I saw a tweet today from @LeMadChef mentioning a podcast “opining about WebEx (and the horror of enterprise presentations).” Intrigued, I paid a visit to the Reconcilable Differences podcast on Relay.FM. Episode #98 was published today, February 21.
After listening to cohosts John Siracusa and Merlin Mann, I still can’t figure out the overall theme or premise of the podcast. Maybe it’s just “stuff we feel like talking about this week.” Part of the stuff in this episode is an unplanned rant about web conferencing.
It starts as a sidetrack at 1:44 with a brief mention of Zoom conferencing. From there, they branch off to discuss their experiences with Webex and GoToMeeting. What’s interesting to me is that these are not presentation experts nor conferencing specialists. They are just a couple of guys who use such tools as part of the work process. They don’t want to delve into operational details… They want the products to quietly let them accomplish their business tasks. And clearly they are not satisfied with how well they think web conferencing achieves that goal.
Merlin and John both generalize in their commentary. Readers of this blog will probably spot complaints where more product training and familiarity would allow the men to work around or eliminate some of their frustrations. But it’s the subjective impressions that are important here. Some of the complaints show where more work is needed in product design, or training and online help resources, or assistance with setup and moderation of a meeting.
Let’s take a look at a few specifics. I am necessarily summarizing and paraphrasing as I present these comments.
“I created a fancy slide presentation in Keynote on my Mac with transitions and animations to help make my points. My webinar host then told me at the last minute that my file had to be shown in PowerPoint on his Windows computer. I lost all my effects… in fact, we may have had to convert the entire presentation to a PDF in order to display it.”
>> This complaint is fortunately getting less common. I could not tell how long ago the anecdote took place. It remains true that web conferencing products that require an upload and conversion of slide content are notoriously PowerPoint-centric. A few still even require presenters to be on Windows computers. But that is now rare. More and more frequently, vendors are giving up on trying to chase PowerPoint’s constantly changing feature set, and are relying instead upon screen sharing to display whatever is on the presenter’s computer. In that case, it doesn’t matter whether you use PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, or something else. But if the host insists on running the share screen from her or his computer, you can still run into the problem of having the originating software unavailable or incompatible. Hosts have a responsibility to clearly communicate the technical requirements up front before any design work starts.
“I couldn’t see my slide notes while presenting.”
>> This problem goes hand in hand with the shift we are seeing towards using screen sharing instead of slide upload/conversion. Products such as Adobe Connect or Webinato can upload PowerPoint slides and their associated notes. Presenters can see the notes while moving through the slides. But in a screen share scenario, the only practical way to see notes is to use a dual-monitor setup where the presenter view is on one screen, while the audience view is on a separate screen that is shared with attendees. If the webinar host or moderator runs the slide show on behalf of the presenters, they can never see the presenter view. The best solution is to print out notes pages and have them physically in hand. Unfortunately, that doesn’t look very good if the presenter appears on camera. Hosts and presenters should work out their preferred strategy during a tech run / rehearsal ahead of time.
“The technology is forcing presentation materials into a dumbed-down lowest common denominator approach. Put your text on the slides so you can read them without notes, and don’t use any interesting effects in case they are incompatible. It forces presenters into creating boring visual materials.”
>> I vehemently disagree with the literal reading of this statement. But I totally get how people could feel that way… Especially if invited to present on an unfamiliar system without sufficient familiarization and preparation. I have even fallen prey to advising guest presenters to simplify their presentations to avoid potential technical problems later. Take embedded video clips or audio clips on slides for instance. Those can create technical minefields. It’s often easiest to remove them rather than spending time testing and separating the multimedia assets for best playback.
“Web conferencing products keep covering up the visuals with controls, logos, presenter video, etc. If I show a slide, I need to see the ENTIRE slide, and so does my audience!”
>> Correct. Vendors, take note. Admittedly (and they come back to it later), a good part of the problem is lack of standardized, intuitive control icons and a lack of training. So there may be ways to hide, move, or resize elements that the presenter or attendees are unfamiliar with. Ever since ON24 introduced their Webcast Elite windowed GUI, I can’t believe any vendor takes a different approach. It’s completely intuitive to every attendee using a Windows or Mac windowed operating system. You open, resize, and move conferencing element windows just as you do with everything else on your computer. What could be more natural?
“I run into problems where I can’t share the proper screen in a dual-monitor setup. So the audience sees my presenter notes screen instead of the full screen view.”
>> This has to be a training issue. But I do recall having frustrations in the early days of using Zoom with just such an issue. Vendors, this HAS to be simple, intuitive, and bulletproof. Hosts/moderators… If your guest presenter is running their own share screen session, make sure you cover this operation in your familiarization session.
“Muting and unmuting attendees needs to be much more obvious and controllable. Hosts need to easily open and close lines so people can speak when appropriate and be muted otherwise. It’s often hard to tell whether you are currently muted or not.”
>> This is obvious, but they are right… Many products still need better UI refinement to overcome the inattentiveness of attendees and to make it easier to transition between one-way and two-way communications in a session. If your participants have a choice of phone or computer audio the integration of controls can be even trickier!
There are a few other digressions into physical room-based presentation problems that I won’t bother recapping here. The entire segment takes place in the first 20 minutes of the podcast before their first commercial break. It’s a nice window into how average users may be perceiving our industry.