The multitask assumption

The multitask assumption. Sounds like a good name for a spy film, probably starring someone like Michael Caine, and with a plot so intricate that you never really know which side each character is on – who’s a friend and who’s an enemy.

So what is the multitask assumption? It’s the assumption you can safely make with any webinar that a good proportion of the audience is multitasking – you know, checking emails, answering the phone, listening to music, finishing off a report, and so on. They intend to concentrate on your webinar – after all, that’s why they signed up – but they just can’t help themselves, the distractions are so persistent and so inviting.

This sounds like a situation where it’s quite clear who’s a friend and who’s an enemy: the friends are those who are listening to you with rapt attention; the enemies all those others who can’t even pay you the respect of tuning in with all faculties engaged for a single hour of their lives.

But are these people your enemies? Do you behave any differently when you’re attending someone else’s webinar? I don’t think so. For many, attending a webinar is like listening to the radio or watching TV – you tune in and out depending on the the attractiveness of what else is on offer. You would do exactly the same if you were at a conventional meeting or conference too, but you can’t because it looks bad; it’s disrespectful and insensitive.

As far as participants are concerned, multitasking is a benefit of the webinar format, not a drawback. For the facilitator, it’s a challenge. You could fight it by insisting on continual interactivity, demanding that participants use webcams so you can see what they’re up to (I know, not really practical for more than a small group), or using one of these new platforms that let you know when each participants’ web conferencing window is active or submerged behind a host of others.

Here’s what Ken Molay had to say in Must your webinar be interactive? on The Webinar Blog: ‘I prefer to work on presentation style and techniques that subtly (or not so subtly) refocus attention on your content and your presentation, over and over, in a continuous barrage of attention recapture cues. I assume that people are multitasking and drifting. So I use vocal pitch and speed changes to recapture their auditory attention and interest. I use verbal directions that tell them to refocus on the screen: “So, as you see at the top of the first column…” or “Look at the picture I used to illustrate this concept…” And of course I use direct interactions through chat dialogs, polls, whiteboards, or other technology features. But even when you have strong content and do everything right, you can simply get an audience that prefers a passive experience.’

A webinar is not a virtual classroom session (see So what exactly is a webinar?). With a webinar, there isn’t the expectation that there would be in a classroom that everybody should be fully engaged and participate in every activity. So by all means try your hardest to maintain their attention – after all, you must believe that what you have to say is important – but don’t get upset if you don’t succeed. Assume multitasking and don’t take it personally.

About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 244 post in this blog.

Clive is a consultant specialising in the application of technology to learning and business communications. He was previously Director of Training and Creative Services for a multinational corporation and co-founder of a major multimedia development company. For four years he was chair of the eLearning Network.

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