The Scout’s Guide to Video Teleconferencing

Anecdote: The Proposal

Unfortunately, teleconferencing is not as easy as this ad makes it look.  Plus, it's probably a bad idea to try doing it from your car.

Unfortunately, teleconferencing is not as easy as this ad makes it look. Plus, it’s probably a bad idea to try doing it from your car. [Image source]

The proposal was Important. We had practiced for a few hours to make sure everything would work just so: positioning the camera so that everyone around the table could be seen, making sure the condenser microphone would pick up speech in a normal tone from anywhere in the room. At “go” time, it was an impressive sight—luminaries assembled, over a dozen men and women dressed for formal business, presentation practiced and whittled down to the cream of essential information. The tension and excitement in the room was palpable.

We connected to the remote site and put them on the big screen. A couple of remote participants are having some echo problems, but as long as the decision makers can hear us, that’s fine. They are ready to begin. The next sixty minutes — a hard-and-fast time limit — would determine the fruitfulness of many, many hours of labor, research, and preparation. And then the meeting host on the remote end drops the following bombshell:

Please dial into the conference call with this number….

Several precious seconds of shock tick by. No one told us we’d be using a telephone conference call for audio, and we hadn’t asked! Our presenters scramble to the corner of the room with the phone (and about 20 other pieces of audiovisual control equipment stacked on and around a too-small desk). The camera is panned to that corner; no luminaries in the shot, just two main presenters who can’t even face the camera and still be heard on the speakerphone, a couple more presenters in the wings, and a pair of suddenly very uncomfortable technical assistants, one of whom didn’t realize he was in the shot until it seemed awkward for him to move to another part of the room. He stops leaning against the wall and takes his hands out of his pockets, suddenly very self-conscious as he’s the only man without a coat and tie, an obvious extra.

That was me. And that’s the story of how I learned to add asking a meeting host, “Will we be using the software for video and audio, or will there be a conference call?” to the list of video teleconferencing best practices I keep in my head.

The Scout’s Motto: Be Prepared!

“I have an important teleconference tomorrow at 9 a.m. Can you come by at 8:30 to get me set up? No, I’ve never used this system before.” That’s the phone call of my nightmares. Because, as I say to everyone who will listen, video teleconferencing is about 5% technology and 95% best practices. And the best best practice is practice — in the environment where the event will take place, under similar circumstances. This is good for several reasons — it reduces nervousness, it increases familiarity with the technology and the environment, and best of all, it works the kinks and bugs out by way of collapsing the difference between how everyone imagined things would work and how they are actually going to work; and doing all that in a low-stakes environment.

You can’t predict absolutely everything, but you can do a lot of good prep ahead of time. Are we using a PowerPoint presentation, or something else, or nothing? Will the elegantly-coifed presenter object strenuously to our offer of over-the-head headphones? (My colleague Dave pointed this out to me, and I admit I felt a little cloddish for never having even thought of it.) Is the USB cable for the digital camera long enough? These are the kinds of things that are easily fixed ahead of time when the people who are involved congregate in the space they’ll be using and actually try to do what they intend to do when it really counts, using a few willing colleagues in their offices as stand-ins for a remote audience.

Anecdote: The Remote Presentation, or, A Scout Is Thrifty

A William & Mary professor was to give a remote presentation to a large gathering. We had the same kind of system the hosts were using, so he and I and my colleague Pablo ran through the process — how to upload the presentation and in what format, what all the useful buttons did, how to mark on a slide if he wanted. We coordinated with the remote site to make sure we could connect to their system (which involved the installation of a specific set of security certificates). On the date of the conference, his presentation was scheduled for 11 a.m.

The conference started late, as the hosts had trouble getting things running. Then the presenter scheduled for 9 a.m. couldn’t connect (and hadn’t tried previously); after several long minutes of the audience watching some boring techno-bumbling, our hero, already connected, ventures to say, “My presentation’s ready to go. Should I go ahead and take the early slot?” Oh, but of course! And not only was the presentation fine, but also the general impression was: that William & Mary guy really knows what he’s doing! Thirty minutes of preparation and practice, and our College gained a few more points of renown. If that’s not a good value, I don’t understand the word.

About John Drummond

John Drummond is the Academic Technology Manager at the College of William & Mary. Originally from Mathews County, VA, John graduated from James Madison University with a BA in English in 1996 and an MS in Technical and Scientific Communication in 2002, and is currently studying for an Ed.D. in Higher Education at the W&M School of Education. He has been with W&M since 2007. In addition to working in IT, John has taught occasionally at W&M and previously at Tidewater Community College, and in other roles has been an author, a musician, a Perl programmer, a UNIX systems engineer, and a network manager. He resides in Toano with his wife Andrea and daughter Rebekah.


  1. I loved this post–and not just because I spent 10 years early in my professional life working for the Boy Scout organization. This is the perfect example of the kind of reflective practice we Deweyan-Rogerian-Pragmatic-Humanists live for. It completes the active learning cycle of having an experience, reflecting on that experience, formulating abstract principles based on the experience and then testing those newly formed principles in the crucible of the real world. Right on!