Originally published on October 25, 2017
Organizations can no longer count on all members of a team working in a single location. Virtual collaboration is now routine, with regular conference calls and the associated need to view presentations and shared screens across distributed sites. Many communities of practice spanning multiple organizations and locations hold regular conference calls where presentations are shared with the members.
Virtual collaboration tools such as WebEx, Skype, GoToMeeting, HPE MyRoom, Blackboard Collaborate, and Adobe Connect allow slides, desktops, and applications to be shared over the Internet. These tools are quite powerful, but they have their drawbacks. Technical problems, missing or incorrect links and passwords, and slow or erratic performance can reduce the effectiveness of virtual meetings.
A significant percentage of the limited time available for a conference call can be wasted due to the need to respond to attendees who are unable to connect to the collaboration tool. Slow refresh times can make following a demonstration very difficult. Technical problems that lock out the presenter or freeze their screen can ruin a meeting. Those who are unable to connect due to travel or lack of Internet connection can’t see the slides or what is being shared.
We have all been on calls when the following have occurred:
- The presenter is repeatedly interrupted by questions from participants about how to connect to the tool.
- The presenter is informed by one or more participants that the tool is not working for them (e.g., Skype for Business is not working on my Mac).
- The presenter has technical problems with the slides or with sharing the desktop or an application.
- The screens don’t refresh or are slow to refresh.
- Presenters or participants become disconnected or lose control of the tool.
- The audio degrades, breaks up, fades in and out, or drops out altogether.
- Multiple attendees ask “will the slides be made available?”
The impact is wasted time, ineffective communication, and lost opportunity. And great frustration for the organizers and participants.
Here are some actual examples.
- In a recurring Google Hangout for community managers, the audio frequently breaks up, one or more of the presenters can’t be easily heard due to low volume, participants are dropped, and the presenters are not sure who is supposed to speak next. This significantly reduces the effectiveness of the event.
- Group calls using Skype have to endure the inability of some participants to connect, video that is dropped during the call, and differing user experiences for the mobile and laptop versions. At any given time, one or more participants is typically trying to connect, being dropped, or struggling to get their video to work.
- A social media marketing webinar that used WebEx totally failed due to severe technical problems. The event had to be canceled.
- An all-hands call using Skype for Business was plagued by numerous interruptions, including voicemail messages, loud feedback noise, and participants who could not be heard. The first 30 minutes of a 90-minute call were wasted in dealing with these problems.
Many of these problems are humorously depicted in these videos:
Low-Tech Webinars are the Most Reliable
Low-tech approaches can prevent most of the potential problems that arise when using virtual collaboration tools. Using a combination of slides posted to a collaboration space, a conference call line, a simple recording process, and a threaded discussion board with email capability, effective webinars can be conducted with a minimum of problems. No one will ask if the slides will be available, because they will already have them in advance of the call.
1. Create a collaborative team space.
- Inside an organization, use a tool such as SharePoint.
- Across organizations, use a tool such as Google Sites.
- You can use SlideShare as a way of sharing presentations more broadly and to reach members whose organizations have blocked access to Groups.io or other sites. If SlideShare is blocked for some people, post in multiple places, e.g., Groups.io and SlideShare.
2. For online interactions, Q&A, and back channel discussions, try tchat.io, which uses Twitter and unique hashtags to connect participants.
3. Set up a conference call and recording capability.
- Obtain a paid conference call line (offering operator assistance), free conference call line, or use VOIP software such as Skype. I recommend FreeConferenceCall.com.
- Use your conference call line’s recording service, or record using a phone tap along with open source software such as Audacity. See Recording Conference Calls on a Budget by Andrew Gent.
4. Before each call:
- Turn off all entry and exit tones and announcements to prevent disruptions to the presenter.
- Create a set of slides in PDF or PowerPoint format.
- Capture screen shots to use instead of attempting to share your desktop or an application in a live setting.
- Post the file to the collaborative team space in an area that is well-known to the participants (e.g., the meeting agenda site, the main site under announcements, or in the files folder) on in an easily-accessible site such as SlideShare. For SlideShare, the well-known place can be a specific SlideShare account, or the favorites of a specific account.
- Using the team’s threaded discussion board, send out a reminder message to all participants with the conference call details and a link to the slides. Do this far enough in advance so that those who will be unable to connect online during the call will be able to download or print the slides so they can follow along during the call.
5. During each call:
- Before the speaker begins, turn off entry and exit tones to avoid disruptions when people enter late or leave early.
- Remind everyone of the keys to mute and unmute lines.
- If available, use the option to mute all lines except for presenters, or mute all lines and then ask presenters to unmute their lines.
- When questions need to be asked, participants can unmute their lines, or all lines can be unmuted by the moderator.
- If there is a disruption during the call, and you are using a conference call line with operator assistance, signal the operator to mute the offending line. Otherwise, if you have a dashboard that shows which lines have active sound, mute the ones other than the presenter(s).
- Ask the presenters to mention the number of the slide they are currently presenting so that participants can follow along.
6. After each call:
- Verify that the recording is working, and post the link or the actual file to the collaborative team space or to a file sharing site such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft OneDrive if it is too large to post directly.
- If you had a group chat or Twitter chat during the call, copy the group chat text, or use Wakelet to publish the Twitter chat transcript.
- Add an entry to a list or database with details on each call — the date, subject, presenter(s), link to the slides, link to the recording, and group chat text or link to the Wakelet transcript.
- Using the team’s threaded discussion board, send out a summary message to all participants with links to the slides, recording and chat transcript. Encourage follow-on discussion by replying to the same thread.
Team spaces can be used effectively for typical presentations by posting slides in the meeting space prior to the conference call, asking participants to download the files, and having presenters regularly refer to the current slide number. This avoids the need for a virtual meeting room.
This can also be done on the Internet using a free conference call provider for audio and recording, SlideShare for slides, and Twitter for group chat. This is how we have run the monthly calls of the SIKM Leaders Community since 2005, and we don’t waste any time dealing with technical problems, trying to help people get connected, or answering questions about when and where the slides will be posted. It’s low-tech, but it works.