I'm writing this post on Friday, March 27. It's been a rough week with lots of webinars. And I've come to a painful conclusion, spurred by direct experience and observation… We need to temporarily throw away a number of best practices for virtual presentation in favor of practicality and pragmatism.
The world's economy, job markets, and supply chains were blindsided by the global impact of COVID-19 prevention measures. It turns out that web-based collaboration is facing similar unprecedented disruption factors:
- Usage rates for all major web conferencing platforms have skyrocketed past any stress testing and load projections those companies ever considered. Zoom, Webex, and GoToMeeting/GoToWebinar are probably taking the biggest hits, as they are the names most familiar to consumers. But the sudden increase in usage has hit every vendor.
- Presenters and attendees are working from home, straining home internet connections that struggle to carry the bandwidth needed for continuous 2-way streaming collaboration. Add the overhead from family members also streaming movies, education, and personal communications. There's going to be congestion and slowdowns.
- We've thrown away wired connections as a society. Everything is wireless, creating additional chokepoints and opportunities for interference, dropouts, and bandwidth contention.
- More presenters are incorporating the past decade's recommendations for entertaining and engaging audience members. They are making use of live streaming video, audio/video clips, advanced PowerPoint design with animations and slide transitions, and screen-sharing demonstrations of web sites and applications.
THE EFFECT ON WEBINARS
The result of all this was painfully apparent in webinars I moderated and attended this week. Loss of audio/video synchronization. Audio lags between presenters. Choppy, buffered audio and video. Temporary dropouts in seeing presented material.
I watched one poor sign language interpreter trying to provide sign language for deaf attendees on an international conference with 1000 participants. He was obviously working from home like everyone else. His image was so buffered and choppy that I couldn't imagine a person being able to follow along. It would be like trying to listen to a spoken language interpreter with a severe stutter.
When it happens on one of your webinars, you will NOT know where the problem lies. Are you the only person seeing it, caused by congestion on your local network? Is it a problem with the presenter's uplink? Is it a temporary overload in the web conferencing software servers that needs to be load balanced? Is it something to do with a content delivery network that distributes the data and that you don't even know exists?
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRESENTERS
I think the only way to deal with the situation is to acknowledge the temporary circumstances and modify our practices accordingly. Here are some suggestions to make sure you are able to get the basics of your message out to your public with the least chance of failure.
Please note that I recommend these primarily for formal outbound webinars reaching large numbers of people. You can continue to hold your peer-to-peer web meetings and video conferences without worrying too much about these considerations, as people are more forgiving of little glitches in private conversations.
- If your webinar product allows upload of slides rather than screen sharing, use it. Adobe Connect, ON24, BigMarker, and Webex all have modes that allow you to upload a PowerPoint file to the web conference.They may throw away slide animations and transitions, so design accordingly. Using this mode of operation caches the images and makes sure that all attendees see the same thing at the same time. And if one presenter develops a connection issue, another presenter can take over advancing the slides. Some products do not offer this type of operation… Zoom and GoToWebinar rely on sharing your screen to show slides.
- Get rid of movement animations and transitions on your slides. No fly-ins, slide-outs, morphs, crawls, or other things that need continuous point-to-point updates on a subsecond basis. They aren't showing up smoothly on attendee screens. Simple appear/disappear should be as fancy as you get for the time being.
- Turn off your webcam. This greatly reduces the bandwidth requirements for your upload stream and every attendee's download stream. If your image is stuttering and losing audio synchronization, it isn't doing you any good anyway.
- If you are a presenter (ESPECIALLY if you insist on appearing on webcam), tell your family members that they can't stream movies or do other internet-intensive activities for that one hour you are presenting. Lower the congestion on your family's network.
- Use wires if you possibly can. Eliminate at least one invisible point of failure… Use a plugged in phone or plugged in headset. Try to set up your presentation computer near your home's wireless router. The router probably (devices vary!) has a port in the back that lets you connect an Ethernet cable (also known as an RJ45 connector). If you can get your computer hooked directly to the router, you'll have better, more reliable network performance.
- Have a backup plan in place. If one presenter is sharing their screen to show the presentation slides, assign someone else with the responsibility of taking over in case the presenter has network problems. They should have the same presentation open in PowerPoint on their computer and be ready to show their screen to take over the visual presentation if needed.
- Make sure presenters can switch to a backup audio mode. If your webinar platform offers presenters a choice of using computer or phone audio, have them select phone mode first and write down the dial-in numbers and personal ID code on a piece of paper. Then switch to computer audio. If they have network problems, they can switch to telephone dial-in as a backup, referencing their note paper.
Some of these tips are inconvenient. Most fly in the face of recent advice on how to spice up a web presentation to involve an audience. Your vocal style and storytelling technique is going to have to get better to compensate. But the first order of business is to get a clear channel of communications out to your audience. Everything else is secondary.