If you are like many accountants in these extraordinary times, your email and voicemail inboxes are filling up with questions from clients asking how they should be responding to the coronavirus pandemic. As you strive to fulfill your role as your clients’ most trusted adviser, you may find yourself overwhelmed with the sheer volume of requests for assistance. If that’s your situation, webinars may offer an effective method to proactively address the most common questions and concerns while freeing up time to provide more in-depth help to clients on an individual basis.
Webinars offer attendees live interaction, camaraderie with peers, and the opportunity to learn from other people’s questions. Webinars also are an effective format for clients who are auditory or visual learners. Note that if you have a client who is hard of hearing, you may need to consider doing live closed captioning or having it added to an archived video.
Picking webinar topics
The first step in crafting an effective webinar is picking the right topic. You want to select subjects that can be covered well in a webinar format and also attract the most client participation. The questions clients have been asking you should provide a number of good options for webinar topics. As you consider your options, prioritize the following two actions:
- Pick a topic that’s narrow enough for you to cover in an hour or less, including time for audience questions. You should be able to deliver all of your material in no more than 45 minutes. It will be hard to hold attendees’ attention for longer than that.
- Make sure you are an expert in any topics you choose to present. You don’t want to risk giving bad advice to your audience. For areas outside of your wheelhouse, a list of coronavirus-related webinars is available under “Virtual Learning Opportunities” on the AICPA Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center.
Examples of possible webinar topics include:
- SBA loan applications: What small businesses need to have, know, and do to apply.
- Payroll tax credits in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act: How do they work and what are the requirements
- Cash matters: How to manage cash flow in a revenue-depressed time. (This may be a topic best presented by industry since each industry has unique cash flow concerns.)
- Staffing: How to scale up (or down). Some industries are encountering increased demands during the pandemic while stay-at-home orders have depressed revenues in many other sectors of the economy. Businesses of all types could use advice on how to manage staffing levels to optimize hiring or manage staff reductions, whether through furloughs, layoffs, or pay or hours reductions.
- Business continuity and risk mitigation: Both topics can be industry-focused.
These are only a handful of the many possible topics. As you decide what you want to teach, be mindful that accountants can also offer webinars as a resource for business clients to share with their employees. And business clients aren’t the only prime candidates for webinars. Individual tax and personal finance clients can benefit as well.
Tips for a successful webinar
Once you pick a topic, you need to prepare, produce, and present the webinar. Here are some tips I’ve picked up during 15 years of leading webinars.
Making the slides
When preparing the visuals, you should:
- Design and create no more than 20 slides for a one-hour webinar. It generally takes two to three minutes to go through each slide, and you want to leave time at the end for participant questions.
- Use a slide design that puts your brand in a prominent position. If your firm does not have its own template with your logo, you can make your own. Microsoft PowerPoint has many templates available, and you can use its Slide Master tool to quickly add a firm or company logo to all slides in the deck.
- In addition to your logo, ensure that each slide contains contact information and the date of the webinar. The date is especially important given the rate at which information is updating.
- Avoid creating slides that are text heavy or that the audience “reads along with you.”
- If you believe you lack the time or skills to create a strong slide deck, consider using services such as VirtualCoworker.com or freelance writers and marketers. If you have the available funds, leveraging professionals outside your office can keep you focused on your specialty and help you deliver the content faster.
- Test your slideshow by presenting it to a family member or friend who is not familiar with the topic and ask what they understood. We can get too close to our material and not realize we are missing core topics that need to be explained. Practicing your presentation ahead of time also allows you to gauge its length based on the speed of your delivery. That will help you determine if you need to cut or add content (and whether you should talk faster or slower).
Picking the platform
In addition to preparing your slides, you will need to select and familiarize yourself with the software platform you use to deliver the webinar. If your firm already uses a videoconference software such as GoToMeeting or Webex, you can use that for the webinar. Another option is Zoom, which is user-friendly and has a lot of premium features being offered for free during the pandemic. Zoom usage has skyrocketed over the past couple of weeks, but so has scrutiny and criticism of the platform’s privacy protections and policies. Make sure the platform you choose adheres to your firm’s privacy standards.
Whichever software you use to host the webinar, ensure you know how to:
- Record the webinar, so you can leverage the time investment for a broader audience.
- Use the question-and-answer or chat features. Also, know how to save the chat dialog so you can review the inbound questions for future webinars, blog posts, newsletter topics, or services to add.
- Share your application vs. sharing your full screen.
Running the show
When it’s time for the webinar, do the following:
- Set up the platform to mute all attendees as they log in. It is best to direct people to send their questions via a chat window so you don’t get background noise.
- If the platform you are using doesn’t have a “waiting room,” remember the attendees can hear you. Keep your line muted until you are ready to communicate with them.
- Inform your audience how to submit questions, and let them know when you will address the questions, e.g., at the end of each section or at the end of the webinar.
- Have a second person on the webinar with you to address attendee connectivity issues and to answer questions you don’t have time to answer for the whole audience.
- Share your application only, not your desktop. You may think you have all notifications turned off, but we all have been on a webinar in which the host’s email notification pops up. Don’t let that be you.
- Test your microphone and camera before the live event. Your audience will be more engaged if they can see you on camera. Put a sign on your door so family knows not to pop in.
- Make sure you are near your router for the strongest internet signal.
It doesn’t stop at the end of the webinar
As noted above, make sure the date is on each slide because there likely will be changes and updates to what you present. To this end, make sure you share at the conclusion of your webinar where attendees can get updates to the content, whether via a newsletter, the firm’s website, a future webinar, etc. Encourage attendees to send you additional topics they would like you to cover. Let them know how to reach out to you if they are interested in talking further and how to send you referrals of potential clients who could benefit from the information you shared. Communicate additional services you may have added given the current situation, such as assistance with SBA loan application preparation.
You don’t have to be a professional presenter or technology guru to have success with webinars. You can design an effective webinar using the suggestions discussed in this article. Over time, you will grow more comfortable and sophisticated with your presentations. In this time of social distancing, clients still want to hear from you; webinars empower you to be the proactive and digital business adviser your clients can trust.
For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how CPAs can handle challenges related to the pandemic, visit the JofA’s coronavirus resources page.
— Samantha Mansfield is a Michigan-based consultant, public speaker, and founder of Samantha Mansfield LLC. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.