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Virtually Normal - how we're getting used to online

Here we look at what tips and help there is for moving meetings online

I think it's fair to say that in the last year we have all had a rather hasty crash course in video conferencing and online meetings. There have been the classic seance like moments of 'Is any body out there?' or the silent movie version of 'You're on mute'. All very amusing but there's a serious point. We have had to adapt. Not only in research but in primary and community and of course social care.

The two most widely used platforms appear to have been Zoom and MSTeams. Both platforms have adapted and modified/improved to meet the growth in demand. Google has for long time had Hang-outs and various spin offs and of us that use them might find FaceTime or WhatsApp work for us - mostly in a personal way to talks with friends or colleagues.

With this learning curve our real selves have grown more comfortable with our virtual presence - and we have all become more accepting of people as humans with lives - where kids, pets and delivery drivers can interrupt.

Our ARC Wessex colleagues have come up with this to sum-up some of the useful tips and things we have learned.

More on that in a bit, but if you want to see how things go wrong click on the BBC report below.

"I'm not a cat" Texas lawyer Rod Ponton was left flummoxed when he discovered his face was appearing as a cat during a court session on Zoom. BBC News report

From our Patient and Public Involvement team on using Zoom

Dr Caroline Barker and Katherine Baker
General Tips
  • Set up your device for the video call in a quiet space.
  •  Make sure your device is charged or have your charger ready
  • To reduce feedback noise on the call, please mute you microphone when not talking. Don’t forget to unmute when you want to speak!
  • If you want to speak, use the raise hand button to call attention to the facilitator. Alternately, you can raise your hand on camera and wait to be acknowledged.
  • If you do not want to speak using the microphone, use the chat function to type your comments or questions.
Tips for Speakers/Presenters
  • Show your face. Not being able to see the speaker’s face instantly puts a barrier up between them and the audience. If you are giving your presentation from a poorly lit room, you will need to take steps to compensate, such as sitting facing a window or placing a lamp behind your computer or laptop screen. 
  • Speak clearly and at an even pace. Particularly important, given that poor sound quality is an occupational hazard of presenting online. Test your microphone in advance to establish what distance is optimum for being understood.
  • Give yourself a time cushion according to what is being said and by who. An audience member who just has to relay their personal experiences might take longer. A concept can take longer to explain than you expect. You can always return to a subject later on, or in continuing discussions beyond the meeting - just don’t run out of time!
  • Slides at a single glance - keep things simple. Text and pictures should be straightforward and enhance your presentation - do not use stock photos just to use up space! That said, easy to read charts, graphs and illustrations, when correctly sized, can be really helpful when discussing the more complex areas of your research.
  • Easy on the eye. Avoid colours that clash or directly contrast (even a slight adjustment from black on white to black on a plain light grey background will help your audience to access the presentation). 
  • More slides means more practice. Fewer slides requires more confidence.  A 12-slide presentation will be harder to pace than 6 slides, but will provide you with more visual prompts to guide your presentation. This can be a balancing act, and might be worth experimenting to find the format that you are most comfortable with. Beware, very technical graphs can take a long time to explain.

Microsoft Teams - Tips on setting up and organising

Dr Kinda Ibrahim - Associate Lead for the ARC Wessex Academic Career Development and founder of the Qualitative Research Network

"Don’t plan practical activities if you are unable to use breakout rooms as it wont work if you have a large number of audience. Sometimes it is difficult for open invitation meetings to plan breakout rooms because you don’t know who and how many people attending so it is hard to plan it. If that’s the case then avoid practical sessions. If you want to do a practical activity then make sure the meeting and invitation is not open to everyone and people have to registered with limited places so you can have an idea prior to the meeting how many people are attending."

Planning and organising MS Teams online meetings

Louise O'Connor - ARC Wessex Central team
  • Make sure more than one person has a copy of all presentations just in case speaker has problems
  • Have a practice doing screen sharing so everyone knows what to do on the day
  • Do a comms check 
  • If there is voting involved then have a practice with all those who aren’t that confident in using tech
  • If it’s a long event have regular 5 min breaks just to refocus on course content
  • Encourage break out rooms for socialising/mixed ideas etc
  • Remember that just as much planning goes into online events than they do face to face 
  • Try not to give too many dates for a doodle poll as the results will take ages to plan