For better webinar design use Marvel storytelling techniques

Marvel Movie Posters

Many of the images, characters, and cool parts of this post are owned by The Walt Disney Company. I am only making comparisons while being super complimentary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 🙂

Webinars suck. Not all – but many. Well … most. There are plenty of reasons for this. Poor content. Bad technology. Boring presenters. Etc.

I recently read Donald Taylor’s new eBook Webinar Master (thumbs up), which led me to reflect on my past experiences when attending webinars. I’ve probably run into every webinar sin imaginable over the years. While I’ve delivered dozens of online presentations, I’ve attended hundreds as part of my professional development and industry awareness efforts.

That said, the primary reason I often fade out while attending a presentation and decide to return to my work is bland, formulaic content design. I’m speaking less of supporting visuals and more about story structure. Every webinar tends to sound the same …

  1. Welcome
  2. Plugs
  3. Presenter intro
  4. Presenter background
  5. Title slide
  6. Agenda
  7. Point #1
  8. Repeat for remaining points
  9. Question/Answer
  10. Conclusion

No wonder presenters often resort to meaningless poll questions in a desperate attempt to maintain participant engagement. Their stories sure aren’t doing it! Beyond the great tips Donald offers for webinar mastery in his eBook, I’d like to address to cookie cutter content design problem.

To better structure our stories to meet the demands of modern participants, I suggest we look to the highest-grossing film franchise of all time: the Marvel Cinematic Universe! While superhero flicks aren’t everyone’s jam, one can’t deny Marvel’s ability to build a cohesive, engaging, easily-digested story for mass consumption by the intended audience. Isn’t that what we’re trying to do when we design webinars?

Below I’ll break down five commonly-used Marvel film storytelling techniques using examples from Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’ll compare these tactics to the story structure of my recent webinar ‘A Practical Approach to Supporting the Modern Learner.’ I didn’t really design this presentation with Marvel in mind. However, I have always been inspired by contemporary approaches to storytelling and apply these techniques whenever I can. Yes, similar tricks have been used before in big movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and the James Bond series. Marvel is the most recent storytelling crew to successfully build and apply this formula.

Yes, most of these ideas can also improve face-to-face presentations. However, the webinar is unique given the presenter’s limited “screen time” and interaction ability and therefore (IMO) can definitely benefit from these “cinematic” concepts.


Avengers Group

The Avengers open the film storming a Hydra base, providing exposition along the way.

Dinosaur Story

I compare L&D’s current path to dinosaur extinction in slide #1.

Get into the story ASAP

You have 3 minutes to get the attention of a webinar participant. Remember, especially for those attending live, people are in the middle of their work day and deflecting constant distractions despite their interest in your presentation. The buy-in factor for an online session is considerably less “expensive” than that at a conference or other in-person activity. In other words, they have very little reason to stay – there’s plenty of other ways to use the time. 3 minutes!

Just like there’s no rule that requires a movie to start with a lengthy title and credit sequence, there’s no rule that states you must begin your presentations with a title slide followed by housekeeping items and an agenda. Get into the story you plan to tell immediately and give participants a sense of what’s to come. Use powerful visuals up front and hold on the pleasantries until you’ve engaged participants in the experience. If they’ve come to see “The Avengers,” give them “The Avengers” as quickly as possible to set the tone for the deeper story that will begin to unfold in later “scenes.” In my case, people attended my webinar to hear about new ways to support employees’ modern learning and performance needs. Therefore, I began with a visual comparison regarding the evolution of the modern workplace and related “dangers” facing L&D (dinosaurs and extinction).

Avengers Title

Movie title appears briefly after 12 minutes.

Webinar Title Slide

My title appears on slide #15.

Hold off on the intro details

Get into the story ASAP but don’t neglect your brand. You are likely delivering a (free) webinar for several reasons, and those reasons probably include the desire to get both your message and identity out there. It’s important to get your name/face along with the names of your organization and/or sponsors on screen early in the presentation to ensure maximum visibility. This should take place immediately AFTER you engage participants in your story and ensure their continued attention as best as possible. If you start the presentation with your title info, you will look and sound like every other presentation and fail to really build participant value (beyond your name/reputation) within that critical first 3 minutes.

Much like the director quickly presents the Age of Ultron title to cap the action presented so far and ground the audience in where the story is going, you can use your title slide for more than just a visual bookend. Position the title image and related summary/agenda for the remaining presentation as the “so what” of your introductory story. In my presentation example, I spent the first 10+ minutes discussing how the world of work has evolved and devalued traditional L&D. How can we support employees and organizations in meaningful ways and stave off extinction? BAM – title slide!

Avengers Past Stories

Cap’s hallucination calls back to characters from the first Captain America film.

Webinar Slide - Knowledge Progress

I referred to the well-known forgetting curve concept.

Connect to what they know

This is a basic learning concept – people are more likely to understand and buy into a new idea if it connects to something they already know. In Age of Ultron, the director establishes the new threat to The Avengers by connecting the current story to past events and characters the fans have already seen. This helps viewers get into the heads of the characters and better understand their motivations moving forward.

You and the core messages from your webinar may be new to most of the participants. You don’t have a rich cinematic universe with which to connect. However, what do you know about your participants? Are they mostly from the L&D industry? To whom was the session marketed? Are they mostly designers or decision-makers? Use this understanding to presentation foundational information that should be familiar to most participants to establish shared knowledge and build credibility. For my presentation, attendees were primarily L&D professionals in design and managerial roles. I connected my story about the modern workplace to the well-known idea of the forgetting curve. While I didn’t dig into the detail or scientific validity of the concept, I used the visual as a jumping off point for my less familiar content ideas.

Avengers Fight Together

The Avengers assemble to apply everything they’ve learned so far to defeat the bad guy.

Webinar Slide - Concept Application

I brought together the concepts shared so far using practical examples.

Bring it all together

Every webinar participant comes to the table with the same question: “what can I do with this information in my work?” If you fail to address this concern, you most likely won’t deliver the maximum value for participant’s time. Similarly, the fans want to see The Avengers come together and apply their learning to defeat the bad guy. Otherwise, why would we invest 2+ hours of our time into this story?

Practical application of your ideas should constitute the biggest chunk of your webinar story. Bring together all of the concepts shared so far and show how they can really make a difference for your audience. Try to avoid hypotheticals as much as possible in favor of real application via case studies and success stories. In my case, I spent the last 20+ minutes of my presentation sharing screenshots and other examples in which I had applied everything I had previously discussed. More than anything else, this “yes you can really make this work and here’s how” component is what makes for a high-value presentation – webinar or otherwise.

Avengers Credit Scene

The traditional credit scene teases the next Avengers film.

Webinar Slide - Continued Conversation

I urged participants to continue the conversation via Twitter and my blog.

Leave them wanting more

The Avengers can only take down a single threat per film, but evil is still out there in the cinematic universe. While we are meant to feel a certain level of satisfaction in our heroes’ victory, Marvel wants us to anticipate the next film in the series and therefore established the tradition of the credit teaser scene.

Most webinars are 60 minutes in duration. You can’t really solve a problem for an anonymous audience in 60 minutes. You can just get the conversation started. While you don’t necessarily have a next presentation to tease, you should design your webinar with the continuation of the conversation in mind. It can be as simple as offering to engage with participants via social media. You could also leverage your professional blog to expound on more related ideas. If you will be speaking on similar topics in the future, you should plug away and let participants know how they can attend in they are interested in learning more. Overall, a webinar should not be treated as a solution in design and delivery. It’s just a single awareness event that can start a larger conversation that will hopefully lead to positive change in participants’ organizations.

How would you describe your experiences with industry webinars? What do you think makes for an effective webinar? Have you delivered or experienced examples of “alternative” story structure that was more engaging that the traditional presentation? 

For better webinar design use Marvel storytelling techniques

by JD Dillon time to read: 6 min