Imagine you are on a monthly global net-meeting conference call that is being hosted by a manufacturing executive. On the phone, he is getting down to business and moving from hot-topic to hot-topic while moving through his slides. There are several hundred people listening in. As he is stressing an important point, the piercing scream of a baby wailing with gusto comes over the phone. There is silence for a few seconds, and then the executive asks, “Is that a baby? Has someone got a baby with them?”
This was a real life scenario back in 2006. I was silently chuckling at the unusual situation that was taking place, when a timid voice on the phone said, “I am phoning in from home, sir. My wife is sick, and I had to come home to look after the baby. I didn’t want to miss your call”. The executive politely asked everyone to press “star six” to mute their phones and he continued his net-meeting conference call. Is that what you would call a “career limiting moment”?
As someone who has been presenting technical information for over 19 years, I have learned from my mistakes and experiences and also from other peoples. This article is written so that you do not have to go through the same learning curve as I did. Before I get into the success strategies for net-meetings, let me share two more examples that we can learn from:
1) In 2004 during a period of cost cutting at the corporate office, alternatives were being explored to conduct technical training using a net-meeting approach. Management wanted to explore this forum as an alternative to a face-to-face training session where people would usually fly in from all over the world. The subject I was asked to present included training people on the risks relating to explosions at chemical plants, refineries, and gas plants. This was a subject that I had presented at technical conferences and I already had a one hour dynamic presentation. All I would need to do was hone the presentation to my audience’s specific needs. The most popular parts of this presentation were videos of different types of explosions. The videos depicted how different flammable gases produce different explosion characteristics. They also showed parts of test buildings getting blown apart during live testing. There were segments of videos showing doors and windows failing catastrophically with research engineers cheering loudly.
As a mechanical engineer and as someone who has seen his fair share of audio-visual and other equipment failures, I decided to test my presentation to make sure the videos would play flawlessly. It did not take me too long to find out that playing the videos in a net-meeting forum was not going to work with the online net meeting tools I had available. The bandwidth of the internet connection would not allow the videos to play effectively on a computer that was being monitored by a coworker in another city. The video segments were choking on the limited internet bandwidth, and were playing ineffectively. I had to regroup, eliminate the videos, and rely on being able to describe the effects rather than demonstrate them. Imagine an Irishman on a net meeting doing impersonations of different types of explosions.
2) This year, one of our technical people started doing monthly net-meeting conference calls where he would discuss and present on accidents, concerns, and revisit lessons we had learned from previous challenges. The presentations were on target for the audience, the slides were uncluttered, and he had great visuals to drive home the points. One of the challenges he had was that some people on the conference call had weak internet connections, and as he moved through the PowerPoint slides with photograph visuals, the slides would still be loading on some peoples screens when he was already moving on to the next slide. This was causing frustration for people who were on the conference call and trying to view the net-meeting PowerPoint presentation at the same time. The simple fix was to send people the presentation ahead of time so they could watch it directly from their computers without an internet connection. The slides were numbered to make sure that people were looking at the correct slide.
Success Strategies for Presenting Using a Net-Meeting Forum:
1. Learn the capabilities of the net-meeting software and hardware you are using.
2. Understand the limitations of computers that people may be using (old computers with limited memories, poor internet connections- such as phone service).
3. Practice your presentation online with someone in a remote location so you can find out what issues or challenges there could be.
4. Know your audience and customize your information to their knowledge level.
5. Consider including humor to keep the presentation upbeat and energized when it is appropriate for the audience and when it suits the content of your presentation. Entertainment can help keep the attendees’ attention and can also help with information retention.
6. Use a darker background with lighter lettering to keep it easy on the eyes of participants (the glare from a white background with dark letters can easily tire the eyes).
7. Have a back-up plan in case the technology fails (will you e-mail plan B instructions, etc.).
8. Understand time zones and the impact on people having to stay late or get up early (or connect from home with sub-standard computers etc.).
9. Get people to disable call waiting if they are participating by phone.
10. Provide a list of participant’s names, contact numbers, e-mail addresses, and an emergency contact number in case there are technical difficulties – have a plan.
11. Send your presentation to people ahead of time including an agenda. Number the slides.
12. Get people to test the net-meeting ahead of time so there are no disruptions or delays.
13. When people log in to your online net-meeting, decide ahead of time if you want to choose the option of “accepting” each individual attendee when they “call in”, or do you want them to be automatically “logged in”. If you have a large group of participants connecting to your net meeting or if people maybe logging in late, it can be distracting if you have to stop your presentation frequently to “accept” the attendee.
14. Determine ahead of time if you are going to let people ask questions throughout the presentation, use the online “chat function”, or just ask questions at the end. Let them know at the beginning of the presentation what the rules are.
15. Find a quiet undisturbed area to conduct your call.
16. If there are other people in the same room as you (when you are presenting) ask them to mute their cell phones and keep them away from the phone. Cell phones, Blackberries and similar devices can cause feedback noise if they are located near the desk phone.
17. Ask people at the beginning to mute their phones so there is no distracting background noise.
18. Open with an icebreaker – a story that relates to your material, a shock statement, a quotation, or a rhetorical question.
19. Get some audience interaction about every 5 minutes to keep the energy levels up and to keep it interactive. If you anticipate that questions may not be forthcoming from the attendees, you could consider setting things up ahead of time where people will ask a question you have previously provided them. You could also arrange ahead of time for someone to give a real life example that will illuminate your point.
20. Maximum time for an effective net-meeting could be in the range of 1 to 3 hours.
21. Suggestions for video conferencing – Your clothing should have pastel type colors and have no stripes. You should make no sudden movements as this will cause blurring in the video image. You should speak slowly and clearly and there should be no distractions within the video line of sight. Watch the lighting – e.g. if you are bald and there is glaring lighting in the room, it may make you look as if you have a hole in your head.
22. If your presentation content is controversial with the possibility of conflict, you should consider all other options first. There is generally no substitute for face-to-face meetings when there is the potential for disagreement. A face-to-face meeting allows you to build rapport with others, and also allows you to take into consideration body language and other non-verbal audience feedback during the presentation.