From communicating with remote workers to convening with project team members around the globe to presenting your sales pitch to potential clients, consultants are finding more and more uses for audio and Web conferencing. While the two technologies have some significant benefits, like saving travel expenses and expediting the decision-making process, they do have drawbacks.

One problem with audio and Web conferencing is that meeting attendees can drift off or become bored with the presentation. Without facial expressions and body language, your presentation depends largely on your voice and the quality of the technology you’re using. Too often, Palms, BlackBerries, doodles, or daydreams distract people, rendering the presentation a waste of time and effort.

We’ve asked industry experts how to keep people engaged and alert during your Web and audio conferencing. Here’s a rundown of the experts we consulted:

They offered a variety of tips and advice for executing flawless and productive audio or Web conference meetings. Here, we’ve condensed and paraphrased their advice to simplify it.

Choose the best equipment; take control of the medium
Much of what grabs your audience’s attention depends on quality. You need high-resolution video that downloads quickly and clear and easy-to-understand audio. If the quality suffers, attention will wane quickly. No one wants to watch a Webcast with a video that continually tries to load and then freezes or crashes. Similarly, if the resolution is poor, it distracts the viewer from the information presented. Several of the experts advised steering clear of unpredictable technologies like audio or video streaming.

“Voice over IP, or voice delivered live online, is not ready yet for prime time,” Stevens said. Instead, use concurrent conference calling for the audio. It’s very distracting for the audience when slides are out of sync with the presenter’s voice.

Will-Harris said he has started using Web and audio conferences this past year for working with clients and holding seminars. He said he often uses a combination of phone and Web for conferences.

“Phones are still the simplest and most reliable way to audio conference, and phone bridges are inexpensive—as little as $10 per hour for up to around 30 participants,” Will-Harris said. “I’ve yet to find that video is really necessary for either seminars or conferences. It always sounds like a good idea, but seeing a talking head doesn’t really help.”

For speaking to the audience, it’s important to use a headset or handset rather than a speakerphone to avoid background noise. If there is a buzzing or echo, or it sounds like people are in a cave, it will definitely distract your audience. You should also always conduct a sound check before the event begins.

Check your equipment from every perspective
Check all the equipment prior to the Webinar or conference or you’ll risk disaster. Stevens said she was once working with a trade association on a Webinar that was broadcast live from an auditorium.

“We had not used the technology before and we didn’t realize that the attendees coming in via the Internet could post questions in a chat-type scrolling area that was visible to all attendees,” she said. “There was a tech glitch early in the program, and the chat lines went nuts, with comments like ‘This is a total drag’ and ‘Who’s in charge here?’ and ‘I want my money back.’”

In fact, they did end up refunding every attendees’ money. Her lesson? Test the technology from both the presenter and the user point of view, in advance.

Use your voice effectively
Even if the audio and video qualities are amazing, a poor speaking voice and delivery may put the audience to sleep. To keep your audience engaged, the experts recommend that you:

  • Speak slowly and energetically. Presenters will often speak too quickly because they can’t see their audience. This mistake can confuse the audience and lose their attention.
  • Magnify your vocal energy 15 percent more than your ordinary phone voice. Use the same gestures and body language you would when presenting in person. If it feels natural, stand when you present.
  • Remember the customer experience. No one likes to hear a presenter drone on and on, whether it’s live or online. Prevent your presenters from reading their speeches.
  • Listen to your audience. As they give their feedback via live chat, make sure the presenter is responsive to comments like “slow down,” or “speak up.”
  • Use multiple speakers when presenting, especially when there are several topics to cover. Break their sessions into small bits to keep a fast pace and maintain listener attention.
  • Put a person in the room with the presenter so that the talk can be directed at an individual instead of a computer or a microphone. It will sound much more natural and engrossing to listeners.

Stevens said she used the last tip at IBM when she was helping a senior executive prepare for a Web-based presentation to major resellers and business partners. He came across as mechanical and wooden, because he was reading his notes and looking at the screen. “I arranged on the day of the Webinar to be in the room with him, and essentially forced him to present the material to me, sitting across from his desk, nodding and looking interested,” Stevens said.

She said there was a huge difference in the way he appeared. His talk became animated and personal, and he had much more energy in his voice.

Audience interaction
Questions from your audience show they’re engaged and interested. The speaker should be prepared to answer the questions during the session to keep the presentation targeted. However, it’s distracting for the presenter to have to read through the questions as the session moves along. To help facilitate the session, have a second person take online questions and offer answers to the audience, or hold a Q&A session at the end of the event. (A separate person should also be in charge of answering questions about the technology or mechanics of the conference.)

Many Webinar or conferencing systems allow you to poll your audience during the course of the event. Several experts said that’s a great way to measure your audience’s interest and to tailor your presentation to the level and interest of your audience. The results of the polls can be integrated into the presentation.

In the absence of polls, the moderator can ask questions of the audience and have them chat about it. To encourage listeners to post or e-mail comments, you can give prizes for the best answers.

Use visual stimulation
The experts we interviewed said that audiences need to see notes, PowerPoint slides, white board, or some kind of visual stimulation in sync with the presentation. When more than one sense is engaged, audiences may learn and retain more of the presentation.

If the presenter continually refers to his or her diagram or outline and the audience can’t see or participate in this, the situation causes frustration, confusion, and a lack of interest, Dias said. To prevent that from happening, one of Berberian’s clients forwards an e-mail handout in advance of the Web conference.

“Through Web collaboration tools—slides, application sharing, Web tours—this customer is able to highlight slides and move back and forth through his presentation while the prospect takes notes on the handout,” Berberian said.

Will-Harris said he uses slides created in PowerPoint or Flash for online seminars, and advises that those slides require the same kind of care you’d give for any presentation, live or otherwise. Use illustrations to break up plain text, and, of course, never read your slides unless your goal is to put your listeners to sleep, he said.

For working conferences with clients, he uses NetMeeting so that he and the customer can share the screen on applications, see what he’s doing as he works, or so he can help them with what they’re doing by controlling their computers.

Tailor your presentation to the medium
No matter how your clients, customers, or team members will see the information, it’s important to keep the written or visual presentation simple and use your verbal presentation to elaborate your key points. Keeping visuals pleasing to the eye and easy to read helps to maintain your audience’s attention. It’s equally important to make sure your presentation is compelling and relevant.

“Recast your message into benefits for the listener,” Stevens said. “Talk more about ‘you’ than about ‘we.’ Boring offline is simply excruciating online.”

Before and after the presentation
Several experts recommended that you provide communication with participants before and after the presentation. For example, you could send out a survey several days in advance of the session so that participants can ask questions and specify the content that is most relevant to them. This helps get them involved from the start.

In the case of sales presentations, Stevens said you should follow the rules of direct marketing to drive attendance. You could offer an incentive, like a white paper or a book. You should also send out confirmation e-mails before the session, she said.

After the presentation, you could provide seven to 10 follow-up e-mails to reinforce the content presented and provide additional resources. If this session is part of a long-term program, provide a discussion board where participants can continue to discuss the issues as the course progresses.

You can conduct polls after the presentation to further qualify possible clients or customers. Stevens suggests you ask about the following:

  • Their reaction to the product discussed
  • Their intent to buy
  • Their authority to buy
  • Their likely time frame for purchase
  • Whether they’d like to see a sales representative

Record the presentation
You may also choose to record the presentation for later viewing. This will help absentee attendees get up to speed on projects or save time for individuals who are only concerned with one portion of the meeting—they’ll be able to listen to just one segment. In the case of sales or educational sessions, recording the presentation will broaden your audience size and cut your cost per contact.

Free lessons about creating e-learning presentations

Cates has created a seven-lesson Introduction to eLearning e-mail course. If you’re interested in the course, sign up via e-mail or check out the details on her Web site.