at a faction of the cost. This is definitely an advantage that allows, among other things, to scale the storytelling process beyond the physical realm. Problem is, no matter how big the audience, if you can’t connect, it’s useless, you’ll just annoy more people at the same time.
I’ve been thinking about how to fix this and there is no easy solution. The first one is to make it as simple as possible. The more universal and simple the concepts are, the easier it will be to follow by a major audience. The problem is, you really need to take it to a very basic level, which means, more advanced audiences will surely get bored. Truth is, you’ll always find bigger audiences for beginners than for advanced listeners.
Another constrain I saw was the fact that, despite being online, you still needed to be in front of a screen at a specific time. This adds a little bit of interaction to the mix, if you manage to get real-time questions in, but detracts from the time flexibility dimension. If I personally have to choose, I’ll rather go with asynchronous online talks that you can watch whenever you want, pause them, rewind them and process them at your own speed.
That still leaves you with the audience disconnect issue. It would be incredible to be able to watch the reactions of people watching your story online as a feedback. Viewers would, of course, need to give their consent to activate their webcam while watching the story, but it would totally make a big difference if you could have that feedback to make the online course even better. I wonder if MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) tools have also ways to track if the player tab is being watched or not and when. That would be very valuable information indeed.
All in all, it was a great experience, and I’m working hard on bringing a couple new workshops online that are better adjusted to the digital storytelling reality. Any ideas, comments or experiences? Please do leave a comment!