Virtual Meetings: A Lofty Yet Impractical and Unwanted Ideal? or Exactly What We Need?

In a moment of mental relapse, I volunteered to be my chapter’s virtual meeting coordinator. I already do podcasts, which are virtual one-on-one meetings/discussions, and I’ve been wanting to make my podcasts more Web 2.0-ish. So, I thought hey, why not make the last 20 minutes of a podcast open to whoever wants to listen, allowing them to ask questions themselves? How cool, yes, this will spin my podcasts into a more interactive, web 2.0 realm. And I could easily get sponsorship from some company with a conference calling service to lube the virtual meeting wheels.

However, the more I think of virtual meetings, the more I’m having second thoughts. Here are some of my reservations:

  • Will I lose control of the meeting through endless and inane responses from users who have long-winded questions that only apply to their personal projects?
  • Will everyone start talking at once, creating a sense of chaos and total cacophony for the listener?
  • Will I have to listen to questions and answers that I myself am not interested in hearing?
  • Will the audio quality be unacceptably poor with 20 users on the line?
  • What makes this different from a recorded webinar?
  • Will I lose the intimacy of the podcaster having a conversation with a guest?

On the other hand, here’s what I stand to gain:

  • More audience involvement, which could allow me to go deeper into areas I’m not that informed about
  • Greater sense of community and excitement around the live podcast
  • Less editing — I’ll have to just play it as is happened
  • A model for virtual meetings that other groups can follow
  • An experiment into the unknown, which always yields interesting results

Another problem is figuring out a conference calling solution that doesn’t leave me with crackly and muffled audio. Here’s what I’ve been kicking around:

  • In the Podcamp SLC I attended, someone recommended I use Talkshoe, and I got excited that a free solution existed online. Then I listened in to a couple of talkshoe conversations — sounded like I was listening to people shouting at each other in a marching band in Times Square.
  • Dimdim.com also looked promising, and it allows screensharing as well, but it too has poor audio quality.
  • Skype allows group conference calls, but I’ve heard that once you add 10+ people, the audio degrades considerably. Additionally, I’ve heard that mixing landlines with Skype callers excludes people when recording the call.
  • I’ve used Free Conferencing in the past, but it too has poor audio overall. After 30 min. of conversation, the audio file was only 8 MB.
  • I could use Adobe Connect, but then I would be limited to 15 participants. This might be a reasonable number. It also allows screen-sharing and live chat. However, to record the calls and screen (through Adobe’s service), I would need to upgrade to the Pro version, which is about 20 times more expensive than the lite version at $39 a month.
  • GoToMeeting.com is a possibility, and I’ve had good experiences with them from webinars I attended. I also hear their company advertised on a lot of podcasts. But it too is not a free service, except perhaps through sponsorship.

Obtaining a high-quality audio recording is my highest priority, and not the screen-sharing, which I think is ultimately useless unless one is demo-ing a software application (long demos will bore people to death anyway). Services like Adobe Connect Pro would allow video, but how many people actually have web cams? You would be surprised by the number of people I interview who don’t have Skype or USB mics. (Lots of people do, thank goodness, still have landlines. I don’t.)

Your thoughts? Would you attend a virtual meeting, or would you prefer a podcast? If you didn’t attend the virtual meeting live, would you prefer to listen to a recorded version of the virtual meeting (instead of the podcast)?

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS, email, or another method. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

10 thoughts on “Virtual Meetings: A Lofty Yet Impractical and Unwanted Ideal? or Exactly What We Need?

  1. Shweta Shetye

    The best way to hold a meeting without anyone necessarily being there would definately be netmeeting. I work as a writer for a renowned mobile phone manufacturer, and getting hold of the marketing folks for any kind of a meeting, be it telephonic or one on one, is a nightmare.

    With advent of technological tools, the bridge between SMEs and writers can be bridged very easily. I totally recommend Netmeeting as a reliable source of communication.

    1. Tom

      Shweta, thanks for the recommendation to use netmeeting. Speaking of getting a hold of people for a meeting, I have a hard enough time scheduling a time coordinating times for one person, much less 4 or 5.

      Do you have a blog? I didn’t see your link.

  2. Scott

    Tom,

    A very interesting post. Virtual meetings can be tough. Aaron and I have done a few with clients and others, but fortunately only with six people or under. Skype worked well in those situations; there weren’t enough people involved to start overburdening the conference.

    For screen sharing, we’ve tried Yugma (http://www.yugma.com). It worked fairly well, and has some degree of integration with Skype for voice. The downside is that it’s a Java app and is heavy as far as resources go. But since Aaron and I often use different operating systems (he Windows, me Linux), it’s worked out well.

  3. Tom

    Thanks for the tip about Yugma. I guess I won’t find out if the virtual meetings will work until I actually create one.

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  5. PEGroup

    I love Talkshoe! I listen live to those that are interactive and I plan on them. I listen to podcasts that are educational after they have been filed (Backyard Astronomer). However, the ability of the Talkshoe conference call to work relies on strong leadership during the conversation. And, someone shouting just gets cut off and then listens. They can text if they want, but if you listened to one that you thought everyone was shouting at each other, then you were listening to a Talkshoe live conference call where the leadership was non-existent. I listen to “American Entrepreneur” every Saturday morning. Never heard shouting. Ron Morris knows what he is doing. So, if you know what you are doing, and can manage people who “put their hand up” to talk on Talkshoe, and you pick them and have a dialogue, Talkshoe is your best bet, and a free one with no degradation in quality with more people on. If you feel you can’t manage the on and off nature of those on the call, or feel you might not be able to nicely cut someone off, which is the leader’s right and responsibility, then probably just talking and saving it for others to listen to (without participation) might be in order. Either way, if you become successful, you really need to have a way to scale your conversations. Talkshoe’s secret sauce is its quality at large group participant levels! THink big! Charlottesville, VA

  6. Steve

    Thanks for the shoutout for Dimdim. I’m Steve from Dimdim and I wanted to let your readers know that we’ve recently upgraded the service including much more robust audio and video streaming and are in the final steps of releasing an open beta.

    Using just the Flash plug-in for screensharing and webcam/microphones allows us to work across browsers/operating systems. We support up to 4 live mics at a time, and most large meetings find it easier to either “pass the mic around” or use Dimdim for screenshare, private/public chat etc and a PSTN dial-in. Of course in some countries where reliable phone isn’t available Dimdim’s built-in VoIP is a godsend

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  8. Shweta Shetye

    Tom,

    I have just ventured in this field of blogging and i keep questioning my competencies as a blogger:)I liked your blog and my fingers just ran over the keyboard to say something useful….

    I haven’t yet created a blog and would love to hear some useful tips on how do i get started with it…

  9. C Lin

    Glance Networks http://www.glance.net is great virtual meeting service that I use quite extensively. It’s in the same vein as Adobe Connect, Webex, GotoMeeting, Yugma etc. but the BEST thing about it is that it’s so simple to use — no dizzying array of buttons to get in the way of what you want to show to your participants.

    I typically just pair Glance up w/ a free conference call service and I’m good to go!

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