Friday, May 29, 2020

Zoom zoom zoom: Some do's and don'ts of virtual lectures


Posted by Dan Bolnick, May 29 2020

(Note to reader: if you want to skip to the do's and don'ts, just skim down to the bold subheading)

Early in the spread of Sars-Cov-2, which causes COVID, a colleague pointed me to an article in Science from May 1919, looking back on the previous two years of influenza pandemic (screenshot below). It is worth reading, to highlight the parallels with our winter and spring 2020 and, I fear, our coming year(s).  It is also worth reading to highlight the profound differences. How far we have come in our understanding of the spread of the disease, and what to do about it (even if the social and political will to act on that knowledge is... weak).  But one thing keeps jumping out as me as I read and re-read the article:  how much the internet makes a difference to our daily lives and response to the pandemic. The spread of information and misinformation.  Daily updates to case counts from around the world. Rumors and conspiracies. Ordering groceries or hand sanitizer or a good book from the internet without having to break social distancing to go to a bricks-and-mortar store. And, of course, the (fragile) ability of (some) academics to continue doing (some of) our jobs as teachers and researchers. In particular, many of us continued to teach, hold lab meetings, individual meetings with mentors or mentees.  Its not been easy, to be sure, and many of us also are caught between the conflicting demands of work and home, wrangling young kids, homeschooling other kids, caring for the sick, and battling the emotional and psychological distress of the pandemic.



As our spring semesters wrap up, we look forward with a mix of relief and dread to the summer: reduced teaching demands (for some of us), limited or no field work or lab work, kids without structured time. And, the cancellation of in-person academic conferences, a core part of the traditional academic summer experience.  Many academic societies are engaging in discussions about whether, and how, to hold online conferences. These meetings serve many purposes: networking with prospective mentors, or possible future lab members. Presenting and learning the latest science. Brainstorming new collaborations. Meeting face to face with colleagues to hash out next steps of long-established collaborations. Conducting journal or society business, such as council meetings or Meet The Editor events. And building a sense of community that integrates new students.  It is hard to imagine many of these functions being effective in a virtual setting. But one of the core functions is still perfectly viable:  presenting, and learning about, great new science. Internet tools such as Zoom, WebEx, Facebook live, and others, make it simple to present live research talks, whether for conferences or for departmental seminars, or for impromptu new global seminar series such as @EcoEvoSeminars .  Talks can be interactive (though sadly one needs to control attendee access to prevent 'Zoom bombing' or equivalents where racist trolls sometimes interrupt proceedings). Talks can be live, then a recording uploaded to Youtube for viewers to watch at their leisure.

In many ways, these web presentations are a great thing. Conferences used to be limited to those who could afford to pay to travel and have lodging and registration (covered by travel grants, research grants, or personal resources).  Now, anyone can participate (though prices of conference registration vary immensely, some are free, others curiously expensive). Then there was travel time, and carbon footprint considerations that limited attendance from far-flung continents. People with disabilities may have a harder time with travel and navigating conference settings as well. With virtual meetings, anyone can present, anyone can attend, from anywhere in the world, when it suits you. You can even attend two or more conferences simultaneously that might have otherwise happened on different continents. Now, as a parent with two young-ish kids I do realize that our time is constrained. It isn't easy for many of us to find a spare few minutes to shower or do dishes right now, let alone write and present a talk, or view others' talks. So even virtual conferences have elements of inequality of access (e.g., shifting barriers from those with limited funds, to those with kids at home). But I'll wager that the net benefits to the community are actually fairly large. And, at least the talks are there to watch at your leisure, even if a year from now, in theory.

So, with these considerations in mind there are a number of academic conferences that have moved to an entirely virtual format. Reviews have been generally positive. Of course we lack many of the in-person networking benefits. But, at least students and postdocs get to present their latest and greatest work that helps them advance their careers. And, it seems, attendance is high. I'll admit I was surprised by how many people tune in to virtual conference talks, with all the other work and family tasks pulling at my own time.  But it is clear there is a hunger for this service.

Some aspects of a conference can't be duplicated online. Here, a picnic at the chateau Air BnB some of us stayed in at the ESEB 2018 meeting


So let's say your favorite scientific society decides to proceed with a virtual conference (or, you get invited to give a seminar somewhere this fall, remotely). You want that presentation to be a success, and that means more than the usual tricks of seminar preparation.  Normally when I am preparing to give a talk somewhere, I focus on the intellectual content of the slides: order of ideas is clear, I pose a good opening question that I can answer by the end of the talk. Are my visuals appealing? Not much text on the slides? Then I stand up and practice my talk a few times, at least the first 5 minutes I practice several times. And I run through all the way to make sure it is the right total length. These are all standard how-to-prepare-a-good-seminar things. There are already blog posts about seminar prep and delivery do's and don'ts (e.g., make eye contact, move around the room but not too much, modulate your voice, don't speak too fast, minimize verbal tics). But now there are new considerations also. What is different about giving a virtual conference or seminar talk? What should you do differently, uniquely for this format?

Homeschool:  think about the possibly much wider audience who might view your talks online!


To address this, I did a quick query on Twitter for feedback, and I summarize that and my own thoughts here. I will update the following with new material if you email or otherwise contact me with suggestions.

So with no further ado:

What should you do to ensure a successful virtual presentation? (above and beyond the usual rules for any good seminar).



1. Your audience should be able to hear you well.  Get  a decent external microphone, if you can. Test it out by recording yourself giving a talk, even just a few minutes, as you would do for the real thing. Does your audio fade if you turn your head? Do you stand and pace and become inadudible? Check these things in advance.  Find a place (if you can) with minimal background noise.  Teaching a class this spring I thought it would be nice to teach from my porch with a fire in the wood stove, but I soon realized the traffic noise was too much and retreated to the back of my house thereafter. Once you actually are giving your talk, speak more slowly than you normally would. I am a too-quick speaker, I know. Its a problem in the best of times. But audio gets garbled far more in virtual talks, and fast speaking will be far far harder to understand even than usual. When you actually start your talk, check that the audio is working.

2. Do you want your audience to see you? Some presenters do, some don't. My own opinion is that a speaker's facial expression, movements, do a great deal to convey excitement and attract attention. So I strongly strongly encourage it. But, some speakers wrestle with stage fright or anxiety that can be alleviated by hiding yourself. In zoom, right click and choose "hide myself". Now, if you do want to be seen, that means a few things. First, think about lighting and background. Zoom fake backgrounds are entertaining, but ultimately prove to be a distraction if they are too kinetic or colorful or busy. That said, if you have an unmade bed with laundry in the background, either clean up or use a fake background.  Next, think about lighting. Something I never thought about for a regular talk. Have a light in front of you, facing you, rather than being backlit. If your background is darker than you are, that's good. Record a bit of video of yourself and check if it is too bright, with highlights you don't like such as reflections off your glasses.  You can dim your computer screen also to reduce reflection from your glasses. When you actually start your talk, check that the video is working. Then as you talk, look at the camera, more than your screen. That's where you make 'eye contact' with your audience. One suggestion was to tape an image of a friend's face just above your camera lens to draw your attention back to the lens.

3. Slide layout: text.  Some of us opt for sparse slides with just a single image and a tiny bit of text. That's always my preference. But your viewer's audio might be poor.    So, it seems wise to put a little bit more text on than you normally might on the assumption that some viewers can't hear you well. At a minimum, each slide should have some heading that concisely conveys the core point of that slide. Unlike a real talk, viewers CAN pause a pre-recorded lecture to read fine-print (though don't expect them to).

4. Slide layout: space for your face. If you show a video of you talking, viewers will see a little square of you, inset somewhere on your talk. So, leave enough open space that this square does not block key content of your slide(s). Keep the open space in a consistent spot (e.g., always the top right corner), so that square can stay put. Figure out, if possible, for pre-recorded lectures, where that square is (viewers won't have control over that).   More generally, have larger margins than you normally might because your viewers' screen and the recording process may crop things more than you realize.

5. Slide layout: dimensions. Widescreen format is better on your viewers' screens. Your viewers will be using screens that are usually wide-screen rather than the more traditional 3*4 format.

6. Slide layout: Text size. Assume your viewer is sitting an arms length from their laptop screen watching your talk. How big will your text appear to them? This might actually be better than at some conferences. At SMBE a couple years ago in Austin Texas, the talks were in long thin rooms. At the back of the room, I held up my (small) iPhone at arms length. The screen I was watching a talk on, was smaller than my view of my phone screen. Any small text was illegible. Might be better on a virtual talk, in comparison. This means that you *can* fit more small text on a slide. This does not mean you *should*.

7. Dynamic material: Beware playing video / audio via zoom. GIFs might work better. A number of people have reported that videos embedded in their talks and especially audio fails to transmit well.

8. Talk structure:  Assume your audience is multitasking. They will miss material because their kid walks in with a homework question, or they get an important email, or get up to make coffee. This means your talk will benefit from more sign-posting (here's where we've been, here's what's next) and more regular summaries of what you've shown,  than would be the case for a regular talk.

9. Talk structure: More important than ever, animate: add information sequentially to keep their attention focused only on what you are talking about. Start with a sparse slide and layer on information bit by bit. The visual changes as you add content help keep your audience's attention


10. Delivering the talk:
Introduce yourself a bit more than you normally would. This is being recorded for posterity.

Plan in advance what you will use for a laser pointer. Your mouse can serve this purpose (there's an option in powerpoint for this). Some people report that keynote has trouble with this feature.

When you see "unstable / poor connection",  pause and wait for it to disappear, then restart the sentence

Here's a cool one I didn't know about: Use Powerpoint Pen option to draw on your slides as you talk or answer questions:  Choose Pointer Options -> Pen  to scribble.  Jason Londo added: "But use the shortcut keys so it doesn’t cause a break in the flow. Ctrl P to activate/deactivate instead of clicking through the menu. Shift E to erase what you’ve drawn. Only drawback is when the pen is active, it’s hard to find"

Have a moderator handling questions (e.g., via a slack channel). They can choose which questions to convey to you (there may be far more than at a regular talk). Advantages include their ability to merge multiple questions' themes,  avoid rambling questions ("this is more of a comment"), and most importantly avoid zoom bombing by trolls that can happen with live questions. The moderator can also convey a question to you mid-talk (if you agree in advance to do it that way), which is hard for you to do yourself as you will not be reading comments as you speak.

11.  Do you want people to tweet about your talk? Do you want to provide contact information for people to reach out to you after your talk?

12.  Think of virtual seminars as an outreach opportunity also. Who else might be watching, who normally wouldn't tune in? Your family? My kids? Donald Trump? (okay, not really)

13. Take some time to listen to and watch people who do podcasts and videos professionally. Think about how they are packaging and arranging their content. These folks are professionals who have learned a lot of tricks for catching and keeping an audience's attention.

14. You might be tempted to invoke pop culture references. Those are fun, engage your audience. But if your visuals draw from copyrighted material, Youtube or other platforms may block your presentation. So be extra-sure for virtual, recorded talks, to avoid copyrighted material especially from commercial sources and attribute attribute attribute.

I am happy to continue adding to this list. Please email me (Dan Bolnick) with suggestions or even text to add (I'll credit you).



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