Live Captioning A Webinar Presentation
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
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Convenience vs Quality: The Web Conferencing Dilemma
"We recommend that presenters use a broadband Ethernet connection."
Sometimes I see this phrase buried in the middle of a web conferencing product help page. Sometimes I hear it as a suggestion from a technical support rep. No matter the source, I know it's going to make my life hell.
I support client webinars for a living. I've been doing it for 15 years now. And the issue of user connectivity has steadily grown over those years to become the single greatest technical impediment to webinar quality (lousy presentation habits are an even bigger impediment, but that's another kettle of fish).
Conferencing software vendors are caught in a bind that is probably insoluble. They keep adding features: Multiple concurrent video streams… Full-motion screen sharing of high resolution monitors… Polls… Surveys… Shared white boards allowing concurrent annotations by multiple participants… Twitter streams… Q&A windows… Audience chat windows… Private presenter chat windows… Uploaded video clips… Bridged audio that combines telephone and computer participants… The list keeps growing.
That's a tremendous amount of data moving in a never-ending two-way stream between all the participants in a synchronous web meeting or web event. Video streaming is the worst offender. It gobbles up bandwidth, especially on the presentation side, where each presenter needs to send a huge flow of video bits up from their computer while simultaneously showing other video images coming back down to them (including their own preview image).
It only makes sense that if presenters want to make things work as well as possible, they should use the fattest, fastest "data pipe" they can manage. A good old hardwired Ethernet cable pumps those bits faster than any other option.
Unfortunately, hardwired connections are going the way of the dinosaur. Even corporate office environments are now omitting Ethernet jacks in favor of wireless connectivity. And that's if you're lucky enough to catch your presenters in an office at all.
I have simply come to expect that one or more of the presenters on any given client webinar will be working from their home, from a hotel room, from an airport lounge, or from a conference room at a customer location. They'll be on a laptop, using the cheap built-in wireless transceiver that the manufacturer compromised on in order to reduce costs. Or they'll be using an older machine that doesn't have the latest protocols and higher throughputs now possible. Or they'll have great hardware, but won't know that someone else on the same wi-fi network is currently streaming a Netflix movie, causing performance issues for everyone else.
Your presenters will tell you, "Don't worry about it. I make Skype video calls all the time, and they are fine." They have no way to understand the difference between Skype's proprietary peer-to-peer protocol and the much larger data loads carried in a web-hosted public event.
Let's say you make the decision to use telephone audio… Maybe to reduce the internet load or because you can't tolerate the awful built-in laptop microphone that your guest presenter insists on using even though you have repeatedly told them to plug in a headset. They won't be able to find a hardwired desk phone. They'll call on their smartphone and halfway through the presentation, their signal will drop. You'll hear interference, dropouts, or perhaps signal buffering as your conferencing software audio bridge struggles to maintain synchronization between phone and computer channels.
I have no idea what to do about all this. I send out audio-video best practice guides to my presenters knowing full well that no guest speaker is going to buy new hardware or cancel their business trip in order to maybe make their signal a little better on a 60-minute task in the middle of their work day. They have other priorities. Convenience has supplanted quality and reliability as the driving force of communication.
All I know is that the overall user experience in terms of perceived technical quality of webinars is currently decreasing instead of getting better. That's a depressing trend. Participants in web meetings should never even think about performance and audio/video quality… We want them concentrating on the content, not the conduit.
Looking for tips to improve perceived audio/video quality? Here are a few past posts on the subject:
Hey Webex, Get Your Damned Logo Off My Content!
I am old enough to remember a time when you could watch TV programs without seeing a constant stream of overlaid promotional graphics at the bottom of the screen. How primitive we were!
If Cisco Webex is any indication, we can now expect that same kind of visual clutter and distraction in our web collaboration software.
Take a look at this screenshot I snapped from a web conference I set up in Webex Meetings. It is an attendee view of a presenter sharing his computer screen. This is a common way for presenters to show slides, web pages, or software applications. You can click on the image to see it full size in a second tab:
What is that semi-transparent circle at the lower right of the image area? It's not on my presenter's computer screen. Oh, it's a watermark image of the latest Webex green and blue circle logo. Stuck right there on top of my content. If I'm showing carefully designed slides, the audience sees them with that overlay. If I'm showing a demo of my software, it shows up with the Webex logo in the corner.
This is simply unacceptable. The display of user content must be sacred. The vendor does not get to place their branding on top of mine.
Just add this to my list of "How Cisco Ruined Webex Meetings" and "Even More Webex Frustrations." I sometimes feel like the UI design engineers are having a competition to see how annoying they can make their product interface.
Thus endeth today's rant.
Spoil Your Presentation!
Several years ago, the University of California at San Diego did a study on spoilers. Psychology professor Nicholas Christenfeld wanted to know how much spoilers ruined enjoyment of a story.
The findings were surprising and counterintuitive. Readers were given any of three versions of a story. The versions either presented the story as written with the original surprise ending, or included a prefacing spoiler before the story started, or had a spoiler paragraph stuck in the middle as if it were a part of the work. The study tested ironic twist stories, mysteries, and straight literary works. In all three cases, readers preferred the “spoiled” version over the surprise version. Huh!
How does this relate to the world of business presentations?
The most common way to construct business presentations is to build them linearly. You start from background, add some facts, and then reach a conclusion as “the big reveal” at the end. The belief is that if you give away the conclusion at the beginning, there is no reason for people to stick around. You’ll lose their attention and probably their business.
But it turns out that your audience is not that shallow. You don’t need to surprise them to satisfy them. In most cases, you are better off establishing your main point right up front. Don’t start with “First the Earth cooled, then microorganisms emerged…" then end up 60 minutes later with “Ecce homo! Modern man!”
Instead, try turning it around. “Modern man! The culmination of eons of evolution. How did we get here?” Now you have established your main thrust right up front. If an audience member gets an emergency call half way through the presentation and has to leave, they have still received the key message you wanted to convey.
In newspaper writing, this is known as The Inverted Pyramid. Start with the main point of the story. Then fill in supporting facts and background later. The news reporter does not start with the history of railroads in the U.S., the development of the automotive industry, and then in the last sentence work up to the fact that a train hit a car yesterday. That information is the lead (or lede in journalistic lingo).
Think about a prosecutor’s opening statement to a jury. The first thing he or she says is “This man is guilty. He committed a crime. You are going to hear the evidence over the next few days and when you do, there will be no doubt left in your mind that he needs to go to jail.” No prosecutor in his right mind would ever build up to a surprise ending that the defendant is… (gasp) GUILTY!
Don’t be afraid to tell your audience up front that your product or service solves a problem. Don’t be afraid to give away the results of your study in the first slide. A well-designed and well-delivered presentation will hold interest even without a surprise conclusion. According to UCSD, your audience is likely to prefer it that way.
What Webinar Assistance Is Available?
Do you have a sneaking suspicion that your business webinars aren't as good as they could be? Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed, trying to manage your webinar process when other duties are screaming for your time? Do you wish there was a way to improve audience satisfaction and boost the ROI of your webinars?
Call on Ken Molay at Webinar Success. For 15 years, Ken has provided companies with exactly the kind of support you are looking for. Ken has a background in information technology, business marketing, public speaking, and training. He has led development of large-scale commercial software products and was a Director of Product Marketing in a major Silicon Valley technology company. He has crafted and delivered successful and persuasive webinars for decades, and now helps companies achieve that same level of quality in their online presentations.
Webinar Success is a services-only company, independent of any particular web conferencing vendor or product. Some of the most popular services include:
- Webinar Program Analysis - Full review of your current webinar process with recommendations for improvements in promotion and marketing, materials, participant communications, presentation technique, audio/video quality, audience interaction, and follow up.
- Presenter Training - Offered for individuals or groups. Topics include vocal skills, pacing, incorporation of demos, use of web conferencing tools, organization and structure, slide design, and audience interaction.
- Production Support - Scheduling events in your web conferencing system, customizing registration and emails, conducting rehearsals, running reports.
- Event Moderating - Supporting presenters and attendees, recording the session, making introductions, managing Q&A, launching polls, dealing with technical problems.
Better results are within your reach. Visit the Webinar Success website to learn more.
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