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Your Online Class Doesn’t Have To Be Boring

Bobby Owsinski • Audio Tech • September 2, 2020

Now that school is back in session, you’re probably in unfamiliar territory having to teach remotely. Whether you’re using Zoom, Teams, Meet, Webex, or any other videoconferencing app, there’s a way to do it where you’re at your most engaging.

I’ve been providing online courses, webinars, and workshops since 2014 and I’ve learned a lot over that time. Let me fill you in. We’re going to assume that you’ve already sorted out your audio after reading my articles here the past few months.

The Setting Is Important

As I’ve pointed out in previous articles, the place in your home that you broadcast your lessons from is extremely important. Not only must it be quiet and free from audible distractions, but it should be as dead as possible. You’ve been on enough of these video calls yourself to know that it’s difficult to pay attention to anyone who’s trying to communicate through tons of noise and uncooperative acoustics. You can’t expect your students to have any kind of attention span under those conditions. If you’re stuck in a noisy room, get a USB microphone and get as close to it as you can to keep the reflections and extraneous noises to a minimum.

The other thing that’s important is to have good lighting. The good thing is that you don’t have to hire a Hollywood lighting designer to put you in the best light. Just place a light, like a desk or reading lamp, at about arms’ length at a 45 degree angle to your one side, and another at about two arms’ length on the other. Having some additional overhead light helps too. Just remember that you want to be a little brighter than you think necessary, since even broadcast-level cameras tend to attenuate the light a bit.

Finally, you need a clean background. That means one that’s free from distractions behind you. If you’re in a room filled will fish tanks, lava lamps, and things that move and blink, that will draw attention away from you. Even though it’s boring, a blank wall behind you actually works best.

Set The Agenda

While you may think your lesson title is self-explanatory, it’s always best if you set the agenda for your students or video call participants. A gentle reminder of what’s expected from them and what you’ll be presenting will go a long way in maintaining attention for as long as possible.

Whenever I do a presentation of any kind, I also include a Powerpoint/Keynote slide right in the beginning that I call “Get the Most From This Session” that provides the following bullet points:

• Don’t miss a crucial tidbit of information (the reason why they need to do the following)

• Turn off your phone, email, Facebook, etc.

• You’ll hear it better on headphones

• Reconnect if you have audio or video problems (be specific to your platform)

• A replay will be available (state where)

I follow that up with another screen called “What We’re Going to Cover Today” with the top five points of the lesson.

Talking Heads Don’t Cut It

As you’ve no doubt noticed yourself, it’s really easy to drift off into another world when someone talks on screen for too long unless there’s some interaction involved. If you’re providing a lecture session, it’s best to break it up with some visuals, meaning graphics or Powerpoint/Keynote slides. These don’t have to be elaborate. In fact, they can be basic bullet points from your notes. They just need to be a break from the talking head that is you on their screen.

I’ve found that about 10 minutes is about the time where you have to switch it up. In other words, 10 minutes of you onscreen talking, then 10 minutes of slides/graphics (although this can be much longer if there are a lot of screens or bullet points). One way around the “talking head” that’s very effective is to use a whiteboard behind you. There’s a lot of motion involved which keeps the viewer’s attention while you get your point across. If there’s too much to write, you can fill the board with your points before the session, but cover each point with either post-it notes or some paper and masking tape. You can then reveal each point as appropriate, which adds some theatrics to the presentation and therefore maintains your viewers’ attention.

Recap, Then Q&A

At the end of the presentation before any Q&A, I also add another screen that’s a brief review of the major points that were covered called “What We’ve Learned Today,” where I condense the major points of the presentation. This may cover another 10 minutes or so (be sure to build it into your lesson plan), but really helps to reinforce the most important elements of the topic.

In my online presentations, I usually leave plenty of room for Q&A but cut it off at either the one hour or one-and-a-half-hour mark. Although I’ve done presentations that have gone for almost three hours, long sessions are too exhausting for everyone involved. It’s best to have a set time for Q&A and then ask anyone with a question that you didn’t address to contact you later.

I’ve found the above tips to be extremely useful in both my online and in-person presentations and they’re standard operating procedure for me now. Undoubtedly you’ll have to adapt them to your own personal situation, but they should make your online teaching life much easier.

Producer/engineer Bobby Owsinski is one of the bestselling authors in the music industry with 24 books that are now staples in audio recording, music, and music business programs in schools around the world. Visit Bobby’s website at bobbyowsinski.com.

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