Articles - 20th November 2020

The Rise of Online Webinars

Words by Sian Meades-Williams
Illustration by Jon McCormack

A week into lockdown, I breathed a sigh of relief as I confirmed that my largest contract would continue.

And then two days later, the client reneged on the agreement. Like so many other freelance writers, I was out of work by the end of the week. I cried. Then did the most important thing that freelancing has taught me: I came up with a plan to pay my bills.

The next day I launched my first Zoom webinar.

My first webinar was a simple freelance writing Q&A for freelance writers. It didn’t cover all of the money I’d lost, but instead of feeling helpless, I felt resilient. Launching something of my own gave me back control, in a time when I really felt I had none. We’re always told how precarious freelancing is (usually by people who aren’t freelance), but within 24 hours of losing a job, I had money coming in again.

When I’d wrapped up and finally found the “end meeting” button, my dinner was ready and I had found that I absolutely loved running the session.

Soon after, I launched a series of newsletter-themed webinars with Anna Codrea-Rado. They paid my rent and bills for three months. For a freelance entrepreneur, there’s a huge boon to teaching online – your event is scalable. You can only fit a certain amount of people into the upstairs room of a pub, but your online event can reach hundreds of people. And not one of them can grab the mic for “really more of a comment than a question”.

Webinars give you a stage to share your expertise and creativity in an accessible way. You can speak to people all over the world, not just those who can get into Central London on a Tuesday night. I don’t have to sit on a horribly uncomfortable stool for two hours and can wear pyjamas if I want. It’s so much easier to learn and engage when we’re comfortable and relaxed.

Zoom webinars are a dream for the introverted, but there’s still a surprising intimacy to hosting an event in your own home. I always get a lot of messages about the extensive board game collection that sits behind me on camera. Even though I was hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away from some writers who tuned in, there was a real connection with my audience. It might not feel the same as it does in person, but it’s still valuable.

For many freelancers, part of the connection is the relief in knowing that someone else is going through the same thing that you are. London Writer’s Salon’s popular Writers’ Hour sessions are a brilliant example of this. Three times a day, dozens of writers gather on a Zoom call to write together in silence. “It’s been such a huge part of the past few months for me and has revolutionised both my creative outputs, but also my relationship to my writing,” regular attendee, writer and illustrator Emma Winterschladen, tells me. “There’s something about having a supportive, non-judgmental space to turn up to each day, no matter where you’re at with your work or even yourself, that has been so valuable for me. It’s about accountability, but it’s also about community. Writing can be so solitary, and it’s amazing how sharing a virtual space can feel so connecting.”

So many creatives are taking the opportunity of quieter evenings to learn new skills, be it life writing or Japanese art techniques. Sure, it helps pass the time now we’ve all completed Netflix, but it’s also hugely fulfilling to feel like we’re doing something during a time when it’s so easy to feel helpless. That sense of helplessness might be even harder to manage now that the days are getting shorter. Nature writer and illustrator Tiffany Frances-Baker recently hosted a webinar in conjunction with her book, Dark Skies, which inspired “people to embrace the ‘darker half’ of the year”.

“As my webinar is less than an hour long, it’s more about inspiring people to think about their own creative ideas and commit to exploring them after the session is over,” says Tiffany. “I’ve also included things like writing prompts so people have something they can ‘take away’ from the session.”

That’s one of the brilliant things about the webinar format – the sessions are instantly actionable. Advice can be put into practice as soon as you’ve logged off. “The key to a successful webinar is making it worthwhile for people to sit down and listen – how can you enrich their lives without them even leaving their seat?” says Tiffany. “I just love the fact that you can sit at home all cosy with a cup of coffee, but still feel connected to the outside world in a more meaningful way than just scrolling social media.”

If you’re tempted to launch your own webinar, now is a really excellent time to try it – we’re facing darker nights and stricter lockdown rules – and people are very keen to keep busy. “The accessibility of programmes like Zoom, combined with the ability to share things easily through social media, means that people can organise a webinar with very little risk”, Tiffany tells me.

Embracing the knowledge that only you have is key to a successful webinar. What skills do you have that people can’t learn elsewhere? Hone in on that and own it. There’s no such thing as too niche, when it comes to webinars, says Tiffany. “The vastness of the internet means there will always be an audience for what you want to talk about.”

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