How to run a good webinar series: ten lessons from the frontline

From May to August of this year, the Centre for Public Impact partnered with the Australia and New Zealand School of Government to create a webinar series on “Reimagining Government”.

This is the first webinar series we at CPI have designed and delivered, and we learned a lot! In this article, we offer some reflections about what worked really well, and what we’d do differently next time. We’re sharing this so that others can learn from the mistakes we made, and benefit from the elements we think helped to make the series the success that it was. 

We’ve separated this into two sections. The first part focuses on the technical aspects of running a webinar, while the second focuses on our approach and content.

This list is – without doubt – incomplete! We’d love for you to add your own contributions. To do this, we’ve set up a Google doc, which is open for editing. Please jump into the document, and share your own tips and tricks!

Tech and logistics

1. Be prepared to “lean in”

Thea: Hey Chris, we’re thinking of doing a webinar series for 7 weeks with some really senior government folks in Australia, speaking to ~1,000 guests, do you fancy helping out?

Me: Hell yeah!

I said yes not really thinking about how the time difference would put an end to lockdown lie-ins, and having relatively small amount of knowledge about putting on a webinar of this size. But if we could pull it off, I knew it would be something special. So I jumped at the chance to get involved and put faith into figuring things out as we went.

We all know there’s so much that can go wrong with tech, particularly online meetings. However, leaning into that fear and diving in anyway was something I had to battle in the early stages of our planning. 

So if you’re a bit nervous about doing something similar, it’s absolutely normal. 

Embrace that fear and roll with it. Powered with some realistic planning, a clear objective and a team that has your back; you really can create something special. As you’ll see from the list we’ve put together, we’ve learned a hell of a lot just getting stuck into this webinar series, so the least you’ll get is a new set of skills and ideas to take into future webinars.

2. Authentic voices and conversation

Being authentic in voice is something we really wanted to encourage in our webinar series, both from our panellists and the guests.

Doing this in an online environment isn’t always easy, but incorporating breakout rooms as a key feature definitely helped foster real conversations and provided an opportunity for all who participated to connect during the session and keep the conversation going after.

To start with, we made the breakout sessions small groups, but we soon found out that bigger is better. Instead, we created breakout sessions consisting of up to 10 people to discuss themes and ideas based on what they’ve heard from the panel. Making sure someone is on hand to support the set up of these breakout rooms is key, checking that there are enough people in each group to have a healthy conversation.

3. Get to grips with the tech, so you can focus on delivery

Zoom has likely been a feature in all our lives for the past few months. But even though most of us have become accustomed to the tech, kicking off a packed webinar and hearing the words “Your mic is on mute” is not a good look.

We made a big effort to get familiar with the Zoom functionality and break it down in a way our panelists and guests could understand clearly. 

There’s a lot you can do with Zoom, but we kept things simple and held briefing sessions prior to the main event to go through the basics, run through any tech questions and put our panelist at ease in advance of the main event. This allowed them to focus on engaging in the discussion and not worry about how to unmute their mic.

I (Chris) still think we could have done more on guidance for the guests as we had a few mishaps with cameras and sounds, but having a pre-brief with your panel in advance is definitely something we’ll continue to do.

4. Accept failure, but having a plan B is a good idea

Imagine getting the ‘blue screen of death’ on your laptop 5 mins before the webinar is due to start, polls not working, panellist not being able to log in until the last minute. We had it all and more in this series, but we got through without drawing too much attention.

Having a plan B and accepting the fact that mistakes WILL happen, really helped to take the stress out of the planning and took the heat off our panelists knowing that things would be okay should the worst happen. 

We knew full well that there’s only so much we can control with the technology, but brainstorming some of the more obvious issues helped us to think about how we could quickly continue with minimal impact on delivery and limit the amount of things that can go wrong.

5. Sharing the load

We started off the webinar series with me (Chris) managing all the tech moderation, purely because we thought this might be the simplest way and I had most of the knowledge. 

But what happens if the ‘tech guy’ is away for one of the meetings?

This actually happened during the series, meaning I had to upskill the rest of the team on how to run things without me. 

Sharing the load on who does what was one of our best moves as far as tech goes; it relieves the pressure from one person to get everything right and allows you to focus on less, from juggling the slides, music, and spotlights, to guest entry, breakout rooms and loads of other bits. Where possible I’d encourage you to split the tech moderation between multiple people. If anything, it’s an opportunity to upskill others in your team.

Approach and content

6. Find the right partner

All events – including webinars – benefit from partnerships. However, finding a partner who is the right fit is key (and not always easy!).

For this webinar series, ANZSOG felt like a great partner, both because of the broad reach they have into public sector audiences in Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) and also because they sit firmly outside of the “government innovation” echo chamber. It’s easy to have these kinds of conversations with people who you know are already convinced. We wanted to reach new audiences; to be challenged and stretched. Partnering with ANZSOG made this possible.

7. Define a clear purpose

Before we began designing the series, we asked ourselves why we were doing it. Were we just jumping on the webinar bandwagon? Did we have something valuable to offer? 

Working with ANZSOG, we defined the purpose of the series as follows:

To catalyse a conversation in ANZ about how the disruptions and innovations triggered by the COVID-19 crisis offer an opportunity for reimagining government post crisis.

For CPI more specifically, the series was also an opportunity to test whether our vision for reimagining government resonated with an ANZ audience.

This purpose acted as an important anchor for the series. It helped us define a target audience, identify speakers and topics, and it is also shaping our thinking about what comes next.

8. Think hard about diversity

This is something that I (Thea) didn’t do well enough. While we had good gender diversity, too many of our speakers were white. Diversity is important for so many reasons; not least because it introduces different perspectives and lived experiences to the conversation.

Unfortunately (and somewhat shamefully!) I realised this too late. I have learned from this, publicly acknowledged my mistake, and am committed to never repeating this again.

9. Ensure alignment between content and structure

This webinar series focused on themes like sharing power and leading with humility. For this reason, the traditional format of an expert panel and a passive audience felt wrong. 

We thought hard about how to design a webinar structure which aligned with the themes of the conversation, resulting in sessions with significant audience participation (described by Chris above).

This structure created a dynamic where power between the audience and panel members was shared, and where the conversation was co-created.

After every webinar, we also shared both the panel recording as well a transcript of the audience chat. Again, this moved away from the idea of the panel as “experts” towards an understanding that participants make an equally important contribution.

10. Learn and iterate as you go

At CPI, one of our core beliefs is that progress is best achieved through continuous learning. We applied that belief with full force as part of the series.

After every webinar, we debriefed as a team, reflected on survey feedback, and iterated our approach along the way. 

For example, we noticed that in the first couple of webinars, many people dropped off when we moved to breakout rooms. As a result, we shifted the time of the breakouts to later in the session, and made it clearer that people could opt out of breakouts without dropping off altogether. This helped enormously!

This commitment to learning and iterating meant the webinars kept improving – both from our perspective, and for the audience (who told us so!). I can’t recommend it highly enough.

A fun learning experience

Throughout the webinar series, we developed new skills and made some valuable mistakes. As a result, we have no doubt that whatever webinar we do next will be better as a result. We look forward to hearing your ideas around how to run a great webinar series too!