Last week I noticed the following tweet:
To be honest, that surprised me a bit, as I have always found ReadyTalk to be one of the easier webinar platforms to use. So I contacted Daniel and asked if I could interview him about his experiences. He graciously agreed, and I think we can take away some lessons from the talk.
Daniel is both a podcaster himself and a podcasting consultant. That makes him particularly sensitive to audio issues (he blogs about them on a regular basis). In the webinar he attended, there was a combination of live narration over PowerPoint slides along with prerecorded video clips.
The first problem Daniel ran into was that he joined the web meeting and couldn't hear anything. That is death to a podcaster, and quite honestly is also death to a webinar host! He checked his computer volume, checked his speakers, and finally noticed a button in the top margin of the ReadyTalk console window marked "Audio." It turned out he had to click this button in order to get an option panel allowing him the choice of listening via his computer or telephone. He was not expecting to have to make the choice, so the initial silence and how to resolve it was frustrating.
LESSON #1) If your web conference technology requires attendees to take an initial action when they join, make this BIG AND BOLD in your login instructions email. Attendees should know exactly what they will have to do when they log in. I have used other technologies that require attendees to log in to the web first, then call in, using a personal identification code presented on the web. Make sure your instructions specify the order and that they should look for their code on the web after login.
Daniel chose to listen via telephone. When the hosts switched to playing a prerecorded video clip, the audio played over attendees' computer speakers but NOT over the telephone. So phone-based attendees heard the live content fine and then suddenly switched to dead air as the videos played. Not a good situation.
LESSON #2) If you include audio or video clips in your webinar content, test them extensively ahead of time - log in as an attendee using each of the available audio connection methods. This limitation is more common than you might think… It is very difficult to synchronize telephone audio with streaming video, since some attendees might experience video buffering during the playback. So quite a few conferencing vendors choose not to play audio/video content out to their telephone bridge. You can get around this by hooking up a hardware bridge to your local phone line (I use the trusty old Dynametric TMP-636), but this requires yet MORE advance testing to make sure you aren't getting a feedback loop in your audio stream).
Then Daniel mentioned something that fascinated me. He said, "It always disappoints me when the host chooses to use a telephone line rather than a computer headset or microphone. It lowers the audio quality." I think this is a case of a podcasting expert having different equipment expectations from the rank and file. Both Daniel and I work in this field quite a lot, so we have high quality computer microphone setups available to us. To be fair, even a modest $40-$50 USB computer headset will typically give you excellent sound. But I have learned over the years how surprisingly uncommon it is for average business users to have computer headsets on hand.
I hear far too many people trying to use built-in microphones on their laptop computers, which produces terrible sound. I hear presenters using good computer microphones, but slow or lossy wi-fi internet connections, creating dropouts. Often a phone gives you better audio quality, but you need a good connection and a good transceiver microphone on your telephone as well. You can run into trouble by using cell phones, cheap in-line (iPhone) earphone/cable microphones, speaker phones, wireless headsets, or phone lines that run over VoIP circuits.
LESSON #3) Test audio for every presenter. Find out what works best with your conferencing technology (some seem to work better with telephone input, others with computer input). Let your presenters know early in the planning process that audio quality is CRITICAL to audience satisfaction and that you expect them to use a quality headset. Test audio on event day at least 30 minutes before your meeting starts and reconnect if necessary to get a clean circuit.
The final thing that influenced Daniel's perception of his webinar was again related to the use of slides and video clips. Daniel used ReadyTalk's attendee button to scale slide content to full screen. But every time the host played a video clip, the video ran at a fixed size in the center of the screen, leaving white space on all sides. It was a jarring discontinuity in the visual flow of the event to see the content repeatedly jumping in size and position… sometimes allowing attendee control and sometimes not.
This is certainly an area where ReadyTalk could afford to place additional development work to smooth the video/slide experience. But again, it is a common issue for conferencing vendors trying to provide smooth audio and video delivery to a general audience on a wide range of computers and internet connections.
LESSON #4) If the size or behavior of your visible content changes during the course of your presentation, tell the audience what to expect. Help smooth over the discontinuity with your patter. It is okay to mention that the video may play back in a smaller area to ensure that everyone has the best performance possible. If they know what is happening and why, it feels less like an unwelcomed interruption to their concentration on the topic.
I appreciate Daniel taking the time to clarify his experience and why he came away with a negative impression of the webinar. This should be a learning experience for web conferencing vendors, hosts, and presenters… Content may be king, but the way the content is delivered and consumed significantly affects the audience's satisfaction. As a host or presenter, you can help minimize attendee distractions with advance testing from their perspective, and as a vendor you should always be looking for ways to reduce barriers to easy consumption of all types of content.