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Videoconferencing

Tips for running a successful videoconference

- Simple suggestions that will help your next teleconference flow smoothly

The meeting's running late. You check your watch...again, and silently wish the person speaking would get back to the subject at hand. Another long, drawn out meeting that accomplished little and could have taken half the time. It's happened to all of us.

Yet if you've been involved in videoconferencing, you know that running overtime often isn't an option. If you've booked an hour of an expensive conferencing suite, an hour is what you have. Like many other features of the technology, that time limit may be a help or a hindrance to your next meeting.

What are the pitfalls of a typical videoconference, and what can conference leaders do to avoid them? To find out, I talked to two local users of the technology. Bill Soltys, Chief of Medical Administrative Services for Hines VA Hospital in Chicago, has been leading videoconferences with up to seven other hospitals for about a year. Paul Knutson, now United Visual's Systems Division Manager and formerly a technical support manager at Amoco and Andersen Consulting, has been involved with the technology since the early 80's. Soltys and Knutson helped me formulate some simple guidelines that should make your next videoconference flow smoothly.

  • PictureTel video conferencing unitPlan ahead. While the availability of the videoconferencing system varies with the organization, most conference planners are aware that the line charges are expensive and thereís a need to stay focused. To do so, plan your meeting step-by-step and stick to the agenda. Keeping to the business at hand will not only save money but get more done. Be sure to fax the agenda and all handouts to all remote locations before the conference starts. Then everybody's prepared.

  • Know who's in charge. Whoever runs the conference needs to keep participants on track. As in any meeting, it helps to limit those who wonít stop talking. But a videoconference offers the added challenge of keeping silent participants from disappearing. Typically, in a multi-point conference a site will not come up on the monitors unless someone speaks. If you allow, say, the VP of Finance to stay silent, you may find the group forgets sheís there. That can be counterproductive or even embarrassing.

  • Know your equipment. "Most people," says Knutson, "are excited about the prospect of being in a videoconference. I mean there's television, there's a camera, there's lights, all kinds of stuff. Yet itís easy to have problems if the people are impressed with the technology but don't know anything about it." Itís a good idea to keep things simple. "You can't throw people into a room with a touchpad that looks like the flight deck of the space shuttle, because they wonít know what's going on. If your meeting starts at 9 o'clock, the guy shows up at 9 o'clock. If you don't understand the remote control, itís terrible."

  • Use the mute button on your remote control. Its powers can't be overstated, says Bill Soltys. His first videoconference was "a little bit of fact finding for both sides," and both groups wanted to talk among themselves without being overheard. "It's important that when you're not speaking you push the mute button, and when you want to speak you un-mute. That way you can have your little side conversations." In most multi-point conferences, the switch that controls who is on the monitors is audio activated. So it's important to keep the mute on when it's not your turn to speak. If you don't, you may make an offhand comment and look up to find everyone looking at you. Don't get caught in the act.

  • Set up your cameras in advance. Setting up camera presets can make your conference seem much more professional. What's a preset? Usually, youíll want to start your conference with your main camera on a wide shot, to include all participants. But if you know someone at the table is going to make a presentation, you can zoom the camera in before the meeting and program the shot into your keypad. Then when the time comes, you just touch a button to bring up the shot. Set up a few more shots in advance and your finished product will look slick and professional.

    If you plan to be moving around the room a lot, or are setting up a distance learning classroom, you might want to consider investing in a robotic camera. Such cameras come with a little homing device you put on the person speaking, which allows it to follow him as he moves around. If you don't have a robotic camera, you might want to to put tape on the floor to mark off the perimeters of your main camera shot. That will help you avoid walking out of the shot without knowing it.

  • Pre-test your graphics. Just about every videoconference includes a document camera. Some systems can transmit graphics from a PC. Paul Knutson suggests beginning the meeting with the document camera or PC showing the meeting agenda. "That way, as the meeting leader is making the introductions, everyone can see whatís coming up." Whatever the graphics you plan to show, be sure to test them before the conference. (Most systems have a test mode that makes this easy.) You can spend a lot of hours putting together a beautiful presentation, only to find that too much resolution is lost in transmission and nobody at the other end can make sense of it. Don't wait until the last minute. Give yourself enough time to fix any problems you may find before the conference begins.

  • Videotape can be tricky. If you plan to show a lot of videotape in your conferences, be sure to buy a system that can handle it and connect at a high enough bandwidth. In any videoconference, the video and audio signals must be compressed to move through Video conferencing system installed by United Visual telephone lines in real time. One result is a tendency to blur motion. With a smaller capacity line, more compression and decompression is needed, and thereís a greater tendency to blur moving images.

    As a rule of thumb, to transmit videotape youíll want to connect with at least three ISDN lines (for 384 kilobytes per second transmission) and use a system capable of showing 30 frames per second. With a single-ISDN, 15 fps system (transmitting at 128K), youíll find most videos too blurred to be useful. While a 384-capable system costs more, as does the higher speed connection, trying to play a video at too slow a rate will be a total waste of money and time.

  • Little things count. If you're having a multi-point conference or run videoconferences frequently, conference locations can all begin to look the same. Putting up signs or desktop "tents" that identify the city, and asking all participants to wear name tags, can easily solve that problem. Don't eat. It's not pretty. Avoid excess noise. Rustling papers, tapping pens, creaking chairs, can be very distracting, especially if you use a table microphone. Consider yourself "on camera" at all times in a videoconference and dress accordingly. Bill Soltys feels there's no need to dress upóbusiness casual is best. But realize that videoconferencing is not quite the same as being face to face. Visual cues, like dress, are a bit more important than they would be otherwise.

  • Do a dry run. When you think you're all ready, put the equipment into the test mode and do as complete a dry run as you can. Play with your remote. Make sure your preset camera shots are working, that your graphics transmit clearly, that everything is plugged in. Finding any last minute glitches will give you an added confidence that the end product will be a success. Soltys has a word of advice for first time video conference users. "Be relaxed. Center yourself in an area that the camera can capture everybody participating in the conference." Then go for it.

  • Don't overdo it. While videoconferencing is a great tool for saving travel costs, it should not eliminate travel completely. Face to face contact can be very valuable. "But after the initial handshake has been done," Knutson says, "and the project is going along, that's when videoconferencing really comes into its own, and starts to offer serious cost savings for the user." A two hour videoconference with Singapore may be expensive, but it sure beats a 22 hour plane ride. It's worth the effort to do it right.

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