We recently had a six-hour virtual seminar – one speaker, one topic, 6 hours – delivered via video app. I have already gone off on video reference. There is no fundamental problem with delivering content using a video app. What was clear in this seminar, though, is that instructors – librarians, CLE presenters, whomever – need to think more about delivering familiar content in a new mode.

I am not going to touch on academia. There is a huge amount on the amazing work going on in law schools and other university colleges in virtual delivery. The one takeaway: it ain’t going to deliver itself. Someone shared a journal article (naturally, it’s coming out as scholarly papers) about an MIT professor who had constructed a $20,000 setup. Here’s a more affordable $2000 setup from a Tennessee law professor.

More importantly, their approaches show a great deal of detailed thought into how to make things better. Everyone who puts on a virtual conference or meeting would do well to think along the same lines. We have an abundance of tools and approaches: which one is right for your situation?

Your Approach Matters

Let’s ignore technology for the moment. It matters but once you know you are engaged in virtual information delivery, you need to get the information down pat. Some of our normal methods of preparation aren’t going to work any longer.

I remember going to a conference when I worked at the ABA in California. A lawyer was on two panels with me and, during the first one, he was busily typing on his laptop. During the panel presentation. I asked him afterwards what he’d been working on and he remarked that it was his slide deck for the next panel.

One thing that experience teaches us is that we may not need to prepare as long and as hard as when we were new to a skill. I know that I used to spend hours more preparing an in-person presentation than I do now. This is particularly true if I am not trying to get information down, and am only working on delivery.

In a virtual environment, you may have a lot more going on than in a conference room. A 25-person virtual meeting – with 25 little faces – is not the same as speaking to a conference room of 25 people. The delivery method is different (no need to project in the same way, for one). Your ability to gauge reaction may be a lot harder. You are going to have to work harder to read the room.

This means you need to know your information cold. A lot of lawyer CLEs I’ve sat through have included a couple of similarities:

  • dense words on slides
  • lots of slide branding, which reduces the space for actually sharing content (bars of color at the tops or bottom that contain no information, for example)
  • the sense that the lawyer is using the slide as prompts or is actually reading the slide for you

Obvious problems. The reality in a virtual environment is that, if you are reading the slides or are not sure what comes next, you can’t focus on the other online elements. It’s the difference between knowing that a Shakespearean play has something about “tomorrow and tomorrow” in it and actually being able to recite it at the drop of a hat.

One reason this may be is that, in an in-person conference environment, I can often put my slides in my line of sight. That means I’m never really looking away from either my audience or my slide deck. When you eliminate that distance – when the slides and the seminar attendees are all 12″ from your face – your eyes need to shift around.

Online presentations and information sharing need that fluidity, that heightened level of practice and retention. Otherwise, you end up losing your place. You’ve got to practice.

One last thing on preparation: you should know before the presentation starts what you can cover. Timing can be hard, particularly if you are encouraging interaction. But if you are saying, “I’ll skip ahead as we’re running out of time” or “We always seem to have to skip through these slides”, you’ve got too much content. Cut before your presentation, not during it. The longer the time, the harder it can become to get the timing down unless you can match the times and content better. Perhaps consider chopping that 6 hour interaction down to 3 x 2 hours or something more measurable.

Tools

As with video reference, you need to think about your context when you choose a tool. In this case, the seminar was delivered by Zoom. A video conference tool makes sense if you are trying to see all of the people. It doesn’t make sense if you are trying to share a slide deck and information.

This is what the seminar looked like, below. The slide deck is in the main window but, because of slide branding (top and bottom) and a … traditional use of white space, the content is relegated to a small area (the black box) in the center. In other words, no matter whether the app is full screen or not, the content will take up only about 25%-50% of my screen. I even tried moving the video boxes to the right but the slide deck was still constrained.

The top of the screen contains the video of attendees. No-one had checked in advance, so about 25% of the attendees had no video. In any event, there is no good way to show video participants AND a shared screen. Your screen real estate won’t magically get larger, so everything on your video seminar is going to have to get smaller if you want to show more people.

But why would you? Interaction, I hear someone mutter through the ether. Sure. As a speaker, I get that you want to see visual feedback. But you can have interaction in other ways.

I taught a the University of Illinois’ online library school program (LEEP) for a number of semesters. No video. But there was a chat room – like on Zoom – and it worked fine. It allowed for classmates to interact while I was talking and it allowed them to interact with me. If you use chat, you can usually see it move so you know someone has asked or interacted.

In this Zoom-based seminar, we had reactions and we had the ability to raise a hand. In order to have the hand-raise feature, you need the side panel open (I suppose there must be a hotkey combination). For the presenter’s benefit, you need to remember to toggle your hand off (people didn’t). It is much more intrusive – requiring the presenter to look in more places – than something like a chat room might be.

A challenge for presenters is that not all software works the same. I found this look at video conferencing software by a hearing impaired person to be really instructive. A presenter might tick the box, “has transcription support” without realizing how that works in reality.

Another challenge is that presenters may not have any software choices. It is easy for an organization to license a product and the assume that product works well for all scenarios. In this case, a straight screen-sharing tool (without video) would have been preferable – something that allowed the slides to be maximized.

Adapt and overcome. If you are stuck with Zoom and need to deliver a slide deck to an audience, perhaps build in the moments where you stop. If you are taking input on the fly, your slides remain front and center. If, instead, you presented a few slides and stopped, you could hide the slides and maximize the participants.

This is not how in-person interactions work but that’s okay, because you’re not in-person. If you have people who have laggy internet or lag due to a technical issue like transcription, this would also give everyone a waypoint at which to rendezvous.

As I say, your own context will determine your approach. But one thing seems clear: the information ain’t going to deliver itself. There are opportunities to do better at our preparation (creation of content, practicing) as well as really thinking about our tools and how we use them.