I just had a thought-provoking email correspondence with a professional colleague who is an expert in the presentation design and delivery space. Nolan Haims said he had recently written an article about the ability to get live, automated captions added to slideshow presentations in Microsoft PowerPoint. He asked if I knew of similar functionality in any web conferencing platforms.
I cogitated a bit, and admitted that I was drawing a blank. I have three guesses as to why webinar and webcast vendors would avoid adding such a feature:
- It's not their business. Web conferencing products already have a lot of moving parts that keep their development staffs busy and their product roadmaps stocked with implementation plans. They don't need the hassle of trying to develop, support, and maintain automated speech-to-text on top of all that.
- It's hard. Even the best dedicated speech-to-text products can't guarantee 100% accuracy. Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Nuance have invested untold hours, resources, and training data into their transcription algorithms. They are awfully good, but still manage to frustrate users. And if your version seems somewhat inferior to the experience a user has in a competing product, that user will be all over you for not delivering "the quality they have come to expect."
- It could introduce legal liability. Web conferencing companies want to be transparent conduits for their users' content. If you say something and get into trouble for it, that's your problem. But what if they provide an automated transcription widget that prints the wrong words on the screen? In an honest-to-goodness test, I just now tried out the PowerPoint transcription on a paragraph of text I had at hand. I said “After a long period of frustrating evasions” and PPT wrote “After a long period of frustrating of Asians.” That might be enough to stop me from getting cast on Saturday Night Live in the future. But think of the really serious cases, like professional training for doctors or airline mechanics. If the software gets a term wrong or doesn't understand a commonly-used abbreviation in your industry it could introduce potentially catastrophic confusion.
Naturally, that introduces the question of whether there are alternatives? Of course there are…
- If you aren't worried about 100% accuracy and are willing to accept transcription errors, you can always use screen sharing and display your PowerPoint in slideshow mode with automated captioning turned on. Your audience will see the same text that gets displayed on your PowerPoint. No special functionality needed. Just read Nolan's article for full instructions.
- If you are serious about providing a high-quality caption stream along with your spoken presentation, use a captioning service manned by experienced human professionals.
- A few of the higher-end webinar/webcast platforms offer ways to integrate caption streams directly into their conferencing console. For instance, Adobe Connect offers a third-party utility that can display captions in one of Connect's content "pods."
- Most captioning services offer a link that lets viewers see your caption stream on a dedicated web page. In products such as ON24 or Webinato, you could show the captioner's web page in the conferencing console while simultaneously showing your own content. In a full-screen sharing product such as Zoom or GoToWebinar, you would need to advise your audience of the link and ask them to open another web browser window on their computer to see the captions.
I want to finish with a note of caution however. It is VERY easy to get distracted by looking at your words coming up a second or two after you speak them. You may find it difficult to concentrate on what you want to say next because you are so busy reading what you just said last! If you can find a way to suppress the caption display for the presenter, you should. This is one drawback of using the PowerPoint screen share methodology… For the audience to see the text, you need to see the text. Make sure to practice ahead of time to learn how to ignore the captions.
Nolan Haims is the guy I send my clients to when they need serious professional help with their presentation design -- both PowerPoint and graphic design for high profile print publications. His company is Nolan Haims Creative and he doesn't know I'm including this testimonial.
There are plenty of captioning services out there and I haven't worked with many. But I have worked with Annette Blough at Q&A Reporting on several client webinars. She is excellent and I never saw a single complaint from our hearing-impaired attendees (we asked about the caption quality on our post-webinar surveys). If you need human-powered captioning, I feel very comfortable recommending Q&A. She will also be surprised when she sees this. I have no back-room deals with these people!
If you do end up working with a captioning professional, I'll plug an article I wrote earlier this year: 13 Tips For Presenting With Language Assistants