Otto Wijnen/AVX specialises in technical support for online meetings and events. He combines many years of experience as a comedy speaker and public-speaking coach with a solid technical background.
He provides the technology and the expertise needed to make online events even more successful. At Masters in Moderation, we are a regular client of his and asked him to explain the advantages of hiring a Session Operator.
"Online moderators often have a home studio. This works just fine for smaller, less complicated meetings and events. But what if the situation is more complex - with more participants, speakers located around the world, and a longer and denser programme? Even the very best moderator will struggle. What you’re left with is less time for participants, malfunctioning technology and a worried organiser, who was hoping instead to be receiving compliments for all their hard work.
Reason enough to invest in an extra pair of hands and a high-quality studio. It provides you with so much extra value.
Full focus on the participants
At what point do you lose the attention and engagement of your participants? When they see that you, the moderator, are distracted. It’s not easy to keep talking and hold everyone’s attention while you’re setting up fourteen breakout rooms, each with four people and a duration of 25 minutes. Not only that, you have to make sure that Chantal doesn’t end up in a group with Theo, and Petra needs to be in a group of five...
If you had someone to prepare this behind the scenes, then all you would have to say is: “Enjoy yourselves in the breakout rooms!”, prompting your colleague to open the rooms.
Isolated technical difficulties don’t lead to delays
With all the different devices being used, the variety of operating systems and browsers, and all the auxiliary equipment, someone is bound to experience technical difficulties during your session. If you’re flying solo, you might find that the first few minutes of your carefully planned session are taken up by the concerns of a single participant, as you try to solve their issue.
If you have a technical moderator on hand, they can step in and help this person, allowing you to focus on the rest of the group. It’s even possible to provide a help desk number that will allow people to receive support if they cannot find the right link or access the session.
Make sure the most important questions are answered
If you can hear a pin drop after asking ‘are there any questions?’, then something has gone wrong in the interaction design. If you got it right, participants are bound to have questions. These questions can be posed in the chat, which is a simple solution that is included in the price of the platform and is perfectly suited to sessions with a small number of participants. However, if you have more than 20 participants, it won’t be easy to keep track of all the questions in the chat. The first ones soon disappear out of view and are easy to forget about. If you work alongside an online moderator, they can do one of two things.
First: moderate the chat with you and point out questions that have disappeared out of view. Second: manage a tool that allows participants to type in their questions, such as Slido or Mentimeter. The main advantage of this is that participants can see each others’ questions and ‘like’ them, so the most ‘liked’ questions naturally form a top five. These kinds of tools have an administrator screen with lots of useful functions, such as the ability to show a question on the screen and mark it as answered. The Session Operator can take on these tasks, so the moderator can focus on the real work.
Opinions differ on slides. Often they’re no more than cue cards for the speaker. So, review your slides with a critical eye, create separate speaker notes, and (for bonus points) hire a designer to put together your presentation.
Now you have a working slide deck that is fit for your audience. Before you click the ‘share screen’ button, consider whether this is the right move. When you share your screen, the slide takes over the screen and your face is shrunk down to the size of a postage stamp - while the audience can’t connect with slides, but they can with a person. And since the screen sharing will usually last as long as the presentation itself, your audience will hardly get to see you. Your expression, your smile, your hand gestures: no one has seen any of it!
With an online moderator (and some equipment*), it’s easy to use an extra login on which the slides are shown. The operator can choose to fill the screen with the slide, make you the focus, or show both you and the slide side by side. If you’re in the same room together, it’s easy to operate the slides with a remote control, but if you’re in different locations, you can use a programme like Remote for Slides to turn your smartphone into a remote control.
*Two laptops where the HDMI output of laptop 1 is recognised as a camera using a HDMI capture card in laptop 2. Or a Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini (Pro) with a USB-C port that is recognised as a camera by laptop 2. I’ll explain more about this wonder box below.
Good platforms and tools are often pricy. An annual licence may seem like the best choice. But why pay for an entire year if you’re only going to organise a handful of events? Ask your online moderator what they charge for this. And since they use them on a daily basis, you won’t have to worry about a learning curve. So, ask them for tips and advice on how to use the platform or tool optimally.
You can’t talk about online events without things getting technical. You know what HDMI means, but what about latency? Resolution? Scaler? Lucky for you, you don’t need to know about all this if you hire a professional online moderator. They’ll just whip out a video mixer from a case on which you can not only show slides but also switch to a laptop with Slido or Menti, or to a laptop with video instarts, or to a laptop with a countdown clock, or even to a laptop with a wheel of fortune with all the names of the participants, so you can pick one at random. This is the wonder box I was talking about earlier: the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini (Pro). With a price tag of around 500 euros, it’s an investment to consider for anyone who wants to be able to easily switch between multiple sources. Thanks to the USB-C port, you don’t need a convertor for it to be recognised as a camera. Why is it a wonder box? Because you can connect four different sources, each in a different resolution. There are four scalers that can convert absolutely anything.
Advice on an interactive design
The biggest downside to collaboration is the lengthy discussions that need to be had. But these lengthy discussions can also be the biggest upside! Because then you can anticipate all the potential problems with your moderator and utilise the moderator’s experience to implement best practices. Your planned video conferencing session might be better as a webinar instead. Your participants would probably prefer several breakout rooms rather than 120 minutes of ‘watching TV’. The way in which you ask participants to turn their cameras back on after an exercise might result in more of them having their cameras turned on.
This is all well and good but hiring an online moderator costs money!
Yes, it does. Just like having a technician in a room. It can be a challenge to convince the people managing the budget that your meeting has value and should be invested in. There are lots of online options, so participants are spoilt for choice these days and don’t want to listen to sessions that comprise nothing more than ‘talking heads’. ‘Co-creation’, ‘engagement’ and ‘interaction’ are the magic words to keep participants engaged. Luckily, there are clever solutions available that don’t have to cost anything.
- Ask a colleague with technical expertise to answer the technical questions in the chat.
- Ask a second colleague to set up the breakout rooms.
- Ask a third colleague to manage an interactive tool such as Slide or Mentimeter.
- Ask a fourth colleague to take care of the slides and spotlighting.
These people can all contribute remotely. Or this could be done by just two or maybe even one extra person. (If you find this person, please encourage them to send us an open application because we’d love to have them!)
Tip: If you have several people working online, use a back channel: a second platform for communicating with each other, like WhatsApp or Discord. This will prevent embarrassing blunders (accidently sending messages to everyone in the chat that were meant to be private) and you can still reach each other even if the main platform goes down.
Tip: If you have several people working online, make an online plan available, e.g. in Google Docs. Then everyone has access to the most current version and you always know who is responsible for what during the session.
But if you have the budget for it and want to make sure your event is as professional as possible (or if everything is rather last minute), hire a good online technician. Ask around your network, on LinkedIn or contact the people at Masters in Moderation: they’re sure to know a good one.
Good luck with your next online event!"