I was invited to speak at the Northern California Association of Law Libraries’ Spring Institute. It was a bit of a stretch for me. I’m not accustomed to talking about myself and it was also my first virtual conference presentation. I’ve posted previously about what people should do and so I tried to follow my own advice/admonitions. This is a post mortem of what worked, what didn’t, and what things I need to figure out how to do better.
First, let me provide a bit of context. The NOCALL Spring Institute was a 4 day event, spread over 2 weeks. The sessions were Zoom-based. NOCALL staffed the call so that someone (thank you, April!) was ready to do an introduction and to monitor the in-call chat for questions. I dialed in 5 minutes early as requested and the session started on the dot. It was very well organized.
It’s not exactly my first virtual rodeo. I have taught semesters at the University of Illinois and University of North Texas library schools using online tools and the LEEP program. And for 10 years, I gave a kickoff presentation for a law practice technology seminar at Duke’s law school. But not at a conference.
From the very start, I knew I did not want to do just a PowerPoint slide deck. That can so often involve a screenshare and so you can’t see the speaker. At the same time, I also didn’t want to just be the guy staring into a camera for 45 minutes talking. My hybrid approach involved using OBS Studio to create layers so that I could be speaking with my presentation in the background. The goal was something like what you’d see on a newscast.
The first thing was to work up the outline, which I did with input from NOCALL (thanks, Delia!). From that, I was able to construct a PowerPoint presentation that moved me through the topic areas. I tend to avoid a lot of words on slides and use them for visual interest and to help anchor the audience in what I’m talking about. The end result was a 9 slide deck, one of which was a slide to prompt for questions.
Once I had my slide deck, I started to set up OBS Studio. I created two scenarios. One was just me with a virtual background (law books) so two inputs: web camera and image. I would use this scenario when I was starting the session and, potentially, if I wanted to switch out of the presentation scenario. The second scenario had the PowerPoint slide deck over my right shoulder, and shifted my camera output over to the left of the screen. For the NOCALL session, I actually did four inputs: a nameplate image, then the web camera, then the slide deck resized over my shoulder, then the background image.
It took a while to figure out which background to use. You can see why most newscasts have a dark blue or similar background behind the news anchor. I had to tweak the font colors I used in the slide deck so that they would appear clearly against a background. I started with a lighter version of the law book background and ended up using a slightly darker one for contrast.
I was planning to use the OBS Studio Multi-view window to display the scenarios. You can configure OBS to quickly switch scenarios with a double-click (Settings > General > Multi-view > Click to switch between scenes). This is what the multi-view looked like, with the two scenarios.
So far, so technical. Now I needed to test out the set up. I started a Zoom call. I clicked on the “Invite” option at the bottom and generated a link to the call. Then I opened a web browser on my second monitor and visited the link in the browser. Now I could see what the audience would see. Since I knew that NOCALL would be monitoring the chat, I popped opened the Zoom chat in my app (the one I started the call in) to see how that would look to me.
The primary issue I ran into was the use of the chroma key in the presentation. I had used some images that had a lot of green in them and which, when presented using OBS, became partially invisible. I was also able to figure out that you need to click to select a window before activating it. I would need to click on Multi-view before double clicking to select a new scenario. When I clicked back to PowerPoint – Presenter View – I would need to click to select the window and then click again to advance the slide.
The Performance . . .
I have a dual monitor setup on my home PC. This was important because, if you use a slide deck and want to display the animations, you may need to dedicate one monitor to the presentation output. My hope was to use PowerPoint Presenter View so that I could see my notes and also see the next slide. This was a brand new presentation and, even with practice, I wanted to use every failsafe I could.
Not everything fit. The Zoom chat ended up on the far right side of the screen. The PowerPoint Presenter View covered up the faces of the participants. The OBS Studio Multiview was partially hidden as it straddled the break between the two monitors. Since I was most concerned about the top right corner, I didn’t mind that the top left was partially obscured.
The placement mattered to me. My camera is situated over the break between the two monitors. I have found that staring at myself, positioned right under the camera, helps to ensure that I’m looking at the audience.
By default, then, the PowerPoint Presenter View had to be to the right of that. The timer fit nicely at the bottom. And the Zoom Chat window is vertical, and so easily fit to the right of the Presenter view.
I toggled from one scenario without any problem. I moved through the slides without feeling as though I was missing any content. The notes window in Presenter View was easy to scroll without turning my head.
Interactivity and Chat
I was curious about whether it was possible to create interactivity in this context. I knew there would be too many people in Zoom Gallery View for me to see clearly. It was one reason I didn’t mind covering them up. But I thought Chat might provide an option.
One slide in the deck had 4 choices on it, each one a different color. I posed a question and then asked participants to respond using the color of their choice, as I called out the choice and color. I was glad to see that a good number of the participants responded. I think using chat in this way – and a simple multiple choice quiz – can break up an otherwise talking-head presentation. Also, since you may not be using chat as the presenter, it is a way to get other people into chat.
I received one question in chat that I tried to address as I was presenting. This felt comfortable to me because I’d taught a few semesters in the University of Illinois’ online library school program known as LEEP. In a one-to-many context, receiving text and responding with voice is pretty easy to do.
. . . Could Have Been Better
I don’t believe in perfection and I don’t aim for it. Even if you really feel like you nail something, there’s almost always still more to learn. Expertise can create blind spots. So while I was pleased with how this went, I know I can do better.
Timing is everything. I’d originally been asked to leave time at the end for questions. I tend to find people don’t always use that time so I asked for questions in chat. Since I was the last session of the day, I took the risk of trying to speak for the full time allotment. That worked okay but I used 44 of my 45 minutes and there were some additional questions at the end. I appreciated the audience sticking around for those.
Timing is everything. But I forgot to start the timer app that was in front of me. I was very lucky that PowerPoint Presenter View has a timer in it. And, because I had it running windowed – not full screen – I also could see my local clock. In the end, it worked out even though I was in Eastern and the conference was Pacific time. I knew I could focus on the last two digits. I made the added mistake of starting the timer mid-presentation which only served to give me something incorrect to look at.
PowerPoint Presenter View is great. I really wish you could run it by itself. Because of the way OBS Studio runs, I could use the presenter’s view as my in-stream slide deck. I don’t need the presentation on the second monitor.
Unfortunately, it’s an either-or. If you want Presenter View, you have to output a full presentation slide to an external device (second monitor, projector, whatever). But you can set up a PowerPoint slide show to be windowed, which may be a good alternative if you don’t use notes.
I will probably forego Presenter View the next time unless I am once again doing a presentation or topic for the first time. A windowed slide show would be plenty for sharing and as an input to OBS Studio. I could also substantially resize it and gain a ton of monitor space back. That would allow me to potentially use other tools and have more windows open. Or you could use a notepad window for your notes.
Another benefit from a windowed presentation (whose window can be made smaller) is that otherwise you can get substantial colored light on your face while you’re presenting. In my case, a lot of green! I turn off my Windows desktop wallpaper for a call, using a black solid color instead. I minimize the all-white Zoom window and use dark mode on other apps. That way, the colors emitted by your apps and displays don’t overwhelm your lighting. It would be helpful to be able to do the same thing with the slide deck.
For example, I might add a browser window. If I used an online survey tool and had participants respond to that, rather than using chat, I could add the browser window to an OBS Studio scenario. Or I might be able to embed the output web page in the PowerPoint slide deck itself.
I could also use the extra screen space to shift the virtual meeting software chat function closer to the center of my vision so that I can see it more clearly. I might use the full OBS Studio app rather than the multi-viewer, so that I could use more of the app’s functionality on the fly. For example, swapping background or toggling between a PowerPoint capture and a web browser capture.
I used a bit of animation too. I started with an MP4 of my dog but converted it to an animated GIF. I would probably stick with that approach for any simple animation that couldn’t be handled within PowerPoint’s animation. An MP4 can be inserted into PowerPoint but it gives you a player bar and you need to automate the auto-play of the video. A GIF was simpler. I created the green screen behind the dog (who is watching a treat move around!) using a mask in my video editor and then applying chroma key.
There were still people in the audience by the time I swapped back to the Zoom gallery. And I felt that, overall, I probably had hit the goals I’d had for myself. It’s often hard to gauge how your presentation plays in a face-to-face environment and next to impossible in a virtual one. Hopefully the content was as useful for the audience as the experience was for me!