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Reaching United Visual
for running a successful videoconference
suggestions that will help your next teleconference flow smoothly
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.