Canadian Consulting Engineer

Feature

Webinars

On-line presentations can be a good tool for engaging and recruiting clients, and also for internal training. Here’s some advice on what works and what doesn’t.


From the October-November 2016 print issue, page 73

With their focus on technical excellence, it seems that engineering firms would be a natural fit with new communications technologies such as webinars. Engineers love a technical challenge — and at least until recently, webinar technology delivered plenty of challenges. And given that many engineers prefer  to stay in the background, they might prefer the chance to do a presentation from the security of their own office, without having to appear on camera or on a stage.
There’s a solid established base of best practices for these online training sessions. They are a flexible way to present new technology, case studies, thought leadership and other information.
The term “webinar” combines “web” with “seminar,” and is sometimes referred to as “enterprise conferencing.” They are generally presented by an expert in a given field, who talks about a topic usually for about an hour, as slides are shown on the screen. Participants access the webinar via the Internet, and there is usually a way to ask questions and for the presenter to respond. They can be live or recorded.
Some webinars are split-screen, with a video feed of the presenter on one side and the slides showing on the other. Some webinars are open to anyone who has keyed in the right online code; some are closed.

Why they’re useful
Webinars can be a great way for engineering firms to show what they offer, and move a prospective client along in the business development process.
Today the technology is low-cost and increasingly robust and user-friendly. Webinars can be set up in a way that registering for the event requires entering a name and an e-mail address, and agreeing to further mailings from the webinar provider. This procedure allows the firm to build its mailing list of potential clients, and do it in compliance with Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL).
Webinars can also be a good way to provide internal training within a firm, which is particularly valuable in companies with multiple locations. As well, webinars can help individuals who provide special services, such as forensics, to gain the support of senior members of the company who hold existing client relationships, thus supporting cross-selling and extending the firm’s services.
Yet it seems that few engineering companies have embraced webinars as a way to market their services to potential clients, or to support internal training.
How one engineer uses webinars to teach — and learn
One engineer who has embraced  the tool is Mark Peterson P.E., who is based in Montano and on the staff of Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services, a firm with offices throughout the western U.S..
Peterson develops and presents webinars on topics that include stormwater management and detention pond design. The sessions are hosted through the American Society of Civil Engineers. Peterson says he likes teaching and he earns revenue from it. But he says that there are two more big benefits to creating this kind of content.
One benefit comes from the questions he receives from his audiences. It gives him valuable feedback on client concerns and issues, so that his professional work meets their needs better. Also, he learns from the questions and comments, because there are usually some people in the audience who know something about the topic that he didn’t.
The other benefit he finds is that pulling together enough information to do a presentation — and to be able to respond to those questions —  forces him to research and think through his topic in greater depth.
A one-hour webinar contains about 10,000 words, which is getting close to a book in length. Creating the webinar makes the presenter research current information, and maybe find ways to explain issues using diagrams and animation.
Effectively communicating your knowledge
Another business professional who has used webinars to market engineering services is Heather V. Stevens, a Guelph, Ontario, based consultant with the Webinar Insiders Club (webinarinsidersclub.com). She has facilitated and presented webinars on behalf of mechanical equipment manufacturers and distributors.
She says one difficulty that engineers have with webinars is that while they have their technical information well in hand, they often haven’t taken the time to learn how to present it effectively using webinar technology.
Three common errors Stevens has seen include:
• Trying to put across too much technical data. Many webinars fail because the presenter has tried to give a depth of information that would be better provided in a printed document at the end of the presentation. “You can’t download an entire engineering handbook onto someone through a webinar; it’s just not effective,” Stevens says. “You need the follow-up material to go with it.”
• Unnecessary information. “It seems that every company webinar starts with the first 10 slides about the company history. Ultimately, no-one cares. “That’s where you’ll have your attention drop-off,” says Stevens She says she’s even seen details on the company’s history on internal webinars, as they were simply adapted from presentations for external use.
• Inconsistent slide formats. Many webinars feature slides cobbled together from a variety of presentations, sometimes with different formatting and fonts. Stevens says that it’s best to have one standard firm-wide webinar template in PowerPoint (or Apple’s Keynote program). It’s also important to choose fonts that can be obtained by anyone in the firm — such as the widely-used Arial.
Have an end goal
Stevens has some success factors for webinars that work for engineering firms.
First off, decide on your end goal. The purpose is not to produce a webinar — it’s to achieve some other goal. For engineering firms, the goal is rarely the sale of a product as would be the case for many small businesses. Rather, the purpose is to convert someone at the early stage of their inquiry, into someone who sees the firm as a source of possible solutions for their project or issue. The goal is to get them to contact your firm, or agree to be contacted. “Plant a seed of interest,” Stevens advises. Engineers can accomplish their business objectives while also staying true to their values of providing technically excellent information.
Also, determine the teaching objective. For example, some firms might want members of the audience to be able to grasp a few key points about the company’s offering. Or, it might be for the audience to have a basic general understanding. “Every slide in the webinar has to serve that purpose,” Stevens says.
Engage the audience
Find case studies and stories that bring the ideas to life. Rather than providing too much technical detail, it is important to present stories about how one of the firm’s clients achieved success using the ideas being presented in the webinar. It is engaging stories that will cause members of the audience to stay around to the end of the session, and to pay attention rather than checking e-mail or their favourite team’s standings.
Have the presenters trained in webinar effectiveness. Many engineering firms will gladly pay for public speaking skills improvement, or may have an internal Toastmasters club. They need to take a similarly intentional approach towards webinar training.
Create slides that are light on text. Many webinar creators try to put too much text on a single slide. Staying on the same slide for more than a minute or so tends to bore the audience. Drop-offs mount and attention wanes. So, it is better to use three or four slides with just a few lines, than one slide with many bullet points.
Choose your tools and
a moderator
Use the right technology, the right way. There are several robust, well-developed, cost-effective solutions for webinar platforms. Stevens recommends any of GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, or MS Lync. All of these are paid platforms, and offer technical training and a level of reliability that is generally not available with free solutions such as Google Hangouts (which often won’t get through corporate firewalls, in any case). Professional-level webinar services will record the webinar so you can make it available later, if you so choose.
While experienced webinar presenters can do it all themselves, beginners would be best to have an experienced moderator along on the webinar to trouble-shoot. The moderator can also welcome registrants and introduce the presenter at the beginning. They canthen read audience questions to the presenter during the question-and-answer section at the end. This leaves the presenter free to focus on the content of the presentation. Most services such as GoToMeeting will provide an experienced moderator and technical support, for a fee.
A wired connection to the Internet — not WiFi based — is preferable in that there is less chance that the connection will fail. It is generally best to invest in a separate microphone such as the Blue Yeti. Just relying on the sound produced using the computer’s built-in microphone will have many people dropping off the webinar out of frustration.
Stevens advises that if someone isn’t comfortable with the material, they should consider creating a script and following that, rather than trying to just talk to the slides.
There should always be a Call to Action — a CTA — at the end. This might be to download an e-book or white paper, or to request a consultation from a member of the firm. They may simply ask to subscribe to the firm’s newsletter or social media feed. The objective is to bridge from the webinar into a process that leads to a new client relationship.cce

Carl Friesen is a freelance writer based in Mississauga, Ont.