Today I had the coolest experience. My colleagues at Idaho State University (ISU) Workforce Training were having an educational technology conference today in Pocatello. I teach for them online, but today’s conference was live — except for one presenter, me.
Here’s how we did it:
1. Brief your presenter on what to expect
Jeff Hough and the team at ISU gave me a thorough briefing about the conference a few weeks prior to the event. We negotiated the terms of the presentation and they gave me details on what to expect.
2. Tech-savvy conference organizers
These folks specialize in offering professional development webinars for educators. I’ve done dozens of webinars and used the same platform (in this case, Adobe Connect) that the conference organizers had on hand. They knew how to set up their system and had used their webinar platform hundreds of times before. They are adept at all kinds of technology and had significant experience successfully producing webinar presentations.
Modesty aside, it is safe to say that I know how to give a virtual presentation. I have colleagues who flatline in a webinar environment because they “need the crowd to give them their energy”. At today’s conference, I never saw my audience. Well, not until after when one of my ISU colleagues, Paul Dickey, tweeted this photo (which I saw after the presentation).
Some of the worst virtual workshops or keynotes I have seen have been given by people who have no experience or webinar training. (In case you’re interested, here’s how you can get trained).
4. Previously presented material
Ensure the presentation has been tested. The conference organizers asked me to repeat a Twitter for Teachers workshop that I had taught for them previously. They had already seen the program delivered via webinar and liked it. The program had already proven to be a success.
Conference organizers want their attendees to have a stellar experience. Many things can go wrong with a virtual presentation. Make sure the presenter’s content is not one of them.
5. Do a connectivity test
Before the conference, we tested all the technology we were going to use – audio, video, slides and a real-time screen share. Hotels and conference centres are notorious for having poor wireless connections. The more people who tap into them, the slower they get. Virtual presentations chew up a lot of bandwidth. Even if your system works perfectly at the office, having a new venue changes the game. Every single piece of tech needs to get tested… and tested again.
As we prepared for today, we had some issues with the audio. We made some adjustments that helped significantly when the room was filled with a live audience.
6. Expect the unexpected
At one point during today’s session, we lost audio. Because we were all experienced working in a virtual environment and were aware of our audio problems during the connectivity test, it came as no surprise when the audio cut out. We were quickly able to work things through and I picked up where I had been cut off. Both the conference organizers and the presenter need to be able to keep their cool when “tech happens” in front of a room full of people.
Every person involved in today’s virtual program understood what aspects of the production we could control, such as our individual mics and computer settings and which we could not control, such as the venue’s wireless connection cutting out. Knowing what you can and can not control puts you in a better position to problem solve on the fly.
7. Include real-time interactivity
In my case, Jeff acted as a host for the session, introducing me and then fielding questions from the audience. At the beginning of the session, I said, “OK, let’s do a show of hands in the room. How many people use Twitter right now?”
Jeff acted as my eyes and ears and reported back to me, “There are crickets in the room, Sarah,” meaning that there was silence. He then added, “There are maybe four hands up.”
“O.K.,” I said. “That is less than 10% of the room. Let’s see if we can’t increase that by the end of the presentation…”
We stayed in constant contact throughout the session, talking back and forth, naturally and with a conversational tone.
8. Show, don’t tell
There is a certain amount of “telling” in an instructional program, but try to limit it as much as possible.
My presentation included a combination of static slides and a real-time screen share. I was showing folks how to use Twitter, so I demonstrated it live. Because Jeff also has a Twitter account, we were able to Tweet back and forth in real time and the participants could see it on screen.
The highlight for me as a presenter came when one participant signed for Twitter during the presentation and Tweeted “@DrSarahEaton“, as I had shown them how to do moments earlier.
I noticed it on my feed and said, “Hey, who’s that? Is that someone who’s in the conference room right now?”
Jeff asked the brand-new-baby-Tweeter to raise his or her hand. She did.
This was the single best moment for me as a virtual presenter. It was completely unrehearsed and unexpected. We had no idea anyone was going to sign up for Twitter right then and there and start putting the content into action at that very moment.
It caught the attention of every single person in the room and suddenly, it all made sense. What I had been saying about educators being able to connect in real time from all over the world, was no longer something I said, it was something we were able to actually show them. It was the coolest thing.
After that, a few other people joined in and sent Tweets, too.
Jimeny Cricket may have talked, but these crickets Tweeted! It was brilliant.
9. Give participants a valuable handout
Participants did not get a copy of my presentation slides. (Bor-ing!) Instead, every participant received a copy of the Twitter for Teachers manual that I did to accompany the course. It is a 25-page, step-by-step how to guide that steps them through the exact processes I showed during the presentation, in exactly the same order. Well, except for the spontaneous moments that made the session come alive.
The technical aspects of a virtual presentation increase your risk of failure significantly. Just about anything can go wrong. Even with all the preparation in the world, the potential for unexpected screw ups can still happen. Lots of preparation helps to mitigate that risk. Having an experienced team who have worked together before also helps tremendously.
You know when a virtual presentation has been truly successful because the webinar technology becomes “invisible”. When participants are so into the experience that they almost forget their presenter is hundreds, if not thousands of miles away and their sense of distance has melted away, you know you’ve just incorporated a great virtual presentation into your conference.
A personal thanks from me to all the folks at ISU Workforce Training. As any experienced virtual presenter knows, those work on the production team are the real stars of the show.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.