We can’t go on meeting like this – Part 6 Design Your Meeting

Design your meeting, using the right combination of media

Establishing goals

The purpose of a meeting can be viewed on two different levels: the business outcomes that the meeting is designed to support and the modelling of corporate values about how people treat one another. If these are unclear, insincere or ill-remembered, then they need to be refreshed before the online meeting is designed. If you neglect to do this then you have no way of knowing whether an online meeting is an appropriate solution, what should be covered and what methods of interaction and recording should be used.

You can increase engagement and satisfaction by ensuring that the meeting is not just a passing of information that could be handed over better by asynchronous means such as email, memo or press release.

Your role as designer of the session is to select the most appropriate methods and media to meet the particular objectives. Often the best approach is to combine a live online meeting with those other asynchronous methods used before and after. It can be helpful to think of the meeting itself as a real-time event packaged with preparation and information sharing ahead of time and continued reflection and sharing afterwards.

Why does a meeting need designing?

Design is what you do to ensure that everything that should happen at a meeting, does happen. A meeting is an opportunity to let others know how we feel; our wants and needs, and what we are thinking. We are not all equally good at communicating those things, and most of us can improve our skills. We adapt our preferred styles of communication according to who we are meeting and what we’d like to achieve, for example pleading will need a different approach to interrogating, persuading, cajoling, disciplining etc. When we meet face-to-face there is always the possibility of misunderstanding. Fortunately a change of mood is easy to spot, and most of us have a good bag of tricks to help to put a relationship back on kilter. It may be more difficult to do this online because words, once spoken in public or written in black on white, are difficult ever to “unspeak”. That is why a clear agenda, a good structure and some clear “rules of engagement” are so useful. Active listening face-to-face is something you do with your eyes, your ears and through speech. Active listening online may need you to be even more sensitive to tone of voice and tolerant of cryptic and ambiguous instant text messages. As part of the design of a meeting, a leader must take account of the importance of these channels and make sure they are not restricted or abused.

What should a design include?

For an online meeting it may show not only the content, but also prompts or even an actual script that will tell the facilitator what to do and say to keep the meeting on track, make sure everyone participates, and to reach the goals that were set for it. Once you have found the most successful format for your online meetings, you can call upon a set of familiar tools and regular techniques that you know have worked to keep discussions on track, to allow everyone to contribute. The design will set the tone and culture for the meeting as democratic or controlling, competitive or collaborative etc. It can ensure a meeting is in harmony with the culture of the organisation.

Do you design the process as well as the content?

The agenda for a meeting does not usually explain how the meeting is to be run. Most commonly it shows the topics to be included, how much time is allocated to each and who will lead it. In the design of an online meeting you may also show how opinions will be shared and decisions will be made using the various markup and sharing tools that an online meeting includes.

It is normal to assign different roles to ensure an online meeting is successful. The facilitator will manage the content; the host will control the interactions; you may have a recorder to type notes as others are speaking and to be responsible for starting and saving the recording if it has been agreed to save and publish the meeting.

What are the key elements in planning a meeting?

There are many things to consider when planning a meeting, including the purpose, participants and announcement. It is a good idea to make sure your plan answers the basic question, “What do people need to bring away from the meeting?” In some cases this may be obvious, but in more complex situations the answer may invlolve collecting views of a number of different interested parties. Once the outcomes have been set, you can put together an agenda. It will normally include the issues to be aired, the methods of discussing each one, how much time allocated to it and the person who “owns” that item.

Structuring the session

Do not underestimate the need for introductions at the start of an online meeting.

For people who join early, and who are not practised with the online tool, provide a meaningful but none-too-challenging activity, for example a whiteboard activity, helping them to get used to the markup tools. Consider an ice-breaker e.g. a map that participants can markup with their location. Always display a welcome slide with the meeting title and objective, the start and finish times, and the leader’s name and photo.

Keep on hand a slide that shows a screen capture of the interface, with the important tools labelled. Present the ground rules, the outcomes and agenda. Put an activitiy in the design to stimulate the use of chat (the back channel) early in the proceedings so it becomes a background routine and non-invasive. Learn more about the backgrounds of participants through an interactive activity. Use lead-in questions or a poll to engage participants and establish the importance/relevance of the meeting topic to them.

Consider including a guest speaker or even a panel of experts.

Voice and live video

Non-verbal cues may be an important channel of communication at a conventional meeting. Do try to overcompensate for its ansence by turning an online meeting into a production number; it does not need to entertain and may not even need to inform. Nevertheless audio will be ever-present and must deliver the major part of your message. It is possible to communicate very successfully using sound as the principle medium, and without eye contact or visible non-verbal behaviour, as demonstrated by radio.

It is important to obtain the best possible audio quality, as this has an important effect on how participants perceive the quality of the meeting as a whole. Make sure you have a reliable broadband connection and use a good quality headset or mic.

Research shows that cognition is improved when a complex visual is explained by audio narration rather than by text. This is because the brain can easily pay attention to one auditory and one video channel, but struggles with two visual channels (the graphic and the text).

Images and text

Slides are not essential to every online meeting; after all, as we describe later on in this article, you also have the ability to share applications, tour web sites, carry out whiteboard activities and conduct polls – all of which can act as the primary visual focus. However, slides can be extremely useful both as visual aids and as signposts, as long as they are used properly, avoiding the risk of the dreaded ‘death by PowerPoint’.

Research shows that we can absorb and recall information better from words and pictures than from words alone, which is not surprising when you consider that the majority of our sensory input is visual. Pictures are powerful and they are memorable, but it does matter what pictures you use – different types of information require different types of visuals to convey meaning most clearly.

Consider some of the uses:

  • Photos of yourself and other speakers.
  • Diagrams to represent processes, principles, structures, layouts.
  • Photos to represent actual people, events, objects.
  • Photos/illustrations to represent abstract concepts.
  • Screen grabs to show software applications.
  • Charts to represent numeric data.

Text

Audio is likely to be the primary verbal channel, so don’t confuse the participant with a second verbal channel in the form of text on the screen. The participant won’t know whether to listen or read; and because they can do the latter much faster than the former, they’ll probably tune out what you’re saying). Use text on slides sparingly, for example:

  • An agenda.
  • Titles, which signpost the current topic.
  • Anything the participant might want to make a note of, such as terms, URLs, names or quotes.
  • Labels for diagrams, photos or charts.
  • Lists – bulleted or numbered. Note that when you are presenting items in a list, it is not good practice to show those items that you have yet to cover – reveal these in subsequent slides. And don’t be tempted to use your bullets as a script – as an online presenter, if you need a script you can have this in front of you in paper format, or in a separate window.

If you really do need to present a lot of text, distribute this as a separate document, or provide a link to materials to be read before or after the session.

Be careful when re-using slides which you normally use in a live presentation. Your slides are likely to be displayed in a smaller window and may degrade in quality when they are converted to the system’s own format. The best solution is to keep them simple and bold. You should also be prepared for the possibility that your transitions and animations will not be carried over. That means any builds will have to be displayed as a sequence across a number of cloned slides.

What next?

Part seven of this ten-part series is about making your meeting interactive, using the various devices and tools that are common to most web-conferencing software. We’ll talk about how to take advantage of these so that your meetings satisfy those who take part by allowing everyone to reach the planned outcomes. We’ll post it in a couple of days time, so do please come back.

We’re hoping you will add your own ideas to these blog items too, so we can create of it something that is representative of the experience of a wide range of practitioners and helps us all to understand what works and what doesn’t.

The elements of online communication 3: images

We reach the third stop on our tour of the elements that make up all our online communications with still images. What contribution can these make? Where are they less effective? How are they best delivered online?

What images are good for

Imagine how difficult it would be to convey the following without the aid of images:

  • The new office that we will all be moving to later this year.
  • Sales territories in the Indian sub-continent.
  • Welcome to our new head of HR.
  • The process to follow when troubleshooting a machine breakdown.
  • Our fall fashion collection.
  • The process of condensation.
  • The workings of the internal combustion engine.
  • Comparative sales figures over the past five years.
  • The cypress tree.
  • The structure of the Internet backbone.

Images come in a variety of forms and these all have their particular place:

  • Photographs are capable of accurately depicting real-life people, objects, places and events.
  • Illustrations, including clip-art and cartoons, will not capture people, objects, places and events as faithfully as photos, but can depict what is impossible or impractical to photograph. In their relative simplicity, they may also communicate more clearly than photos.
  • Diagrams illustrate cause and effect relationships and the relationships between the parts of something and the whole. They include timelines, organagrams, maps and flow charts.
  • Charts provide a rapidly-accessible visual representation of numerical data, highlighting trends and proportions.
  • Screen shots faithfully capture the elements of a software interface.

When images are not so suitable

As a general rule, images struggle to convey precise meaning without verbal support from either speech or text; and it goes without saying that they have little practical function when there is no strong visual aspect to the content.

Still images will be second best to animation or video when communicating movement or representing live action.

When used for purely decorative purposes, images use up valuable bandwidth and screen space without adding anything to the communication process.

Optimising images for online delivery

When displayed online, images need to be large enough to be clear but not so large as to require excessive scrolling.

The screen is not the ideal setting for highly detailed images because of the limited resolution of most screens, typically less than 100 dots per inch. Compare this with print, where resolutions start at 300 dpi and can be very mucn higher. As a general rule, highly detailed images are better made available for download or delivered in hard copy format.

Copyright laws apply as much online as in any other medium. If you use copyrighted images in your online communications without permission, then you are taking a risk.

Accessibility guidelines dictate that, when you use images online, you provide each image with an alternative textual description. This allows those users with a visual impairment to gain some benefit from your images, because screen readers can convert your textual descriptions into synthesised speech.

Combining images with other elements

Images combine well with audio or text. With audio, you have the advantage that the eye can concentrate on the image, while the verbal content is communicated aurally; with text, on the other hand, the eye has to switch back and forth.

Images do not combine well with a second visual source such as live video. If you want the user to focus on the image, then it’s best to turn the video off, at least temporarily.

How images are represented online

Online images can be held in one of a number of compressed, bit-mapped formats. With bit-mapping, the images are stored digitally as a data structure representing a rectangular grid of pixels. Each pixel in this grid is represented by a colour or greyscale value. Bit-mapped images can be contrasted with vector graphics, which describe the image as a series of geometric functions (lines, curves, etc.). Vector graphics have the advantage of being more scalable, retaining their quality however large they are displayed. Most images other than photographs are created and edited in vector format, but must be exported as a compressed bit-map for use online. Because this removes the ability for high-quality scaling, it makes sense to export the images at the maximum size at which they will be displayed online. If you leave it to the browser to do the scaling, be prepared to lose a lot of quality.

When delivering images online, you have three choices of bit-mapped image formats:

  • JPEG (Joint Photographics Experts Group) – pronounced ‘jaypeg’ and sometimes shortened to just JPG. This format is ‘lossy’ in that the more you compress the image and thus reduce file size, the greater you will lose clarity and detail. JPEG graphics can render in full colour and are ideally suited to the display of photographs.
  • GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) is ‘lossless’ in that the compression process does not involve sacrificing quality. GIF graphics are limited to 256 colours, which is fine for computer graphics with hard edges and block colours, but not so good for photos. They can also have a transparent background, which can be useful if you want to display your images in anything other than a simple rectangular arrangement.
  • PNG (Portable Network Graphics) – pronounced ‘ping’ – is another ‘lossless’ format but is not restricted in colour rendition, making it a superior format to GIF. PNGs are ideal for computer-generated graphics such as buttons, logos, diagrams and maps, but are less suited to photographs, where the resulting file size is likely to be excessive. Be a little careful, because not all online applications – or corporate forewalls – support PNG.

Previously: text, audio
Coming next: animations

Where to get free images for your slides

Thanks to Jane Hart for drawing my attention to this collection of web sites where you can find stock photography and other images that are free of charge:

12 places to get free images for your site, TechRadar, 12 August 2009.

Mixing media: happiness or headache?

We are fortunate in that our brain is able to focus on verbal and visual inputs simultaneously. Although these inputs are likely to be linked, i.e. the verbal input often relates directly to the visual in some way, different parts of the brain are used to process these two channels. Where we are less fortunate is that the brain finds it uncomfortable to deal with more than one verbal input or more than one visual input at a time.

As a facilitator in a web conferencing environment, we have two main ways in which we can provide verbal input – using our voice or using text on slides. We also have more than one way of communicating visually, the most common being the graphics that we display on slides and (if we’re lucky) a real-time video feed of us presenting.

Happiness
Happpiness for the participant means:

  • you present using your voice, while you display a graphic;
  • you display text on the screen, keeping quiet while they read it;
  • you present using a video feed, but with no accompanying slide.


It’s headache time for the participant when:

  • you talk over a slide full of text (the participant doesn’t know whether to listen or read; because they can do the latter much faster than the former, they’ll probably tune out what you’re saying);
  • you run a video alongside a sequence of pictorial slides (not such a disaster, but chances are your video image will draw more attention than the graphics, because it’s moving).

These rules might seem common sense, but they can’t be, because they’re commonly broken. The result? Presenters communicating happily, participants with headaches. Not a formula for success.