With the advent of the COVID-19 world, instructors and managers who are new to online meetings are finding it challenging to digitize not only lesson plans and agendas, but also teaching style and communication. What follows is a primer based on my five years of experience delivering live online courses, making mistakes, and correcting them with help from students and colleagues.
This isn’t about creating a new universal online meeting style—GLOBIS is a school of management, focusing on delivering MBAs to adults with some amount of experience. We focus on the case-based discussion pioneered by Harvard Business School. That said, much of what I apply here pedagogically comes from Teach Like a Champion, which focuses on grades 1–12.
I also have no intention to tutor anyone in how to use Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, or other such platforms. There is enough of that already out there.
What I offer here are the practical basics to facilitate online learning, which translate to online meetings, as well. These will help you ensure the best possible head start as you dive into what is—perhaps for you and your students or colleagues—a new world of communication.
Like Hemingway’s old deaf man, start with a clean, well-lit (and quiet) place. Sit in front of the camera, rather than standing at a whiteboard. Why? Because your students or colleagues need to see your face—specifically, your eyes and mouth—clearly. Standing will put you too far away from the camera.
Lighting should be front and center. No deep shadows, this isn’t a noir mystery. Backlighting will result in a silhouette—as if you’re in a witness protection program. But you also don’t need operating room illumination. Arrange enough light for the camera to catch your facial expressions in detail. Remember, you will have little else besides these and your voice for communication online.
Your camera should be a webcam for higher resolution and better positioning. If you are using a laptop, then the camera will be below your chin, shooting upward—the least flattering of angles. If you can’t get a webcam, one solution is an external keyboard so that you can raise your laptop above your eye level. Not too high, though—you should be looking up gently enough to flatter your cheekbones.
Audio should catch your voice completely. Though the tinny, cheaper microphones are becoming rare, make sure your mic catches your lower range. This adds warmth for easier listening. If you are going to be typing into the control laptop, take care that the sound doesn’t come into the mic.
And if you’re a Bluetooth fan, bear in mind that your audio may not work well—it’s better to plug into a laptop for quality sound so you don’t miss what other people are saying, and so they can hear you.
Have at least two screens and one camera. One screen should be your control laptop, where your presentation is. This is also where you’ll control what others see if you’re sharing your screen. The other screen is for participants’ faces, so if you’ve got a large class or meeting, the bigger the screen, the better. A large monitor enables you to see as many faces as possible, which will have the dual effect of gauging individual reaction and making you feel less isolated.
If you’re working with a webcam, attach it to the top of the large screen for the illusion of direct eye contact. It’s OK to look briefly at your slides or faces that are not directly in your sightline, but make sure that you always come back to the camera. Focus there while you’re speaking. The participants’ feeling that you are looking at them as you speak and directly addressing them is essential for their engagement and your effectiveness. If you have these, you can pretty much get through anything else.
That means set up early and get online early. This should be a basic rule for any class or meeting, but it is particularly crucial to online classes. Nothing shoots your presentation dead in its tracks like fiddling with tech at the start. Of course, glitches will happen—sometimes technology is just not our friend—but that’s all the more reason to control the things that you can and let luck run with the rest.
Remember, too, that some people will also connect early. Just like an in-person class, you can use this time to get to know them and do a soft introduction of the day’s topic. Then, when the class officially starts, you can hit the ground running with a few members primed and ready to participate.
If your students or team members know you’ll be there waiting for them, it’ll encourage them and others to be punctual.
Last but not least, atmosphere.
Lighting, eye contact, and friendly chitchat aside, nothing is going to guarantee success as much as your own attitude toward the meeting and the technology. If you are happy to be in the session, your students or colleagues will know and reflect the same attitude. If you are grumbling about the tech, that will be reflected, too.
So, promise yourself: no matter what happens, you are going to be happy and positive and have a great session.