Navigate back to the homepage

Online conference challenges

Transferring a conference to an online environment is not easy. I recently attended one as a visitor.
Vladimír Záhradník
June 27th, 2020 · 18 min read

I recently wrote about the challenges our speaking club faced in moving to the online environment. And today, I attended the first online training of incoming Toastmasters club officers. Organizing a speaker meeting for 15 people is one thing, but a virtual event with 120 participants who participate in various workshops in parallel brings several new challenges. And these need to be addressed. Let’s see how the organizers did it.

Organization and hosting

For the first time, the training of leaders from Slovakia and the Czech Republic was combined. However, we also had a few guests at the conference who only knew English.

Meeting language

Some participants knew only Slovak, other Czech, or only English. In my opinion, the organizers chose an unusual approach by trying to address all groups. Czechs and Slovaks understand each other thanks to their linguistic similarity. However, this is no longer the case for English-speaking guests.

Languages
Image by Leonardo Toshiro Okubo on Unsplash

In practice, part of the conference was in Slovak, while the English-speaking guests did not understand anything. At other times, the meeting was purely in English, and several Slovaks may have had trouble understanding it. There were even moments when the host tried to interpret Slovak passages into English and vice versa. This approach was inefficient and time-consuming. However, I must praise her; she has a very good level of English.

It is necessary to specify one language for the conference

The conference should not be multilingual. It will do more harm than good. When I was asked to speak, I didn’t know in which language. The others were in a similar situation. And what I said was often translated by someone else.

If we want to have guests from abroad at the conference, we could have the whole meeting in English. However, if we want to do training mainly for Slovaks and Czechs, Slovak can be the main language. In this case, English guests would only attend selected workshops in English if someone would organize them. However, the workshops are already separate, all participants have a predetermined language, and therefore, it can work.

I rate the host’s performance as good. She seemed energetic and set the tone for the whole event. However, I definitely see room for improvement. Before the first workshop was supposed to start (the delay was already over 18 minutes), we waited for a certain Richard. He was to introduce himself as the incoming Area Director. He either had technical problems or was not even at the computer at the moment. However, the host lost perhaps five minutes by repeatedly calling him.

If you call someone to speak up to the microphone and they don’t answer, move on. They got a chance and didn’t took it. Others shouldn’t have to wait.

It is this moment that I perceive as her greatest failure. It seemed very unprofessional. When I host an event, I try to stick to the agenda, but I have learned to react flexibly. In this case, I would open the workshop section and give Richard space one more time after it was over. It doesn’t matter if there are fewer participants connected. It is not my fault as a host if someone is not present. Especially if they know in advance that they will speak. If I let them speak afterward, I do them a favor.

Technical solution

The organizers chose Zoom as the platform. That is understandable, as they have the most experience with it. They also used it to organize competitions and have now applied this know-how to this training. What I was most curious about was how the workshops would take place. According to the agenda, up to three workshops were to take place simultaneously.

Breakout rooms

The organizers have chosen the lesser-known Zoom feature, called “breakout rooms.” When you join Zoom, you’ll be in the main room, where the main track, which is common to all, takes place. However, the “zoom master” can move you from there to the new virtual rooms. In the case of workshops, there were three.

These rooms have most of the main room features, including the ability to share a presentation. During the training, they were only open for a predetermined time (a countdown was running on the screen), and the administrator kept us informed about how much time we had left.

On the one hand, several workshops seemed to be cut in the middle, but we followed the schedule exactly thanks to that. Simply put, the room closes, and you move further in the program.

Naming scheme

In order for the organizers to be able to move us to the trainings we were interested in, they required us to name ourselves according to a certain scheme. This was clearly explained in the meeting agenda and during the break on the main room screen. The scheme looked something like this:

1SEC_SK_A2_B2_Vladimír_Záhradník
  • The first part, SEC, is the role I will represent as a club officer. In this case, the Secretary. However, nothing prevented me from using the abbreviation of another role. If I wanted to participate in PR training, I would use the abbreviation VPPR
  • SK is the preferred language in which I would like to undergo training. The options were: SK (Slovak), CZ (Czech), and EN (English)
  • A2 and B2 tell the organizers which workshops I want to go to. Their overview and relevant codes were included in the agenda and allowed everyone to put together a tailor-made training

In a perfect world, all participants would be named as instructed. When you have people named like that, they are also lined up in Zoom, and you can move them en masse to other rooms. However, in reality, I’ve noticed that many have either not been renamed at all or been named incorrectly.

For example, if they serve as Vice President Education and Secretary, they put VPESEC in their name. But to which workshop should you assign them in such a case? I would probably choose based on which code is first.

Never expect everyone to follow your instructions to the letter

During the meeting, the presenter emphasized the importance of naming yourself correctly. The organizers had to address all those who didn’t meet it on an ongoing basis. In general, the solution worked, but it was far from ideal.

Video loop with an agenda

I praise that during the breaks, the organizers broadcast the complete agenda and all the necessary instructions in the loop. They prepared a 10-minute video that blended between the two screens. The instructions were bilingual — in Slovak and English. However, I was a little annoyed that we saw the window frame of the VLC player the whole time.

Since I know the organizers, I assume that they used the OBS software for this purpose. It directly allows you to play the video in a loop; you don’t need any other tools. I successfully used it during my speech on Český Krumlov. However, I am just nit-picking here. The organizers should definitely be commended for this.

Recording of the conference

Here we come to probably the biggest shortcoming from a technical point of view. The event was rarely recorded. We’ve recorded only three workshops from the whole day. The main room allows uploading to the cloud, but it has not been used. Breakout rooms, on the other hand, cannot be recorded centrally. Only participants in the room can record. Of course, as long as they are granted sufficient privileges in Zoom.

Why were only three workshops recorded?

  • The organizers had the opportunity to record only the main room (which they didn’t do)
  • The organizers didn’t address in advance any specific people who would record a video from each virtual room. In practice, one of the organizers asked at the end of the conference if someone had recorded the workshop he was at. If so, he requested that the recordings be sent by e-mail
  • According to the organizers, if participants used local recording in Zoom, it would be very burdensome for the system. Therefore, only people who knew how to use alternative software such as OBS would record. In my opinion, the organizers should address specific people, tell them what software to use, and give simple instructions on how to set up recording

How I would prepare the meeting

In the section above, I described two main issues that needed to be addressed:

  • Moving participants into separate rooms
  • Recording of the whole meeting

The naming scheme required by the organizers is the result of a suboptimal solution. And so are the breakout rooms. I don’t think they were designed for the purpose we used them for. However, the fact that Zoom fails to make multiple recordings at once tells me that there is still a great opportunity in the market for a better product. I would expect that if the stream reaches the Zoom client, the local recording does not affect the central Zoom service in any way. I only obtained this information indirectly, so take it with a grain of salt.

When I attended Startup Safari Budapest online some time ago, the conference required us to register on a platform to plan our individual schedule. Subsequently, we could click on the event in our calendar, and there was a link to WebEx. Yes, the organizers of Startup Safari used two tools, but their solution is much more functional. Every single WebEx workshop was recorded, and people were naturally separated into groups. There was no need to invent any schemes to rename them.

Personally, I’d deal with it similarly. I’ve recently found the names of several startups that solve a similar problem. In times of the corona crisis, people still want to go to conferences, even if only virtually. The ideal product would combine both of these things — it would provide calendar scheduling for each registered participant and video call, for example, through its service built on WebRTC. Each room would have a separate link, and the upload could start automatically.

With such a solution, many problems go away because you eliminate the human factor, and, as we know, it is unpredictable.

How to proceed?

Forget for a moment that you are a Zoom expert. If you approach it this way, you won’t even consider using something else. I would survey existing solutions on the market and check out their pricing plans and options. The easiest way is to look at how people before you organized the conferences. On the conference website, you will often find a link to the website of the service used by the organizers. I’d start this preparation at least a month before my conference because the solutions also need to be tested.

Let’s say, however, that you can’t find anything better than Zoom. We know that there is a maximum of three parallel workshops. I’d use three separate Zoom accounts and create a separate main room for each room. I’d share the links by e-mail to the participants, and I’d also include them in the agenda description. Participants would be able to move freely between rooms, the central recording would work, and the organizers would no longer have to move participants between rooms. All they’d have to do is open the room in time and turn on the recording.

You will encounter a certain limitation only in the part where the training of managers took place. Since there are up to seven roles, you would need seven Zoom accounts. I think only there it made sense to consider setting up breakout rooms.

Financially, this solution is very affordable. I know that some clubs already pay for separate Zoom accounts, and we also pay for several at the level of our division (administrative unit, which includes several clubs). So the solution would not cost anything extra.

However, if I decided to use the breakout room, I would strategically address the selected participants, ask them for help, and give them precise instructions on recording the video and where to send it. For example, I had the opportunity to record a video, but no one contacted me, and I didn’t know if something was being recorded or not. I’ve no doubt that many would like to see some of the talks. Unfortunately, this will not be possible.

Comments from organizers

I managed to contact one of the organizers, who provided the technical side of the event. The organizers realized that Zoom was not ideal for organizing a conference, but they couldn’t find a better solution. They approached several companies that offer more apt tools, but the financial commitments were too high. They also didn’t receive a discount as a non-profit organization. In this case, I understand their decision to use Zoom.

The organizers also realized that breakout rooms were not entirely suitable for the purposes for which they were used. Also, moving dozens of participants in three minutes put a lot of stress on the Zoom master. He told me that in Zoom, he missed the option for people to move freely between rooms without his assistance. I think that’s a good suggestion.

The Zoom master also told me that the name filtering didn’t work well. For example, he imagined that when he’d enter SEC_ into the participants’ filter, he’d immediately receive a filtered list of all the Secretaries and move them into the room. In practice, it didn’t work out so easily.

The last thing we talked about was the decision to centrally mute the microphones for all participants, except for the current participants in the panel discussion. This decision has proved unfortunate. People couldn’t ask questions flexibly because they couldn’t turn on the microphone themselves. They always had to “raise their hand” first, and then the Zoom master had to enable the microphone individually. He told me that several participants were cursing about it. During the meeting, we also experienced several dead moments while waiting for the microphone to turn on. It will be good to avoid such a solution in the future.

Workshops and trainings

In the next part, we will look at the individual workshops I attended. I’ll try to summarize the essentials so that you gain valuable knowledge, even if you were not there. I will not talk about every workshop, only some of them. Those where I see room for improvement or, conversely, I want to praise the trainer.

Toastmasters Slovakia & CZ Branding

This lecture was the longest at the conference, and I would characterize the whole speech with the words: “Missed opportunity.” The very title of the lecture completely confused me, and I know it wasn’t just me.

Social networks
Image by Shahid Abdullah on Pixabay

One of the officers of the Levice club is preparing a unifying PR strategy and wants to start building awareness of Toastmasters in Slovakia as a whole. Today, when you type “public speaking” into a search engine, you will find everything, except our clubs. And you know what they say, “If you’re not on the first page of Google, it’s like you don’t exist.”

Missed opportunity.

The lecture had no clear concept and seemed chaotic. Let’s say that the speaker has no experience with speaking, but even then, I would expect her to provide us at least with valuable content. In that case, I would overlook the mistakes in the presentation.

Here are my main observations (for some, I thank a few other participants):

  • Information was too general, not at all related to building the Toastmasters brand in Slovakia
  • Either the trainer didn’t have enough know-how or didn’t want to share it with us
  • Misleading topic name. I would probably call it simply “Branding”
  • No specific advice on how to effectively improve PR of clubs
  • The problems were named, but the solutions were not. Example: When people type “public speaking” into a search engine, they won’t find you. The solution? Hire an SEO expert. Thanks for the advice; I already knew that
  • She chaotically mentioned several social networks, even completely irrelevant to us. Pinterest isn’t used by our target audience at all. Conversely, LinkedIn was mentioned only in connection with the fact that it is good to have a profile there. It is in LinkedIn that I see a huge potential for expanding the membership base
  • She didn’t mention analytics at all. If I followed her advice, I’d make random erratic posts and see what happens. It’s the ability to analyze data that is one of the most important in building PR
  • She talked in depth about things we could read from slides. By the way, the fact that there is a lot of information on the slide is also bad. But I will talk about the correct presentation some other time
  • The presentation contained errors. The word “Algorythm” could not be overlooked. In copywriting training, I already learned how important it is to have proper grammar. Someone involved in marketing should know this. And if they don’t check what they write after themselves, it seems amateurish and sloppy
  • At the end, the presenter asked the marketer to close the presentation quickly because her time was up. She had the most time and still couldn’t talk about the essentials

I have written many more of these shortcomings. I think everything I have mentioned here could be summed up in one sentence.

Know your audience.

That is the exact name of one of the projects that some of us at Toastmasters have completed. The goal is to find out as much information as possible about your audience — their age, experience, what PR practices they would need to apply in their clubs, and so on.

Know your audience
Image by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

When had my talk on the Namakaný deň (Maker’s Day) conference for the first time last year, I communicated regularly with the organizers. I knew that most of the audience would be high-school students with a technical focus, and I adapted my talk accordingly. I didn’t want to overwhelm them with terms they don’t know yet, and I explained some to them just to be sure. This speaker did none of that.

Coincidentally, my last two projects at Toastmasters, also concerned marketing. In one, I talked about creating a strategy on social networks. In the other, I explained on a specific example how I did a promo for an event. Both speeches had a total of maybe 14 minutes, and I dare say that they contained much more essential information than she had in the whole hour. Mainly, it was the experience gained from PR done directly in our club.

I gained a lot more experience, and if I lectured at the meeting, the whole lecture would be at a much higher level and stick to the topic: How to build the Toastmasters brand.

I don’t know why the marketer got persuaded to give her talk. Maybe she considered it as a cheap promotion. She gave off a feeling of incompetence, and I got the impression that everyone has a PR agency nowadays. Personally, I wouldn’t hire her services.

The Secretary Training

I found myself at this training because I will work as a Secretary in our club in the upcoming term. I will have this role for the third time. I have been performing it for a year and a half (among other club duties). I quickly realized where I was. The trainer had been performing her role only since January, and many other participants had not performed the role at all. Among about fourteen people, interestingly, I was the one with the most experience. If I were to characterize this training in one word, it would be the word “inefficiency.”

Inefficiency

The biggest added value of these trainings is that we can exchange experiences from different clubs. However, it didn’t happen this time. We lost the first 15-20 minutes of training by introducing ourselves. Everyone said something about themselves, what they do, and so on. And to make matters worse, due to about two English-speaking participants, we also translated everything into English. E.g., I introduced myself in Slovak in a minute, and we lost another minute translating into English. Do you remember the naming scheme in the technical part? I’d expect that only Slovaks or Czechs would be at the Slovak training. Interpreting between the two languages ​​took away valuable time.

Chaos

When the trainer asked us to speak, we were unsure whether we should speak Slovak or English. In the beginning, she should have set clear rules. I think that organizing a conference in Slovak and English was detrimental, but once the organizers decided, it should’ve had clear rules. Especially in workshops like this.

When we finally got to present the Secretary’s role, the trainer only summarized what you could find on the Toastmasters official website. I understand; she executes the role briefly. But in that case, the question is, why didn’t the organizers let someone with more experience lead the training. The trainer herself asked me to add information as the most experienced. I have a lot of practical experience with this role, so of course, I did. I even immediately got the idea to use the online environment. I shared my screen and did a mini webinar.

A few days ago, I had my first webinar, which was why I was very flexible. I prepared everything in about a minute, and I already showed the others their task.

It’s better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.

I think I have significantly raised the level of the entire workshop. But I was surprised that the Secretaries were trained separately. For years, we have been training at the same time as Presidents. The Secretaries are their right-hand man. If the President or any team member is temporarily unable to perform their role, the Secretary must fill in his role. It is this flexibility that I like about that role, and over the past year, I have used it often — I’ve represented the President, done a PR club, and so on. That role can give a person a lot if they do it right. However, if I didn’t know anything about the roles, I would feel like I was an ordinary Secretary.

Workshop for teamwork

I rate John Horváth’s workshop as the best of the whole day. Imagine that you find yourself on a deserted island, and you have the opportunity to take with you ten items out of fifteen. They were different, such as a mirror or a 20-liter water canister. The aim was to rank the items from those we think are most important for survival to the least needed — first each for himself and then in the team.

Deserted island
Image by Pete Linforth on Pixabay

In this workshop, we learned the power of good argumentation. We had to convince others of our choice. The fact that the list looked significantly different after the group conversation tells me how powerful collective brainstorming is.

Despite the qualities of the workshop, we did not avoid technical limitations here either. You are often divided into smaller groups in workshops, where you solve various tasks. But if we’re already in a breakout room, how can we talk to each other in small independent groups? It would be nice to create more rooms, but this was not possible. We were four leaders from the Toastmasters Košice club at the training, and we operatively agreed that we would call each other via a parallel audio call on Facebook.

Others probably didn’t have such an opportunity. Most communicated mostly through private chat in Zoom, but text communication is inefficient. Especially if you want to argue. At the same time, Zoom doesn’t allow you to create a private chat between more than two people. That limits the size of most groups to only two members. In my opinion, the experience of the workshop was significantly impoverished. Firstly, textual communication is ineffective for this purpose. Secondly, it is in a larger group of people that the power of good argumentation is shown. You can convince one much easier than three.

However, Zoom’s technical limitations are not the trainer’s fault, and I praise his preparation. It was a pleasant 50 minutes; time passed quickly.

Workshop on how to motivate members to take the lead

I rate this workshop as the second-best among those I attended. The trainer gave very specific tips on motivating members in the largest Slovak club to go into leadership roles. The basis of his methodology is to continuously classify members into several categories, the most important of which is whether the member is active or passive. As he explained this, I thought: “In the largest club, where there are dozens of members, this system works very well. But what if the club has few members and most are passive?”

It didn’t take long for someone to ask this question for me. Whether we are a small club or starting a brand new one, we have very few people to choose from. First, we need to start the club with those we have available.

The key is getting to know your members

I can only agree. As Vice President Education, I know my members, and I knew half a year ago that we had a problem. I knew that no one but us, who were already in charge, would be interested in joining it.

I started looking for my replacement six months in advance, and I knew that if I succeeded, it would be someone who is not in the club yet. As soon as two new members joined the club at the end of January, I noticed how they got involved in the activities. When I decided that there might be suitable candidates, I cautiously mentioned that there’s an opportunity to lead our club and learn leadership skills.

Before long, I did an online training for them, where I explained every single role in the club management. Not only was I looking for a successor, but also others. I wanted to provide a complete picture. Imagine that my role would not interest them, and that would be the end of it. By explaining the other roles, one of our members found herself in PR, which we had vacant.

The second important finding is that the President chooses their team. It is especially true when the club starts, but the President should still decide who should be on their team. If, for example, I refused to look for my successor, I would not be penalized. But the President must solve this problem. Who else should do it?

After the training, an open debate started, which was even more fruitful. We learned valuable lessons from the failures of the Žilina club, which is now in trouble. Few members go to meetings, and none of them wants to take the leadership role in their club.

It was mentioned again how important it is to have the vision and mission of the club. I am preparing a separate post on why this is important. If the club has a long-term vision, it continues to fulfill it despite management changes and doesn’t stagnate in one place. It is fundamental to determine what kind of members the club wants. Is it young mothers for whom speaking is a distraction from their duties? Or people who want to grow personally, challenge themselves, and escape their comfort zone every day? The managers can ask themselves more such questions, and the result is a basic vision of where they want the club to go in the long run. It should be concise enough to fit on one page.

If you already have such a vision, you can show it to potential members: “Look, this is us; we want to get here. If you join, you have the opportunity to help us with that.” Such a specific vision can be the deciding factor that determines whether or not someone enters the club.

I have only one comment on this workshop regarding shortcomings. The presentation contained too many typos. However, it didn’t affect the overall quality of the workshop.

Conclusion

Overall, I rate the conference as very successful, despite technical problems and certain organizational decisions. The things I mentioned should serve as a reflection for the future to make that upcoming conference even better.

We ended the whole meeting with questions and answers, and I also asked a lot of questions. We’ve opened several topics that we’ll have to think about as Slovak clubs. In my opinion, the main goal is to deepen the cooperation between us even more and come up with efficient ways of doing so.

Now the hard part is ahead of us. In a few days, we will take over the function and try to improve our clubs.

More articles from Vladimír Záhradník

How I promoted a Toastmasters event

If you want effective PR, you need a strategy.

June 17th, 2020 · 12 min read

My blogging challenge

Eight posts in a month. It's time to try a new approach.

June 14th, 2020 · 7 min read
© 2018–2020 Vladimír Záhradník
Link to $https://github.com/vzahradnikLink to $https://medium.com/@vladimir.zahradnikLink to $https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCogZ6qxqKa_WIsw7NnU2IaALink to $https://twitter.com/VladoZahradnikLink to $https://www.linkedin.com/in/vladimirzahradnikLink to $https://www.facebook.com/vzahradnikLink to $https://www.instagram.com/vladimir.zahradnik