Adapting Webinar Practices To The Current Crisis
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.
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Webex Email Customization Is A Complete Dumpster Fire
Webex, oh Webex…
How do I hate thee?
Let me count the ways.
Admittedly, I've been counting the ways for years and years and years. It's easy to do, because they haven't changed the gaping design flaws in a decade or more.
I'm speaking in this case of Webex Event Center, the version of the software used for scheduled webinars or webcasts. And I'm focusing on the event setup that administrators have to do behind the scenes. Heck, let's get more specific than that… We'll focus only on customizing emails that go out to event registrants.
Seems easy and innocuous enough, doesn't it? Oh foolish mortal, you know not the anguish that lies before you.
Here's the section of the event setup page that deals with emails:
Each of those 13 blue links is a separately configured email. Can you save time by combining "Thank You for Attending" and "Absentee Follow-Up" into a single follow-up email that goes to all registrants? No, you can not.
Let's pick any one of them for editing and customization. The process and behavior is the same for each. I'll choose 1st Reminder. I click the link and get a separate pop-up or overlay window:
Oh, there's a scroll bar. I'd like to see everything at once. No problem… It's a separate window, so I can just resize it to a nice big frame that fits everything:
Fooled you! The enclosing frame gets nice and large, but the content stays right where it was, floating around in a big sea of empty white space. Good solid 1998 coding behavior.
Credit where credit is due… If I click the Edit button, I actually do get a resizable edit window that I can enlarge inside the enclosing frame. So that's nice. Why couldn't they do that for the preview window? Nobody cared enough.
Now let's take a look at the content of that email. What are all those funny symbols and unreadable junk? Why, those are HTML tags and attributes, my dear! You say you don't know how to code HTML by hand? Sorry… There is no "What You See Is What You Get" visual editor. No helpful insert buttons. Just a text editor that lets you type code. Remember, we wouldn't want to update the product to reflect capabilities introduced in the last 20 years. Go learn HTML coding, Ms. Webinar Host. We'll wait right here.
What else is hidden in that mishmosh? I see things like
Are those HTML codes as well? No, those are proprietary Webex placeholders that get filled in by the system when the email gets sent. These are actually very useful. Okay, where is the list that lets me pick and choose the variables I want to embed? Oh, there isn't one. You need to just know the special identifier names that Webex coined. Can't remember one? Maybe it's listed when you click on the big ? button for help. Nope. Nothing there. I'm sure they are in the online documentation system somewhere. Why don't you go search for a while and see if you can find them?
Let's assume we made our edits and we want to check our work. I'll bet if I click the Preview button it shows me a nice view of the finished email. No, of course it doesn't. It shows that same scrolled version that can't be expanded in the frame. And it doesn't fill in any of the variables, so I still see a bunch of percent signs and placeholder names.
Well, heck. I'm a gambling man. Let's save what we've done. I click the Save button. And get this:
No, you aren't missing anything. That picture is an accurate snapshot. This is a new bug that has given me hours of fun today. The save takes me to a blank frame and throws away all my edits. I try it numerous times and occasionally it does a proper save, but more frequently loses everything. I have to start over from scratch and hope that the next time I hit the save it might happen to work. Neat!
I'm a charitable guy… Let's assume they get that fixed sometime this year and we are able to save our work consistently. Now all I need to do is send a quick test to see how the email looks in various email clients or devices. And maybe send a test version to the business stakeholders so they can sign off on it as it will look to an attendee, with values all filled in for the variables.
You know what's coming, don't you? There is no way on God's Green Earth to send a test email. Heck, you can't even see the entire preview version at once without the scroll bar. Better cross your fingers and hope your HTML skills are top notch and that you didn't hit a wrong keystroke somewhere.
Now repeat the whole process anywhere from 4 to 13 times per webinar. That's how I've been spending my evening. How's yours going?
Watch Remote Interpreting In Action
I just got a notice from Barry S. Olsen informing me of an online conference coming up this week for the professional interpretation industry. Their number one concern at the moment is how to provide multilingual services for conferences that have moved from physical spaces to web collaboration.
Although the two-hour meeting is targeted at interpreters, Barry told me that others are welcomed to register (for free) and attend. You might want to stop by to see an example of a multilingual web conference run on a professional platform built for the purpose. KUDO is sponsoring the event and providing the technology. I have written about the KUDO multilingual webinar solution in the past.
Web conferencing vendors may be interested in hearing about the needs, priorities, and frustrations of the interpreter community firsthand. Companies that host webinars may be interested in seeing how the process works from an attendee perspective as a way to judge whether providing such access might be right for your own online meetings.
Here is the data if you want to check it out:
A Unified Response to Ensure Access to Interpreting Services During the Pandemic
Thursday, March 26
8am-10am California / 11am-1pm New York (click for local time conversion)
Make sure to click the SUBMIT button on page 2 after registering. It asks for questions, but does not complete the process until you click the final Submit button.
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,Barry S. Olsen
We Need More Practical Web Conference Control
By now we all know that web conferencing usage has skyrocketed in the face of Work From Home and migration of physical meetings to virtual. That doesn't just mean more use… It means more inexperienced users.
Web conferencing platform vendors have a responsibility to finally step up and fix longstanding design deficiencies in their products. They need to give meeting hosts the ability to unilaterally resolve participant mistakes.
- EXAMPLE 1: A participant types something into a public chat stream that they shouldn't have said. Maybe it's a nasty comment about the presenter. Maybe they didn't notice where their cursor focus was and typed a phrase into the webinar chat that they meant to type into a private instant messaging window: "Oh yeah baby… I can't wait to sex you up!" They're horrified. The webinar host is horrified. Can either of them delete that individual message from the chat? In too many products, the answer is no.
- EXAMPLE 2: A member of the presentation team accidentally sends a behind-the-scenes message out to all attendees instead of privately to fellow presenters: "Can you believe how stupid some of these people are?" Can you delete that message from the chat? In too many products, the answer is no.
- EXAMPLE 3: A participant joins the virtual conference with their webcam active and doesn't realize they are being seen by everyone else. Can the host shut down that ONE video stream without turning off video for everyone, including the presenters who are supposed to be on camera? In too many products, the answer is no.
Humans are fallible. Humans dealing with unfamiliar technology are doubly fallible. We aren't going to eliminate human error in virtual meetings… Let's at least find a way to manage it when it occurs.
How Microphones Affect Web Conference Sound Quality
Come, let’s get nerdy together. In today’s post, I’m going to give you a demonstration that shows how critical your input device can be on a web conference.
I started a web meeting in LogMeIn’s GoToMeeting web conferencing product. I could have used any such product for this demonstration and the choice was somewhat arbitrary. I happened to have the software handy. One convenient feature of GoToMeeting (also found in many of its competitors) is that attendees can choose to provide audio input by computer or telephone. I decided to run through a wide selection of input devices I had lying around my office so you can compare and contrast how they affect the sound your participants hear.
I used the built-in recording capability in GoToMeeting to save the audio to my computer. I then loaded the file into my GoldWave audio editing software. I cut out pauses when I switched devices and balanced volumes between different devices, but that is the only processing I performed.
You can listen to your choice of playback format. All files have identical content… I merely saved them in different formats (compressed and uncompressed) to see if I could hear any appreciable difference between them. I don’t think I can, which is not surprising. GoToMeeting records audio in MP4 format using a 16KHz, 64kbps mono rate. Audio specialists will recognize that this is not particularly high fidelity, but it saves file space and is acceptable for spoken voice. It certainly would not satisfy a professional recording engineer.
I saved the files in higher resolution formats to make sure I was not introducing additional degradation, but that doesn’t make them better than the source. You can’t improve audio resolution.
You will hear me identifying each of 15 different input devices on the recording. I’ll take you through details, impressions, and important considerations after the file listings:
CAVEAT 1: I kept saying that USB devices were connected to my motherboard. This will annoy computer geeks, as it is not literally accurate. I just meant that I was using my PC’s built-in USB ports and not a third-party sound card. I also kept referencing the currently available version of my Behringer microphone preamp instead of the older model I actually own. The notes below show the model name used in these tests.
CAVEAT 2: Microphones have different responses to different frequencies. You are hearing how they work with my male voice. Higher voices may produce different results.
CAVEAT 3: GoToMeeting uses an audio bridge to convert analog phone inputs to digital for streaming and recording. Computer audio doesn’t have to go through that conversion step. So computer-connected sources almost always sound better ON THIS SOFTWARE than phone sources. You’ll hear that. It does not necessarily mean the phone devices are objectively worse in and of themselves. But this is a fairly common consideration in web conferencing products.
CAVEAT 4: This is NOT a product review that tells you “Product A is definitively better than Product B.” A million things influence the sound you will get using your connections on your computer equipment through your web conferencing software in your room. I’m concentrating on the fact that they are different, not on building a ranking of best to worst.
CAVEAT 5: As I started adding links to products, I found that many of them are currently sold out. The sudden growth in work from home conferencing and disruptions in electronics supply chains are having a significant effect. If you are shopping, you may have to search for alternate sources or wait for supply to catch up with demand.
1) Apple iPhone SE held in the classic manner against the side of the head with the speaker pressed against my ear. Using telephone dial-in.
2) Apple iPhone SE lying flat on my work desk. Using telephone dial-in in speakerphone mode.
3) Apple iPhone SE held flat in my hand several inches in front of my mouth, with the microphone facing me. Using telephone dial-in in speakerphone mode.
4) Apple iPhone SE with the included Apple earbuds headset plugged into the audio jack. There is a thin microphone built into the cord. Using telephone dial-in.
THOUGHTS: No matter how you choose to use a smartphone for calling into a web conference, it’s always a bad idea. In addition to generally lower quality sound, it’s hard to maintain a constant distance between your mouth and the mike. And you will eventually run up against interference, dropouts, signal degradation, or battery drain. Just say no!
5) Aastra desk telephone hard-wired to a cable company phone service. Handset held against the side of the head with the speaker pressed against my ear. Using telephone dial-in.
6) Aastra desk telephone hard-wired to a cable company phone service. Sennheiser HME280i headset plugged into the phone’s headset jack using a hard-wired cable.
7) Sennheiser HME280i headset plugged into an ASUS Xonar Essence STX sound card installed in my desktop computer.
THOUGHTS: Note the difference between 6 and 7. Same microphone, same device. But one of them ran through the phone network and audio bridge. The other didn’t. Quite a change, eh?
8) Logitech H390 wired headset connected to my computer’s USB port.
THOUGHTS: Not the world’s greatest sound, but much better than you will get from a built-in laptop microphone. This is my default recommendation for something cheap and easy to get for guest speakers who need to get up to a level of minimum acceptable quality quickly.
9) Audio Technica ATR20 handheld microphone (dynamic cardioid design) plugged into a TechRise USB audio adapter.
THOUGHTS: This microphone has since been replaced by the similar ATR-1200. Ridiculously cheap for good vocal quality! You will see the TechRise adapter mentioned several times. It’s inexpensive and acts as a convenient USB interface for mikes that have a 3.5mm jack.
10) Audio Technica AT2020 desk microphone plugged into my computer’s USB port.
THOUGHTS: My workhorse for narrative work. The world is split into those who use this and those who use the Blue Yeti. You can’t go wrong with either one. The next step up in quality is much more expensive.
11) No-name, no-brand Chinese earhook “whip” microphone plugged into a TechRise USB audio adapter.
THOUGHTS: Unbelievable! I ordered this from China for $7 shipped. How do they do it?
12) Sound Professionals SP-LAV-1 lavaliere clip-on microphone plugged into a TechRise USB audio adapter.
THOUGHTS: I have never had good luck with inexpensive lavaliere mikes. Sound is variable at best and volume changes as the speaker moves their head. This sits unused in a drawer.
13) Logitech C920S webcam mounted on top of my computer monitor. Connected to my computer’s USB port.
THOUGHTS: My office space is just not set up to get good sound out of a webcam. You can hear it. I am envious of people who have the luxury of open space behind their webcam (especially if they put an acoustic anti-reflective baffle there). No matter what webcam I try, it sounds muddy with a slight tin can echo. So I don’t use my webcam for audio.
14) Audio Technica AT875R shotgun microphone pointed toward my mouth. Phantom power supplied through an XLR connection to a Behringer MiniMIC MIC800 preamp, feeding into an ASUS Xonar Essence STX sound card installed in my desktop computer.
THOUGHTS: As with lav mikes, I have bad experiences getting good, consistent sound out of shotgun mikes. I have stopped trying. The Behringer preamp I use has since been replaced by their Tube Ultragain MIC100, which is what I keep referencing in my narration.
15) JK MIC-J 071S earhook “whip” microphone. Bias power provided by step-down Rode VXLR+ transforming adapter that reduces phantom power voltage and changes XLR connection to 3.5mm stereo plug. Signal processed through a Behringer MiniMIC MIC800 preamp to an ASUS Xonar Essence STX sound card installed in my desktop computer.
THOUGHTS: This was quite the Frankenstein’s monster of an input chain to assemble, but I love those little lightweight whip mikes. They are designed to be used with wireless belt packs, but I don’t believe in wireless. Almost invisible on camera (if it happens to match your skin tone). Great for webcam presentations. But for the price differential and ease of use, it’s hard to recommend this over the slightly thicker and more obvious microphone in #11.
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