As educational institutions, businesses and other organizations grapple with the ongoing effects of COVID-19, one thing we can all agree on is that our time spent in live, synchronous, web-based meetings has risen dramatically. Whether they’re informal meetings with internal colleagues, departmental updates, quarterly reporting or external conferences, these meetings have made us all de-facto expert attendees. After all, we have experienced both the smooth, productive synchronous meeting as well as the agonizing stress of the botched presentation, where we didn’t receive the information we needed and also forfeited an hour of our time.
And while some bad events can be blamed on technology challenges, many times, the truth is that it’s due to presenter error or lack of preparation and is irrespective of the platform used. You can avoid giving the next cringe-worthy live virtual presentation or conference just by following some clear implementation steps.
Here are some common cringe-worthy scenarios — and how to avoid them:
The False Start
Like a runner who can’t make it past the starting blocks, this synchronous conference is probably the worst offender, leaving attendees hanging and watching the clock, losing more and more enthusiasm for the topic as the minutes tick by. For an internal audience, the false start creates frustration that can erode trust. For an external audience, it borders on the unforgivable, as the audience perceives the speaker, topic and delivery entity as inefficient and, as time slips by, uncaring about audience members’ time. Either way, it can result in loss of credibility.
Here are a few ways to avoid the false start:
Schedule a Practice Session
Build into your preplanning process a stipulation that all presenters need to “check in” for a practice session. The check-in can be as long or as short as you like — long enough to go over the entire presentation and check timing and the presentation deck or short enough just to make sure the presenter can actually log into the session and pull up the slides. Either way, stress that the same setup that you have already taken the time to troubleshoot should be the exact same setup the presenter uses for “go live” day.
Roll out a Welcome
It can be just one slide with the conference logo (hopefully the same one you’ve used during prior conference communications and outreach), a brief welcome message, and a link to where participants can find tech support and other assistance. Include day and time so your attendees know they’re in the right place at the right time. If appropriate, include a range of time zones, too.
Be an Early Bird
Log into the platform 15 to 30 minutes early to make sure that your technology works. Encourage your first presenter to do the same so that you can take care of any last-minute technology fixes when few attendees will be there. Those attendees will also be more forgiving, because this tech check is happening prior to the official start time (and they’re likely multitasking at that point, too).
The TMI Webcam
In the early days of COVID, we all probably enjoyed the informality of sharing each other’s kitchens, dining room tables, messy countertops, ironing boards, pets … you name it. But that time has passed, and now is the opportunity to reset to a more work-appropriate setting.
Here are some ideas that can help:
Light up Your Life
Try different lighting placements and different places in your home (Next to the window? Away from the window?). Check how the lighting works by taking a quick selfie on your phone as a test, and try using a white foamboard to help reflect the light into more flattering angles.
Try Different Webcam Placements
Your webcam shouldn’t be too low (or attendees have a front row seat to your tonsils) or not too high (lovely lighting fixture, but unless you’re running an HGTV segment, lower the camera).
Do a Background Check
Consider your background; set up in front of a blank wall, or create a neutral background using a draped blanket or sheet (solid colors). Use a virtual background only as a last resort because of the pixilation that can happen between the speakers and the edges of the virtual backdrop.
Once the lighting, background and location are satisfactory, encourage presenters to record a brief test for you to review. Are there any harsh shadows or reflections in glasses? Now is the time to identify and resolve anything that will distract from what your presenters have to say.
The Noisy Nellies
Just as you want to consider the visual images conveyed during your conference, it’s also a good idea to be thoughtful about sound, too. Have you ever been in a video session where trying to listen was stressful? Try for a stress-free experience for your audience.
Here are a few suggestions for how to do so:
Find a calm, quiet spot as free as possible from foot traffic, pets and kitchen appliances. Notify anyone who shares your space that you will be speaking to colleagues, live, and extraneous noise is not welcome.
Do a Tech Check
For the best sound quality, most experts recommend using a headset with a noise-cancelling microphone. Gamer headsets usually feature noise cancellation, which increases the quality of your audio output and makes it easier for your audience to hear you.
Mute When Not Speaking
If you’re presenting on a panel or in a group, be certain that you know how to select the mute option so that ambient sound does not disrupt your colleagues’ presentations or create the dreaded “room echo,” where voices reverberate.
Once you have all your audio set up (check input and output in your platform’s settings), test it with a practice recording. Is the sound too high or too soft, or are there distracting background noises? Sometimes, a frayed headset wire can create an annoying hum or crackle that your audience can hear. The time to fix it is well before your presentation date.
The Preschool Presentation
Unless an actual three-year-old put together your presentation, avoid the dreaded “screen beans” and other cartoonish graphics. Instead, encourage presenters to use graphics and images that connect directly with the main message of the slide and to avoid cutesy illustrations or unconnected imagery. Also, think of your audience’s attention span, and use action verbs and bullet points so they can scan for the main points.
The Executive Finger
We know them. We work with them: the C-suite crowd. Having an executive-level presenter can draw in the attendees, but it requires some preparation in advance. For example, if possible, set the expectation that all presenters are responsible for clicking through their own presentations. Few things are more annoying to an audience than hearing an interesting idea followed by the drone of, “Next slide please” — throughout an entire presentation.
As with any suggestions, implementation depends on the culture and expectations of your unique workplace. If you place a great user experience as the ultimate goal during the planning stages, you will save everyone some needless grief and achieve your goals for the conference. Plus, presenters and attendees alike will be back for more.