Last week’s post in which I mentioned making life easier for remote workers, generated a few questions about the technology that we use. So, I decided to share the lessons I’ve learned about these tools in the hope that it might help someone avoid the mistakes I have made. Unfortunately, that means that this post is not about SharePoint, and (perhaps worse) I threw away my normal 800-word limit.
We have had the technology to conduct online meetings for many years, and it seemed like such a simple concept. Some of it is simple; sharing slide decks, voice, and even video is pretty easy. Delivering an in-the-room experience to several remote attendees however, is not always simple. If you’re thinking of inviting remote attendees to join your in-person event, you might want to keep reading.
The service you use might matter – In the past 12 months, I have used Microsoft Lync, GotoMeeting, WebEx and Skype. There are benefits and drawbacks to each service, but none are significant enough to make one my favorite choice. What makes one service better than the other for any event is the audience. How many people are you going to have on the receiving end, and with what service are they most comfortable? For example, although Lync is my normal communication service, it doesn’t work well with Macs, and it has a complicated choice of clients for Windows users. I tend to use Lync only when everyone in the meeting already uses Lync.
Depending on what version has just been released, WebEx and GotoMeeting are functionally equivalent. We used GoToMeeting for years, but their entry level plan only supported 15 users. WebEx was supporting 25 users at the same price point, so we switched. I also think WebEx has a more intuitive control panel for the host. Skype is great if everyone has a Skype account, but I wouldn’t ask anyone to create an account just to attend my meeting. Also, if you’re like me, make sure that “Skype or Lync” is an exclusive OR condition. They don’t play well together. Hopefully this will change, but as of March 2013, you still might want to read this post.
There are other products, like UStream and Google, but I have no experience with those. Keep in mind that some companies limit the ability of their employees to download and install software like the runtime clients required by these services. Make your remote arrangements ahead of time.
The event – There are big differences between a video conference call, delivering a webinar style presentation and extending a live event to a remote audience. Conference calls are easy because everyone is responsible for their own “production” as it were. Also, most of the people on a conference call are familiar with the technology. Webinars, or broadcasting yourself to a remote audience are more difficult than a conference call, but they are still relatively easy to produce. A second monitor that you can use to share the slides is helpful, but even without one, you control the presentation, you can stay in the field of view of the camera and you can monitor the flow of comments that might be arriving over voice or instant messaging channels. Control, camera and communication all become problems when you are broadcasting a live event:
- The speaker needs control of the slides. – The person giving the presentation is going to want to control the slide deck. You either need to give him/her a remote, or you need to let them use their own computer and bring them into the remote session. The first option, giving them the remote works well, but you need to have a copy of their presentation (including sound and video files) on your computer and you need to keep your operating system’s ‘focus’ on their presentation. That makes it difficult to control or even to interact with the remote attendees. If you think about sneaking away to respond to a comment while the speaker covers the current slide, remember that you are likely to advance their slide when you click back on their content. If you don’t do that, you will get to see that “what the heck?” face when the remote doesn’t work.
The second option, making them part of the remote session and letting them share their screen works well, but requires that they also have Internet access and they you give them one of your remote slots. Also, if you split the feed like that, make sure you keep control of the audio and video and that you know how to get it back when they accidentally take control.
- What does the video look like? – If you are sending live video, you need to pay attention to the camera, the speaker and little things like lighting and motion. Some video cameras let you pan and zoom during the event. Some let you choose zoom and level settings, but require that you disconnect and reconnect to your feed before those changes are applied. Of course, you can always move the camera on the tripod, or move the tripod.
Talk to your speaker(s) ahead of time. Define a range of movement for them; ask them if they will be using the white board, or if they are planning to walk to the screen and point at stuff or if they are planning to use a laser pointer. If they are going to use other visual aids, make sure you know how to focus or where to move the camera so the remote audience can see them. Also, don’t be surprised if your speaker is less comfortable with the requirements of being on a virtual stage than they are with being in the room.
- One Big Happy – Before you introduce the first speaker, mention the remote attendees. You don’t have to go down the list of names, but something like “…and I want to welcome the 10 people joining us over WebEx today” will serve to remind the speaker that those people are there. It will also help to explain the tripod, camera and microphone. You might also want to take a minute to explain how the remote attendees should ask questions (group chat, private chat, etc.).
It’s Showtime – After your first event, you will appreciate the next time they roll the credits at the end of a movie. Staging an event that includes a remote audience is not something you should attempt alone. You need at least a second person to help you, and our best events have had three people involved with the production tasks. One person needs to be the broadcast point. That person has the slide deck (or controls who is presenting) and that person has the connection to the remote audience. That person controls when the event is being recorded, when the audio is muted, when the video is being shared and physically adjusts the camera and the microphone.
A second person should be part of the remote audience while also in the room. The best example of this was our last AIIM Chapter event, where one of the Chapter board members was in the back of the room, watching the live feed on her iPad. She was our liaison with the other remote attendees, she could ask their questions, and she could type out the audience questions for them to read, since the mic only worked well for the speaker. If you have a third person, they can focus on the people in the room. Neither audience should be made to feel less important than the other.
Support – Things will go wrong, but you can reduce your problem count if you can do two things. First, communicate with your remote attendees ahead of time. Make sure they are comfortable with the service you are using – offer to arrange a test of the service. Second, give everyone information about the service you are using, as if they’ve never used it. If they are familiar with the program, they are free to ignore your advice the way frequent fliers might ignore the safety card in the seat pocket, but if they are new to WebEx, or it’s been a while since they attended a WebEx meeting, they will appreciate the information. As I mentioned with handling comments, if you hope to be able to use private chat during the event, you need a second person or at least a second device on which to have that exchange. Remember, that helper and / or that second device of yours counts toward your limit with the service you are using. That’s important if you are selling tickets for the event. If I am using WebEx, I cap the number of Live Stream tickets at 20 in Eventbrite. That way, I have a couple extra slots for helpers and I have one or two to give away to a person who paid to attend in person but had to cancel at the last minute.
Also, make sure that the remote attendees understand the finer points of the agenda. For example, our event started at 8:30 but it started with breakfast, so maybe remote attendees didn’t want to log on until 8:50, when our Chapter President started speaking
Rules – Make sure your speakers are aware of your broadcast plans. This can be a simple courtesy, just to inform the speaker that their content is being broadcast and / or recorded, or it could present a real problem. Our most recent AIIM Chapter event was about security, and one of our speakers was an FBI Agent. The agent could not be photographed, and she could not be on video. Even the venue may not want certain things recorded. These things may not present a problem, but a conservative approach will ensure that there are no surprises.
I have now been involved with about six events that included a local and a remote audience. I am clearly still learning how best to handle the nuances of AV production. I hope you find this helpful, if you have any questions, I would be happy to try and answer them and if you have anything to add, I would really appreciate your comments.