Silence: Rules of Thumb

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If silence is important to encourage engagement by participants in webinars and online meetings AND if facilitators/presenters cannot rely on visual cues like we do in face-to-face situations…how can we know how much time to allow for participants to respond?

There are several factors at play:

  • what type of response you want (a simple Yes/No, a simple choice between pre-determined options, a complex choice between pre-determined options, a one-word answer, a short written answer, vocal response, a complex comparison, etc.)
  • what tool you will use to gather those answers/responses (poll, chat, whiteboard, etc.)
  • participants’ familiarity with the online tools
  • participants’ familiarity with the content
  • how many individuals are participating

So what can you do to insure that everyone has a chance to get their two cents in without losing those who are quick on their feet to other distractions?  Consider the chart below (click to enlarge).

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 11.15.26 AM

CHECK IT OUT:  Do an experiment with some colleagues.  Have them participate in a webinar that includes a variety of activities.  Time how long it takes for them to respond to each activity and afterwards, ask for their subjective experience…how did it feel as a participant?  Was there enough time?  Did they feel rushed?  Was there too much time?  Did they find themselves drifting away from the webinar?  Did they need/want some clues about the timing (e.g., stating “90 more seconds”, a countdown timer)?

See Silence: What’s Going On?

UPDATE:  The more webinars I do the more I realize how little wait time I am actually providing the participants.  Recently I had the opportunity to use a platform which gave me a timer for polls.  I started noting how long it took participants to register their poll answers.  Consistently it took at least 30 seconds more than I typically have allotted for the first participants to provide their response!  For example, Yes/No response times were 60-90 seconds (instead of the 30 seconds I had been giving).  CHECK IT OUT:  Use a timer to track how quickly answers start coming in and how long it takes for a majority of the participants to respond.  Use those data to inform your practice for future webinars.

Silence: What’s Going On?

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If you are a teacher, a trainer, or facilitator you have learned the power of silence for learning and deepening dialogue.  When we have the visual cues of those sitting in front of us…a thoughtful look, a pencil scratching on paper, a shifting in seats…we can gauge when to break that silence.  However, in an online environment, there are very few of those cues to rely upon and you must learn to be comfortable with the silence and give participants plenty of time to think and respond.  What happens in those moments of silence?  Participants…


  • think about the question or concept before them.
  • formulate an answer or response.
  • relocate or refamiliarize themselves with the online tool being used.
  • type their responses into chat, on a whiteboard, or share their thoughts via a poll.
  • edit for typos and misspellings.
  • filter their responses based on who else is participating and who else might see their post.

That’s a lot of processing and yet most of the time we give 30 seconds or less for folks to respond.  So what might feel like an eternity of silence to the presenter or facilitator in a participatory webinar…is fleeting moment of time for the participants.

See Silence: Rules of Thumb

Anchoring Ideas Visually

Whenever I go to conferences I use my ipad to take notes…using images and text to provide an anchor for the concepts being presented and discussed. The images later evoke for me the key points of the presentations. Here are a series of visual notes I took at DevLearn 2012. (Click on images to enlarge.)


Conference Calls – Just for Fun

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Screen shot 2013-09-21 at 6.26.28 PMI ran across a humorous description of a typical conference call that rang true to my own experience.  I had to capture it visually because it struck such a cord with me.  Dave Grady gave me permission to pair his audio with my animated drawing, which you can view here:

Please note, this a was a quick in-the-moment practice of graphic recording…you will find some places where the graphic departs slightly from the audio.  I also learned some important things about graphic recording…like how red does not work well for text.  

You can view Dave’s original video here:


Creating Consensus – Making Magic Happen Online

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I am always delighted to watch how, when using the ToP methods, a wide variety of disparate ideas are shared, refined, categorized and agreed upon. The structure of the methods makes this process effective and seem almost magical. But can that magic happen online?

This week I had the pleasure of working with a large mental health services company to begin the process of revising their leadership development program. Using Adobe Connect, 13 company leaders met to discuss and agree upon the essential skills and abilities needed for a leader to be successful in the company’s context. Using the ToP methods approximately 40 distinct ideas were shared, discussed, and prioritized in small groups. Through an iterative process the ideas were clustered, clarified, and categorized into 6 groups. By the end of the 2 hour online meeting the leaders were able to agree that, for them, the categories of skills and abilities they developed represent the essential skills and abilities needed by leaders in their company.

Did the magic happen online? Yes! It did. Did we learn that we should do some things differently to make the methods more effective in the online environment? Absolutely.

Telling the Story

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More and more we are becoming aware of how important it is to connect stories to our work.  Stories provide a real world description of the impact of what we do and how we do it.   Stories weave the human element into data that is shared.  Stories speak to the value of our efforts.

I had worked with a client for a little while and knew a bit about their services, but it was not until I was asked to tell their story that I really understood just how innovative their work has been and continues to be. This short clip provides a taste of the founder’s vision and how he went about achieving this vision.

What is the “technology” part of Technology of Participation?

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Many have come to think of technology narrowly…in relation to the internet and electronic devices.  But the term technology has a much broader meaning.

The word technology comes from Greek τεχνολογία (technología); from τέχνη (téchnē), meaning “art, skill, craft”, and -λογία (-logía), meaning “study of-”.[1].  So, by that definition, the Technology of Participation would be the study of the art, skill or craft of participation.  The group of folks who created, refined, and codified the Technology of Participation were just that…students of participation.  Their observations of how individuals participate in group processes led them identify some naturally occurring structures which were utilized to foster comprehensive, grassroots community development.  These structures were the foundations of what has become the Technology of Participation group facilitation methods.

Go here for a brief description of the ToP methods (click Full Screen).

Impact: Moving from Talk to Action

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We’ve all been there.  Lots of great brainstorming, visioning, and discussion…leading nowhere.  When you spend precious resources of people’s creative energy, time away from the work, and money…you want to see results.

There are many methods of holding discussions, building consensus, developing action plans, and creating strategic plans.   For maximum IMPACT all constituents should be involved in the conversation in meaningful ways…unearthing their creativity, fostering their investment in the process, and garnering their commitment to achieving the end result the group envisions.  All of the conversations should lead to great ideas AND to action that creates and sustains the vision.

The Technology of Participation (ToP) methods of group facilitation foster these processes and results.  ToP methods have been used to achieve results with large corporations and villages, in the US and across the world, involving individuals from all walks of life.  Click here for a brief introduction to the main methods (view full screen).

Too Long?

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Raise your hand if you’ve ever thought to yourself that you wish a webinar would last longer.  Yep.  That’s what I thought.  A few folks who learn best through auditory means and another handful who have attended a webinar with an uber-engaging presenter raised their hands.  But, let’s face it…webinars can be pure drudgery.  Is there a perfect length of time for a webinar?  My answer has changed over time…and it depends on your audience, your purpose, your presenter(s)…but most importantly it depends on how you engage those on the other side of the computer screen.

Here’s my rule of thumb:

30 minutes is too short for anything but a quick announcement, overview or introduction

60 minutes is the max for a presentation by an expert … and should include 10-15 minutes for answering questions from attendees

90 minutes is excellent if you are planning to engage the participants in the content and through interactions with the presenter and other participants

I have been part of a team who designed and facilitated 3- and 6-hour webinars.  These were designed for a discreet group of participants who were gathered for a specific reason to address very targeted topics….and they participated in small face-to-face groups.  These were very participatory, included compelling presenters, and were positively received.  (We decided to offer two 3-hour webinars instead of one 6-hour webinar after receiving feedback about the length of the longer webinar.)

In my experience, webinars of 60-90 minutes allow for getting into the content to some depth and offer opportunities for discussion among presenters and participants.

Participatory Webinars

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When people use the term webinar, they can mean a variety of things. I like to draw a very clear distinction between webcasts and webinars. As you can see in the below image, a webcast is usually a one-way flow of information. Webcasts can be attended by up to a few thousand individuals. The presenter – who is considered to be the font of all knowledge – talks about the topic of the webcast for an extended period of time, often between 50 and 75 minutes.

When attendees are invited to contribute to a webcast, it is usually in the form of a 10-15 minute Q & A session at the end of the webcast. There may be a Q & A chat feature that allows participants to comment or ask questions either throughout the webcast or at the end of the webcast. Sometimes the other attendees can see the questions and comments, but more often they are only visible to the host or the presenter. This prevents participants from building upon each other’s ideas.

Sometimes people call these type of information exchanges webinars.

In order to be clear about what I mean when I talk about webinars, I have chosen to insert the word participatory before the word webinar. This is because what I expect to happen in the online learning environment is more than a pouring of knowledge down upon attendees, it is a social learning process where the person convening the webinar builds the structure of the learning environment and then invites the participants to engage with the facilitator and each other. You can see the the idea and information flow of a participatory webinar in the graphic below.

You may have noticed that as I described webcasts I used the terms attendees and presenters [move words] and when I talked about webinars I used the terms participants and facilitators [move words]. This is not simply a distinction of semantics, it is a philosophical difference that informs every decision that is made in designing and facilitating an online learning experience.