Friday, April 27, 2007

Training via Web Conference (Part 2 of 3): How?

I'll trust that you already have an idea of your content and your audience. These tips are mainly geared toward business training - I'll tackle traditional education later on.

1. Use Visuals
Make your presentation even more visual than you would for an in-person session, because there's no moving thing at the front of the classroom to keep everyone's interest. Use features like highlighters and pointers to make your points clear - if you're talking about a certain dropdown menu, for instance, go ahead and point it out. It's kind of like marking plays as a sportscaster. You may find that you have to redesign your content with a more visual focus to be effective over web conferencing - long lectures won't be as effective as the combination of key bullet points and succinct explanation.

2. Pace Yourself
...and be realistic about how much people are going to learn in a single session. Run through your presentation fully a few times before you deliver it. Are you expecting your students to learn the full software suite in 90 minutes? Do you have to speak like an auctioneer to get through all of your notes? Try not to include more than 10 key points per training session or comprehension (and retention) may start dropping. More presentation design tips can be found on the blogs of Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki.

3. It's not that obnoxius
to use polls (short quizzes, usually only 3-5 questions) at the end of each section to make sure everyone is still following you. Mention people by name, too... but not in that way that your high school history teacher did when she knew you were falling asleep. Just mention names every now and then to subtly encourage participation (e.g. "Everything working on step 3? Joe? Miranda? Great.")

4. Set a Q&A Policy
Some presenters can respond to questions via instant message as they come up, while others prefer to wait until the end. There's no right answer, but do inform the participants if you will or will not be taking their questions while you're teaching so that no one feels ignored. Personally, I think it's best to take questions as they come up; everyone is still tuned in to that section, and it's likely that other participants had the same question. You can always...

5. Delegate
Bring in additional Q&A help for large groups, and consider sharing presenting duties if the presentation will be long to help people stay focused.

6. Follow Up
I said it in my general tips, but following up with a recap, a copy of the presentation (if possible), and Q&A after each session is especially important for training. Do everything you can to make the information available and clear to each participant.

Remember that your voice will be the strongest "human" aspect of this class, so it's important to set the right tone. If you're doing a new beverage roll-out for a restaurant, for instance, you want to make sure to stay upbeat and excited about the product. "Pass the microphone" frequently to allow students to speak up - the more they connect during the lesson, the more they'll retain. Many teaching games/icebreakers can work just as well over a web conference as they do in person, so consider starting with something light to get everyone warmed up.

Next up: Who? I'll be reviewing some groups that are already training via web conference and see what can be learned....

If you have a specific web training question/need, feel free to ask in the comments.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Training via Web Conference (Part 1 of 3): Why?

Why train via web conference?
  1. You don't want to face travel expenses
  2. Your users/employees would benefit from a hands-on training environment
  3. Your have a large user/employee base
  4. You would like to have satisfied, knowledgeable customers
I worked with a company that created complex inventory and labor management software with a variety of employee access levels. The manuals were separated by individual task and each consisted of at least 60 dense pages, making the total upwards of 800 pages. Needless to say, customer support was always in demand. Somewhere along the line, this company began using web conferencing to train users, complete with application sharing and custom schedules for each user's access level. Miraculously, support calls decreased....

Not all web training programs have to be as in-depth or comprehensive; your own customer support team can likely tell you all you need to know to start developing web training content. Web conferencing is great for internal training too - procedure updates, new product roll-outs, and new hire need-to-knows are just some of the internal needs that are well-suited to online training.

A recap of the benefits:

1. No More Travel Expenses
Travel takes an environmental toll as well as a financial one. With web conferencing, you can provide a classroom-like environment and simultaneous collaboration worldwide for all of your employees or users. No more lost days in travel or expensive meeting space rentals! Plus, you have greater freedom to bring in expert presenters, no matter where they are or how busy their schedules may be.

Training prep schedule and costs (loosely based on personal experience):
Prepare presentation (10-20 hours)
Prepare training docs (2-5 hours)
Manage printing/duplication of training docs (2-4 hours; printing costs)
Coordinate meeting space and catering (2 hours; meeting hall rental, catering expenses)
Send/coordinate email invitations (1-2 hours)
Travel to presentation site (1-8 hours; airfare, hotel, and meal expenses)
Present (variable, usually 6 hours plus lunch)
Follow-up/feedback email (1 hour)

I'm not exaggerating when I say that online training cuts out the bulk of the expense. I'm all for face-to-face contact in certain situations, but wouldn't it be great if trainers could just focus

2. Hands-On Training
You put a lot of time into your training presentation, but your users/employees still don't get the software or procedure in question? Web conferencing lets you show every step, click by click, on each user's screen. You can share the necessary applications and files with each user, and even "drive" the users' machines individually to help avoid confusion. I'd insert a clich
here about the value of show vs. tell, but you already know it's true.

3. Lots of Trainees
Where would you learn better, in a large auditorium or in front of the computer you use every day? Web conferencing lets each user receive a personalized experience in a familiar environment, without having to feel as if he or she is competing with other users for attention. Features like hand raising and chat provide instant feedback and opportunities for further discussion or assistance. (You can even delegate other presenters to answer chat questions
a great trick for large groups.)

4. Satisfaction - and Smarts
It's likely that your customers or employees will feel more confident after some hands-on training time, and it's even more likely that their perception of your company or product will change for the better. Web training, when implemented well, also ups your "tech-savvy" appearance in a big way. High-tech and people-oriented? Who doesn't want that in their brand identity?

Next up: How to Train via Web Conference...stay tuned.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Why Web Conferencing is Better than Email

I know that there are a lot of technofads that crop up daily, but please believe me when I say that web conferencing is not another fly-by-night must-have. Web conferencing really does have the "revolutionary" potential that we've all been waiting for. I say this not just as a rep for a web conferencing provider, but as someone who has been responsible for implementing collaborative practices in business and education for the past five years.

Training, Education, and Demonstrations
Application and document sharing open a world of potential far beyond the training manual, or even a training class. Web conferencing allows for one-on-one interaction in a hands-on, distributed group environment. I've attended some fantastic online product demos/training sessions for graphics software and programming environments; the combination of simultaneous demonstration, practice, and discussion is every trainer's dream. No one had to travel to my office to give the presentation, and team members who were offsite were still able to attend the same session, insuring information parity.

Document Collaboration
Text and graphic creation are key functions of many jobs, and the revision process is frequently a jumble of conflicting criticism and obscure commentary. I was reminded just this morning how no one likes to face a Word document with changes made by 10 different editors, but this is still standard practice. Online doc sharing has long promised better, more flexible collaboration (and some tools like Coventi are getting a lot of coverage for actually delivering), but web conferencing allows participants to modify and discuss the document, website design, or graphics in real time. I've gone sentence-by-sentence through press releases via a 6-person web conference, making full use of the highlighting/marker tools and talking through each step; though the concept might seem arduous, the text was better (and completed sooner) than ever before. Each participant got to give input, but working together in real time eliminated redundancy, conflict, and digressions from our initial purpose.

Web Meetings vs. Email
That press release I just mentioned could have been edited via email. But as we've all experienced, email doesn't always convey the full picture. Email comments can be less complete than those in a discussion; many people don't have the time (or don't enjoy writing enough) to put everything in writing. Likewise, detailed email commentary can provide too much information, and details that were carefully included can get lost; an idea voiced in a live discussion is much harder to ignore or omit. Finally, we've all gotten the seemingly-angry email that was created by someone who's simply a terse writer. Emoticons or no, emotions are still far better conveyed via voice than via text.

This might all come down to the fact that we're still human. We're social creatures, and we haven't yet adapted to a fully-online world. Web conferencing gives us in-person connection with digital accuracy and convenience. A revolution for the workplace? You tell me.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Six Tricks: Web Conferencing Improvements

The best way to improve your Web Conference is to behave as if you are in a face-to-face meeting: come prepared, and don't use this time to surf the Web or catch up on email. Since there is no setup or pre-meeting mingling, Web Conferencing is frequently more efficient and productive than in-person meetings. Here are six ways to help your next web conference run smoothly:

1. Don't Fly Blind
Test your presentation beforehand, and test your Web Conferencing connection and equipment. No one finds web conferencing novel enough these to wait while you fumble with your microphone or realize that there's not enough bandwidth for your 60 MB presentation.

2. Check In Early

If you're hosting, this means at least 15 minutes before the scheduled start time, and if you're a participant, at least 5 minutes. This allows time for any last-minute technical goofs, browser updates, and pre-meeting small talk. Remember, hosts: most services don't allow anyone to log in until you're present.

3. Engage Your Audience
Keep your content straightforward and your manner as lively as the situation allows. If you are using a PowerPoint presentation, be sure that you are not merely reading your slides to your audience. Try not to narrate any processes that you would not highlight during a face-to-face meeting ("Hang on while I load up this next one...there it goes...oh, an error message...hang on..."). While Web Conferences allow for a greater level of collaboration, they also demand concise content and a well-prepared, knowledgeable presenter.

Ken Molay at The Webinar Blog just posted a great piece about improving your presentations for those of you who feel you need more help in this area.

4. Take Advantage of the Medium
Make use of the available interactive features. You can highlight and add pointers to static slides or documents in order to guide your participants' attention and keep things interesting. Use polls (quizzes) to make sure that your key points are being understood. You can design your polls in advance and offer them as the presentation goes along; you can also create polls to keep track of your participants' interest levels and to encourage participation. Guided questions (e.g. "Is this function of the new widget clear?") are more effective than general questions such as "Are there any questions?" For basic or yes/no questions, participants can simply use the "raise hand" feature to respond.

5. Wrap It Up
Be prepared for Q&A. It is commonplace to set aside a few minutes after a presentation or meeting to address questions that were not answered during the event. Participants can ask questions directly to the host, and the host can choose to keep it one-on-one or broadcast the answer to the whole group.

6. Follow Up
Many of the audio conferencing tips are just as valid for web conferencing, but this one bears repeating. Especially for large web meetings, a follow-up email is critical. I recommend attaching a copy of the presentation and any documents that were used, as well as any notes from the meeting and important Q&A info. This is also a great chance to ask for feedback - even just "How could this web meeting have been better for you?" can alert you to areas of improvement in your presentation or technology.

Web conferencing is moving quickly and growing each day, but these tips will serve you well no matter what your audience or intentions. Stay tuned for specific tips on web conferencing in sales, education, and HR.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Conferencing = A Cleaner Planet?

Check out this article from TMCnet. Could conferencing help lessen your company's environmental impact?

Personally, I find this a great option. While face-to-face contact can still be important to a company's success, it's not always mandatory for day-to-day tasks. I know I'm not alone in my experience that most tasks today are assigned via email, carried out on a computer, and delivered/discussed further via still more email. But what about group projects or weekly meetings?

I think that's where conferencing can really shine. With today's distributed offices, conferencing (whether audio, web, or video) offers the ability to collaborate in real time without having to travel. I've participated in many highly effective online meetings that I'll discuss here soon; I can confirm that online meetings are frequently even more productive than in-person meetings. Plus, since travel expenses are out of the picture, teams can meet more frequently.

Looks like the environment and business can profit from conferencing.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Do I really need a special phone for conference calls?

Many conferencing service providers round out their offerings with a variety of phone equipment. Some companies won't even allow you to use their services without purchasing their phone equipment. But is it worth it?

Some providers use VOIP technology, which may require a change in your office's phone equipment. This can potentially be cost-effective in the long run, but quality can be variable and some users experience a steep learning curve.
Other companies may require that only their equipment be used with the specialized lines and services that they provide to handle high call-volume businesses. Service calls for both of these setups can also be pricey.

Still other companies offer phones designed specifically with conferencing in mind. These phones offer features like noise and echo cancellation and microphone priority settings. A conferencing phone may enhance a conference, especially for frequent conferencers or the image-conscious, but it's certainly not mandatory.

The best solution for most conferencing users is still a plain old telephone. You can conference with whatever happens to be nearby. Speakerphone might be nice, or maybe a headset, and I won't lie and say that cell phones don't contribute a bit of extra noise to a conference call, but with services like you can use any working telephone to start or join a conference call - even a payphone.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Seven Simple Ways to Improve your Conference Calls

Trust me, I've sat through my fair share of conference calls, product roll-out calls, quarterly meetings, and some extended product chit-chat sessions. There were some high points, but we all know how painful conference calls can be without some attention to detail. From these arduous hours, I've gathered seven simple ways to improve your conference calls, whether you're a host or a participant.

1. Send an Agenda
Sending the call's agenda in advance allows the participants to prepare for the specific points you'll be covering. It also helps you to make sure that you're not trying to cover more than you can squeeze into your call time. You can attach any relevant documents, presentations, or other visuals to this email as well; remember that it takes about three passes for information to sink in, so rather than ruining the suspense (or attendance) of the call, you'll actually be improving your productivity.

2. Stick to the Agenda
Restate the main points of the agenda at the beginning of the call - this convinces everyone that you'll be staying on task. This is also a good time to deliver some basic conference call reminders, like to mute your phone when not speaking so that your clacking keyboard isn't the star of the call.

3. Speak Well
I've conferenced with a whole host of Batman villians: there's the Muffler, the Droner, and my personal favorite, Captain Bellows, with his trusty sidekick Cellphone Distortion. My point? Make sure you speak at a good pace and volume (you might even consider asking for feedback at the beginning of the call to make sure you're being heard clearly). It's harder for most people to pay attention when there's no live visuals to accompany the meeting, so try to keep your tone as engaging as your subject matter will allow.

4. Introduce Yourself
It's not time for your life story, but saying your name before you speak is the only way to be sure that everyone knows who you are. If you're not the main presenter, you may want to offer more information. Just a simple "John here," or "This is Jody from Accounting," keeps everyone together and adds a nice touch of humanity.

5. Be Specific
Call on people by name and ask specific questions. How many times do you get a response to "Any questions on that?" It's much better to offer something like "I'll hear from Joanne, then Mike, then Ted," or "How does that protocol sound to the Marketing department?" so that people are encouraged (though not forced) to respond. It's easy to feel lost in a conference call, especially a large one. You may even wish to ask everyone to prepare an answer to a specific question in advance (maybe on that agenda you sent out?).

6. Pay Attention
It seems obvious, but I don't know anyone who's not guilty of this: if you wouldn't do it in a "real" meeting, don't do it in a conference call. Conference calls aren't time to check your email, catch up on your fantasy sports league, or chat up the intern. I always take notes during calls to make sure I don't miss key points or forget any questions that come up...and to avoid the temptation to see what's going on at lifehack.

7. Follow Up
If you stuck to your agenda, the follow-up email should be pretty simple to create. This email is a chance to reiterate your key points and to address task assignments/actionable items. Additional documents and presentations can be sent along with the follow-up email. You might want to ask for feedback on the call as well - just a simple "What can be better next time?" can go a long way, especially if the calls will be frequent.

I'm assuming you already know that if you're hosting the call you should join at least 15 minutes before your scheduled start time, and if you're participating you should call in at least 5 minutes early. I also hope you know to offer short "bio" breaks if your call runs more than 90 minutes, and to consider splitting up the speaking duties amongst several key presenters to avoid boredom on long calls.

But never forget the most golden rule: mute that phone. You don't want to be the example that proves this rule - I've heard lunch orders, side commentary about the call, and video game noises. Don't put your call on hold, either, unless you're sure that your hold music is cool enough to entertain all of the other call participants while you're gone.

An Alternative to

Just a reminder - you can get 100 free minutes of conferencing at I've read of the many nonprofits who have been affected by the recent moves to block FreeConference services; hopefully these minutes can help get some of you through this rough patch. Even once the free trial is over, the rates are as low as 2.7 cents/minute. Having been at nonprofits for many years myself, I know how tight (or nonexistant) those budgets can be!

A few links about the issue:
Houston Chronicle coverage
California Hunger Action Coalition press release
Coverage from the Consumerist

Monday, April 9, 2007

If you're in the Chicago Area...

Be sure to come by and see us at HSMAI's Affordable Meetings Expo and Conference on April 11 and 12 at the Navy Pier. We'll have an exciting (and legitimately useful) giveaway for those of you who come by our booth....

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Basics (Part 1): What is Conferencing?

Before we get complicated, let’s review the basics. Today’s topic: What is conferencing, and how is it used?

There are two main types of conferencing: audio (commonly called conference calls or teleconferencing) and web conferencing.

A Conference Call is a telephone call in which more than two people participate. Callers can interact by both speaking and listening during the call. Conference Calls are used for remote business meetings, like international and interoffice meetings, interviews, presentations and briefings, and entertainment. These collaborative calls come in handy any time knowledge sharing or discussion between multiple parties is necessary, especially when the parties involved are in different locations. While they can be planned in advance for formal or regularly scheduled meetings, reservationless Conference Calls are quick and easy enough to initiate that they can also be used on the fly, like when that small discussion in your cubicle suddenly grows to include the overseas developer and the CEO in New York.

With most conferencing services (such as, any telephone can be used for a conference call, even a cell phone. Some groups use a speakerphone to share the proceedings of an in-office meeting with an offsite party; some users prefer to have a headset-style telephone in order to keep their hands free to take notes and to avoid making noises by tapping or dropping the receiver. A good feature to look for in a conferencing phone is the ability to mute, or stop, your voice transmission so that your background noise won't be heard by all of the participants.

A Web Conference is a live meeting that is conducted over the Internet. During a Web Conference, files, applications, and desktops can be shared to facilitate collaboration and demonstration; additionally, presentations can be delivered, and participants can partake through live polling and chat. When used in combination with Audio Conferencing (such as Conference Calling), Web Conferencing provides a complete virtual meeting environment.

Web Conferences are currently used for Sales and Marketing presentations, international and multi-site business Meetings, interviews, Training and Education, Webinars, and much more. This method of conferencing is robust enough to be used for any small to medium group communication, and can dramatically reduce or eliminate travel expenses. While Web Conferencing can be used for formal or regularly scheduled meetings, it is quick and easy enough to initiate that it can be used for ad hoc collaboration. Frequently, meeting participants need more than audio to capture their attention; with Web Conferencing, your audio content is accompanied by a visual presentation or demonstration in real time that can help highlight and clarify your key points. Some people even use Web Conferencing to stay in touch with loved ones who are overseas.

What do you use conferencing for? Leave us a message in the comments and let us know.