Web Conferences: the next best thing to being there
“…the next best thing to being there” was an advertising slogan used by Bell Telephone to promote their long-distance phone services connecting people around the globe. Now, more than ever, we have need to connect with people spread across various geographic locations.
Enter the web conference and the webinar.
Love them or hate them, web meetings are a fact of life, especially since you no longer need a high-tech conference room full of expensive machinery (that never seemed to work properly anyhow). With a microphone and camera-equipped laptop, an iPad, or even a mobile phone, you can easily rally your peers for a virtual face-to-face gathering with one of many free web services.
Before you do, however, it’s important to give thought to the purpose, nature, and make-up of the meeting. Different web-based video conference apps and platforms have different features which can greatly enhance the efficacy of your gathering.
What app or platform should I use for a video conference?
Like so many things, the answer depends on what you are trying to do! A few important questions to ask yourself to help you decide what platform is right for your gathering:
- How many people will take part in the web conference? Some free apps and platforms restrict the number of participants, allowing larger gatherings only for paid subscribers.
- How long will the meeting last? There are time limits on some free platforms. But then again, do you really want a meeting that lasts longer than 45 minutes? Does anyone?
- How many people need to speak? If your gathering is a discussion among all parties, it is technically considered a web conference. A presentation by one person that is watched by other non-speaking parties is a webinar. Each type of gathering might be set up differently on the platform you use. You might be a host – in which only you and others you designate as hosts are able to speak; or you might simply request that everyone in the group mute their microphones. The choice will depend on how you want to structure conversation (if indeed there is to be any conversation), the number of people gathered, and the freedom you want to grant individual participants.
- What ancillary support do you need? Will you want to share your screen? Show slides? Show a video? Do you need a sidebar chat space, a whiteboard space, or a space for notes and links? And if you need these features, how easy are they to access? Does the interface allow you to continue to view the video feed or must you toggle back and forth?
- Do all of your participants have access to a device with a camera and a microphone? Most new laptops have these capabilities, however people using desktops with separate monitors many or may not have these features available. Can they join via mobile device? Is there a dial in option to connect with audio only?
- How easy is it for participants to access the meeting? Most conferencing platforms produce a shareable link when you set up the meeting. Are participants able to use a direct link rather than logging onto a particular website requiring specific codes and passwords? Do they have to download or install an app? Can the platform handle both video participants as well as phone-only callers? What is your plan for the inevitable participant who can’t access the meeting, or whose audio or video isn’t working?
- Require registration or not? Will you require participants to register in advance so that you know who will be attending?
- Do you need to record the gathering? Not all services and platforms offer this feature, so if you want to capture the gathering, you’ll have to make sure that your platform features recording ability.
- Do you need to gather in real time livestream or will a pre-recorded video allow you more flexibility? If you are livestreaming,, do you want the recording of the livestream to be available after the fact?
- Do you need "breakout" sessions? Some platforms allow for presentations to large groups, then allow participants to be divided into smaller group chats in digital breakout rooms.
- What other platforms do you need to feed? Your website? A YouTube channel? Social media?
How do I plan for an effective video conference?
Like any good meeting, the more effort you put into planning your video conference, the more likely that everything will go smoothly and participants will view your gathering as a valuable use of their time.
And you do plan ahead for meetings, right?
- Email or post the link or login information to all potential participants. Whether you email it, post it on social media, or on a website, put all information regarding date, time, and login requirements in one place. If your participants are spread across various time zones, be sure to clearly designate the time zone in the information you share.
- Gather alternate contact information for participants. If your group is one in which you know who should be attending, you may want to have an alternate means of contacting participants so that if they experience difficulty accessing the web conference, you (or your designated tech person) will have their phone number on hand to call or text “Where are you?”
- Permission granted. If you plan to record a web gathering, you will want to both inform participants and obtain their permission to share the resultant video.
- Create an agenda and distribute it in advance. On that agenda include the amount of time you will spend discussing each topic. It’s a form of covenant you can make with your participants that promises that this meeting will not stretch into perpetuity and that you will actually get to all of the important stuff you need to discuss before the Zoom time limit cuts you off.
- Build time in your agenda for opening and closing prayer. Just as you would hopefully invoke a blessing on your gathering if you were meeting in a church conference room, it is important for participants to know they are in a holy space.
- Assign responsibilities in advance. If your gathering is a conference in which others will be speaking, make sure on the agenda to indicate who is leading the discussion. If there are supplemental documents, make sure these are distributed in advance. Even if you are doing a webinar in which you are the only speaker, you will want to line up support. Designate someone to act as tech support, assisting with anyone who is having trouble connecting. Also designate someone to manage the chat stream. You as the primary speaker cannot simultaneously present, read the chat stream, and answer questions either verbally or via chat. Your chat manager should be set as a presenter or have their microphone enabled so that when you verbally ask for questions, they can chime in and bring to your attention anything that has been raised. Designate someone as a note-taker, even if no one uses the chat stream. It might be helpful for follow up after the gathering.
- Check your connections. Some platforms will carry a conference connection even if the video feed is iffy, others are quicker to drop the conference. As the presenter or host, you need to make sure your connection is strong and uninterrupted.
- Familiarize yourself with your platform. If you will need to toggle between screens, know the location of the menu options to allow you to do so. Know how to mute and un-mute people. Have files, images, browser windows, other websites, and videos you plan to share already open and ready. Test the transition between them to make sure you can seamlessly pull up whatever you need.
- Mirror, mirror. Check out how you appear on camera. Where is the camera placed on your device? Is it projecting from an awkward angle, looking up your nose, perhaps? Stack books under your device so that it captures you at eye level.
- Is the lighting good or is your image too light or dark? This isn’t about vanity but about taking advantage of the personal connection offered by video, which doesn’t occur if participants can’t see your face. Make the most of it. If the lighting isn’t good, rotate your machine or move someplace better. Make sure you don't have a bright window behind you or other light source that makes it hard for people to see you.
- Can you hear me now? Have someone do a pre-conference sound check with you. Auxiliary microphones that connect via USB ports are inexpensive and may improve your sound quality. Adjusting your volume may be necessary to alleviate echoing.
- Clean the house or office. Check out your surroundings visible on camera. What is visible behind you? In my house (I work from home) there are very few corners that aren’t messy or still featuring leftover Christmas decorations. It may be a challenge, but try to find a non-distracting, tidy background.
- Minimize the likelihood of interruption. Remember the BBC guest who was hilariously upstaged by his children during a live interview? Don’t be that guy. Inform your coworkers and your family that you will be on a video conference, and ask them to kindly refrain from wandering through the background, interrupting, talking to you, or being in any way audible or visual. No one wants to look over your shoulder and see your spouse in their undies or watch your son drink milk straight from the carton. Try to sequester yourself from any pets who might be disruptive, turn off any TVs or other noisy background devices, and hope the doorbell doesn’t ring.
- 15 minutes before the conference, send everybody the link. Again. Most people log on approximately 2 seconds before a web conference is ready to begin. Make their lives easier by making the necessary link or login information easy to find. If you gathered alternate contact information in advance, your designated tech person can monitor who is logging on, and if necessary, reach out to people who are expected but not logged on.
- Take time to center yourself and tend to any personal needs. Get your coffee or your bottle of water. Go use the restroom. Gather your notes. Set up your phone, watch, or other device that will allow you to keep track of the time. Log on early. Take deep breaths.
- As the host, log on or open the meeting about 15 minutes early to give newcomers time to access it. But if you are on live, remember viewers are seeing and hearing whatever you are doing. Consider muting your mic and turning off your video until you are ready to engage. some platforms allow you to add a thumbnail image.
And we’re live!
Web conferences are like face-to-face meetings in that both benefit from structure and intent. Skilled meeting facilitators and leaders will be able to take the temperature of the gathering, sensing when it’s time to move to a new topic, when the meeting needs to be re-directed, when quiet participants need to be encouraged to speak, and when chatty participants need to be (lovingly) cut off. This can all happen in the digital space, but the cues are sometimes subtler.
To be a good facilitator in the digital space, you may want to:
- Be intentional about introductions and social “check-ins” – in face to face meetings, much of the collegiality occurs outside the boundaries of the actual meeting, when participants are arriving and settling into the meeting space and as they are gathering their things to leave. They might introduce themselves or catch up with one another as they are getting coffee, choosing a seat, and preparing for the start of the meeting. Afterwards they might share information about where they are headed. All small conversations that are immensely important in building rapport and relationships. In the digital space, those transition times don’t exist unless you intentionally include them. As eager as you are to get down to business and not waste anyone’s time, in a digital gathering where people are unknown to one another or don’t see one another on a day-to-day basis, take time to do basic introductions and offer a prompt that goes a little deeper than name and title. Ask everyone for a fun fact about themselves, what they had for breakfast, the last good story they heard, or something to break the ice. You can begin these conversations informally in the awkward time while everyone is logging on but it isn't quite time to begin.
- Over prepare. If your gathering is a web conference discussion about a topic, you may discover that people are much more reticent in the digital space. It’s incredibly awkward to ask “So what does everyone think?” and hear…. nothing. Prepare for a web discussion almost as you would prepare for a webinar lecture or talk – assume that no one will say anything or ask any questions, but be pleasantly surprised when they do.
- Designate someone to provide technical support and to monitor the chat box if this is a way people will be communicating with you while you present. Likewise, this person can help with any technical difficulties people are encountering as they try to get logged on.
- As the host, be intentional about laying out the structure of the gathering, such as indicating that people should submit questions in the chat area, or suggesting a visual gesture they might make to indicate they would like to speak.
- Resist the urge to agree. In face-to-face conversation, we often use short verbal phrases that signal interest. “Um-hum,” “You’re right,” “Tell me about that,” “That’s so interesting…” encourage the speaker and reinforce our engagement in the topic. Unfortunately, in web conferences, the audio feed picks up one voice at a time. Using these polite conversational techniques in a digital gathering causes the audio to jump away from the primary speaker. Practice biting your tongue, smiling and nodding enthusiastically, or making jazz hands to show enthusiasm or agreement. Remind people to mute their microphones when not speaking so as not to mistakenly draw the audio away from the speaker.
- Don’t make unnecessary noise. If you are attending a web conference from a public space, such as an airport or coffee shop, make sure to mute your microphone when you are not speaking. No one needs to hear about flight delays. Also, be aware of normal fidgeting that may create a distracting noise – tapping your pencil, tapping your keyboard, or wearing a lot of jingling bracelets (of which I am always guilty). Again, mute your microphone so that none of this interferes or distracts the gathering.
- Follow up. After the gathering, make sure to transcribe and share any notes, or links to anything that was discussed but not available during the conversation. Be intentional about clearly identifying next steps: dates, deliverables, and personal assignments.
Digital gathering spaces can be an incredible asset to church leaders, allowing relationships to grow and flourish across broad geographic locations. Although they require a bit of intentionality in planning, preparing, and hosting, the value of connecting with others engaged in ministry is well worth it!
- Lisa Brown, Director of Digital Ministry
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