When Good Web Conferences Go Bad – 10 Lessons Learned for Hosts (and a few for Attendees)

I was really looking forward to a webinar I recently attended; however, because of technical issues, it was a rather painful session to have attended.  I will write about the content soon, but I feel I should address a few lessons learned yesterday about web conferences. It’s good timing; I’ll be hosting two sessions soon. This session was a startling reminder of how important hosting is. I feel bad for

What crashed the web conference?

Lots of interactivity, lots of people, and lots of confusion were all factors that wreaked havoc on the web conference.

the presenter and the group; it’s atypical of their work.  I will also just throw my opinion out there – WebEx, BlackBoard, et al, please build in a second chat that is labeled as a technical chat tool (or an “I can’t hear” button). It would be super helpful!

There was a significant lag, suggesting there wasn’t enough bandwidth for the event. At first it was fine. It took nearly 15 minutes to get to the presentation, due to advertising other web conferences. For about 10 minutes into the presentation, things were fine. Then attendees were asked to use the writing tools to mark true or false on slides with a written scenario by using the text tool to write our initials on the proper side of the slide. The annotation tools didn’t work at first, because I don’t think they were turned on. Once the Whiteboard options were enabled, getting the text tool to write my initials took a little trial-and-error. A lot of people drew all over the slides. Some used chat instead.

Then, the interactivity caused a severe lag in the slides, and VoIP (voice over IP) failed, so for a little bit, I had no sound.  I would see the slides go blank, and then suddenly a slide would appear with a bunch of drawing/writing gibberish all over it (annotation/drawing tools in Blackboard).

The chat became hard to use when problems occurred.

Some attendees helped, some tried rejoining, some shared their troubles, some asked questions about the presentation. Chat became hard to follow.

We had just begun discussing interactivity, so I actually waited for about two minutes, thinking that the mishap was part of his presentation! When no magic happened, I realized something was wrong. I tried to use chat, but it was chaotic. I saw dozens and dozens of chats about audio, mixed in with hundreds of answers to the true/false questions from the presentation. It took me about 5 minutes to get the number, dial in, plug in the session ID and get my phone set up.  When I got dialed back in, the presenter hadn’t skipped a beat, but his slides had. They wouldn’t load, even after the whiteboard tools were shut off. I provided the hyperlink to the presentation via chat, because people were becoming irate about not seeing the lesson.  I had to take a couple minutes to jot down web conference notes – meaning I was not listening to the presenter. 

Host Lessons

  1. Absolute Rule #1:  Prepare for contingencies. If a host has no Plan B for each thing they do (even for showing the presentation!), it will be a long, painful hour when bad things happen.
    1. Offer the presentation before the session starts, and remind attendees to print it out prior to the session. Have the link available in case something happens.
    2. If the audio fails, have a slide available with the session information and instructions to get dialed in.
    3. If you plan interactivity, plan on having a backup tool.  Try not to re-purpose tools (see #4 below).
  2. Be on time. This web conference started late due to technical issues, and then the first 12 minutes were spent plugging other web conferences. After all that, the presentation failed, and attendees became frustrated.
  3. When using web conference interactivity tools, you must:
    1. use the right tool for the job. To answer a true or false question, we were asked to write our initials on the screen. It may have been easier to use the built-in yes/no feature. Plan this with your presenter.
    2. explain the tools to the presenter
    3. explain the tools you expect the audience to use
    4. remember to turn on the tools needed for a web conference
    5. remember to shut off tools when not in use
  4. Do not use chat for multiple purposes! In this session, chat was used for technical issues, answering true/false questions from the screen, and to write in questions to the presenter. It was hard to find anything in chat.
  5. Mass exodus occurs fast. After 10 minutes into the problems, the room went from 729 attendees down to 545.
  6. Bandwidth is important, especially if more than 500 people show up. I hate to say it, but using VoIP at the host level becomes another layer of risk when talking  bandwidth and IT stuff. Consider simply dialing in (as a host), while leaving VoIP an option for attendees.
  7. Communicate to the audience when something goes wrong and how they can correct problems on their end. VoIP failed, and there were hundreds of people using it. It was hard to remember how to dial in. Chat was going crazy, so anything posted there instantly scrolled off the screen. Taking a moment to write the dial-in options on the screen would have helped.
  8. Mob mentality happens fast. When chat is left open to the audience and something goes wrong, expect angry chats. Then expect appalled chats, followed by defensive chats. In this situation, angry, appalled, defensive (and some perfectly okay) folks also had drawing tools available for a good portion of the slideshow, so they drew on each slide until the tools were shut off.
  9. Be sure to have the website where folks can print the presentation ready to copy/paste into chat or type on the screen. If your presentation fails in a web session, this will get your attendees back on track.
  10. Be sure to communicate the slide number being presented. It became pretty important when I dialed-in and switched to a paper printout.

Attendee Lessons Learned

  1. Print the presentation handout before the session, if it’s available. I remembered to do this, and it helped tremendously. It’s good for taking notes and for visual issues during a session.
  2. Join the meeting a couple-few minutes early, so that you can work out any issues when joining.
  3. Jot down the session dial-in info, in case you need to switch to the phone.
  4. Using a paper presentation and dial-in isn’t so bad. I wound up sitting outside for part of the time.  It was a gorgeous day!
  5. If things go wrong, try to be helpful. Try to keep your comments professional.
  6. If you have a link to a page or resource, provide it in chat for others to grab. I was surprised at how much other attendees added.
  7. If drawing tools are available, resist the temptation to write/draw on every slide.

Through the chaos, the presenter did a very good job working through the problems.  I think this experience will help me prepare for my next hosting duties.


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