Saturday, February 27, 2021

So...You Want to Hold a Video Conference

Earlier this month our contest club (Contest Club Ontario) held a video conference. In the past we held smaller in-person outings with speakers this time of year. It takes more than one because VE3 is big -- 1500 km east-to-west just in the high population corridor -- and winter travel is not always possible or comfortable. 

With the popularity of Zoom and similar technology by various amateur radio clubs and groups we decided to give it a try. There was no other good option for a winter event due to the danger and proscription against gatherings of large groups. They are not the same type of event and planning for them is different. One big difference is that there is no catering; everyone provides their own meals and refreshments.

As the prime initiator and organizer of the event, and not an expert at these things, I gave us lots of time to prepare. I have participated at a few and presented at one. Other than that I have no experience with modern video conferencing services. I did lots of video business meetings years ago using point-to-point technology in purpose-built conference rooms.

Give yourself time

Our first step, way back in September, was to get agreement from the club executive with the rough outline of the event content and format. With that (and a Zoom Pro license) in hand we proceeded with the planning. I had concerns of my own to overcome along the way, and until those could be addressed the event was not formally announced.

Leaving the technology planning to others, I focussed on canvassing potential speakers. Asking for talk proposals turned up little. Most people are not comfortable with public speaking and although they have interesting things to say they will be reluctant. Don't push people. Give yourself time to solicit talks from knowledgable hams on topics that will be of interest to the audience.

Since we're a contest club that is what I focussed on. However it is generally true that enthusiastic contesters are also enthusiastic about DXing, exotic locales (hence multipliers) and big antennas. It was a good bet that what interested me would interest others. However, I was careful to reach out to others about topics that are of less interest to me personally. It is important to address your audience's interest where they differ from your own.

I am glad I gave us lots of time. Running up against reluctance to step forward I had to take the time to reach out to individuals and ask or persuade them to speak at the event. They then need the time to put a talk together. It may be a challenge if they've never done it before, or at least never in this format or to their friends and acquaintances rather than for their jobs.

Much to my chagrin, most of the talks ended up being about 160 meters. I didn't plan it that way, but when that's what I had I rolled along with it. It actually worked out well since 160 meters is a challenging band for most, winter is top band season and everyone lusts for the multipliers to boost their contest scores.

A critique

There are video conferences open to the public that attract thousands of hams to hear renowned speakers on a variety of topics. Of particular interest (to me) is Contest University. Their in-person conferences are recorded and available for viewing. Indeed, this has been going on for years before the pandemic fell upon us.

Despite the efforts of the organizers and speakers at those events, I have a few criticisms. As the audience broadens so does the content. There are too many canned presentations or ones that cater to the lowest common denominator. In other cases, the same speakers giving essentially the same talk are invited back time after time after time.

Most talks can be given once, and they should be left at that. For the good talks, record them and they can be watched forever by anyone. Repeating a live talk is pointless. Leave that for new material and new perspectives. Sticking the usual is laziness. Or perhaps they know their audience, because they do fill the seats.

Video conferences allow us to go far and wide for new content rather than leaning on the old reliable people. Leverage that and every video conference, local or global, can be better. This was my challenge for the CCO event: new and interesting content from speakers who may have never done it before.

Keep it local

When organizing an event for a local club, even one as geographically dispersed as the CCO, widely known and respected speakers from the larger events draw the eye. Avoid the temptation. 

Consider your local event to as a venue for your local heros. They're the ones with a profile that is more limited and yet are expert on topics that are of great interest. Reach out to them instead. Most hams love sharing their knowledge and helping others. Give them this opportunity. Everyone will benefit. For the especially shy, encourage them and help them along.

Going outside the local club is fine, and encouraged, but keep those numbers low. A pinch of exotic spice is nice provided you don't gorge. Don't give the implicit message that only outsiders have interesting things to say. Believe me, it isn't true. It may just be that you don't know them well. Reach out to those with a bigger or different network of local contacts and ask them for suggestions.

Don't stick to what you know or the topics that interest you. Cast a wider net. My contesting is almost solely on HF so I invited someone with extensive experience to speak about VHF/UHF contesting. It's different enough to be novel and with commonalities that make it understandable to the HFers.

Keep it local, but do direct consider external resources. If you know them and you need one more for your program, by all means make the invitation. A talk by a manufacturer can also be a great idea when the products are relevant to the audience.

Gauging interest

Keep the membership informed as the conference planning progresses, just don't write weekly status reports! Report only enough that everyone knows the plan is progressing. Nobody cares about the details that are consuming your time. When the program of speakers is confirmed, that is when you make the big announcement.

I did take a few steps to gauge interest while I was assembling the program. These included a couple of easy one-question surveys to elicit input on potential topics and conference organization. For example, when it appeared that I would have 6 speakers lined up I asked whether to schedule them in series or in two parallel streams. My worry was that doing it in series would make the program too long. I was also worried that parallel streams would be too technically complex for our neophyte team. 

The survey gave a large and resounding vote for talks in series. Unlike typical conferences, attendees can get up and stretch, grab a snack or skip a talk, and do so without being disruptive. Knowing this they opted to have the opportunity to see it all. Even though there is no direct human contact during the conference there is little appetite to watch recordings of talks after the conference.

A survey taken after the conference told me that we got the mix of topics about right and that there would be interest in doing a similar event in future. The message is to keep your membership involved and that will boost your confidence that you are doing the right thing. Feedback can also spur you to correct the plan that's straying from expectations.

Volunteers -- don't fly solo

Don't underestimate the complexity of running a conference like the one we did. Calling for volunteers to help out, especially individually, may make you uncomfortable but do it. You need moderators who can diplomatically manage the clock and feed questions to the speakers. Yes, we're amateurs, however it is important to treat this as if it is a professional conference. Keep it smooth.

One or two technically adept volunteers are needed to keep the conference running well. They are in the background and may not be immediately recognized so do highlight their contribution. Their jobs may include filtering joiners to see if they're on the invited list, forcing microphones to mute, recording the talks, fixing service glitches that may appear, and to interact with speakers off line to deal with any problems or emergencies.

Another constraint to how much I could accomplish was my internet service. It can barely keep up with the downstream audio and video. Upstream video was impossible. Even had I been adept enough to do more it would have been impossible. Don't underestimate the resource demands of Zoom and similar services.

You wouldn't operate a contest as SO3R if you've only ever operated SO1V. It won't go well so don't even try without lots of practice. Ask for assistance and don't try to be a hero. We received some priceless advice from others who've run similar events. Hams are friendly so reach out and ask.

Assembling a program

My first attempts to sign up speakers fell flat. Almost no one would consider volunteering. I was disappointed since I believed they were good choices because they have interesting things to say. As time went on and I got more rejections I also received hints about others that might be receptive. So I had their close contacts reach out to them or I solicited an introduction. This is no different than how I got things done in my professional career.

The result is that the program steered in a different direction than the one I had chosen. I accepted that and adjusted my expectations. Although this may seem disappointing it really wasn't. I had no assurance that my original plan would result in a good program. Sure, I believed it, but I could have been wrong. So I rolled with the changes. We ended up in a different place, and it was one that was quite interesting. As I mentioned above, 160 meters stole the program and yet it worked.

A couple of my intentionally solicited speakers worked out despite being a little out of the typical contester's interests. There were VHF/UHF contests and IOTA expeditions. Most contesters are focussed on HF and, although DX, island expeditions have different objectives. Stretching outside of the most people's comfort zone is okay if it is not overdone.

11:30 - 12:00  Open Mic
12:00 - 12:45  Rick VE3MM: 160/80 meter FCP vertical
12:45 -  1:30  Dana VE3DS: VHF/UHF contesting
 1:30 -  2:15  Steve VE6WZ: High-performance 160 meter remote
 2:15 -  3:00  Chris VO2AC/VE3FU: CQ 160 Expedition to VO2
 3:00 -  3:45  Cezar VE3LYC: TX0T and other IOTA Dxpeditions
 3:45 -  4:30  John VE3EJ: 160 meter 3-element vertical yagi
 4:30 -  5:00  AGM


With so many people involved there are sure to be problems. Those issues are not always delivered politely. Yet it is absolutely necessary to deal with everyone respectfully. More often the messages that seem venomous are not intended that way. People may unintentionally come across badly when they are feel put out, ignored or not given the information or help they need or expect. 

Whether it is a volunteer, a speaker or a member of the audience it is important to put your own attitude aside and deal with each issue calmly and respectfully. Do that and the temperature quickly falls and further trouble is avoided. Questions get answered, remedial action taken if required and both sides exit the situation with at least a better understanding when the desired outcome isn't possible.

Respect goes further that just that. Recognize that the speakers and volunteers are generously giving of the time and talents. When they make a request, or a demand, deal with it promptly to the best of your ability. Don't be afraid to push back or to ask for time to deal with the matter. When you do so be respectful of them and their contribution to the event.

One example I encountered was trepidation about recording the talks and publishing them. Although this unwelcome request came from more than one of the speakers I pledged to honour the request. We recorded the sessions and afterward asked each for permission to publish their talk. Almost all agreed. That initial trepidation was assuaged by the success of the talks. Had the requests stood we would have erased the recordings.

As the organizer you may have your heart set on a particular outcome. In this instance I wanted the recordings as a record of the conference that attendees and others could enjoy and learn from afterward. I also saw it is a gift to the presenters as something they could point to and say, "I did that!" Nevertheless you must respect the wishes of those giving of themselves to make the conference successful. Although you can't always accommodate everyone, you should try.

Stepping back 

This isn't about you. When the time comes you need to step out of the spotlight and cede the stage to the speakers and volunteers you've assembled. You've done your job and everybody knows it. Never impose yourself on others when the audience wants to listen to others. 

Your role is to thank the speakers for putting in the time and effort to entertain and educate the audience members. Give explicit credit to the volunteers working in the background who are keeping the conference running in good order.

During my career I scorned managers who took credit for their employees' work and usurped the spotlight when presenting the work to executives and customers. I put my staff members in the spotlight, even if they were shy or uncertain about themselves.

There were times they were worried that I wouldn't get credit for all my effort to help bring their project to fruition. My response was to tell them not to worry about it because everyone is aware of my role. Putting them up front was good for them, and it was also good for me.

Don't hog the spotlight. If you do you'll loss most of the goodwill you've painstakingly gathered. Know when to step back and let others shine.

Looking back, and forward

Feedback on our conference has been very good. A post-conference survey indicates strong interest in doing it again next year. It will be interesting to see if the interest persists when in-person meetings are again possible. Despite the success of the video conference there is strong preference for meeting face-to-face.

In non-pandemic times we have two gatherings each year: a summer BBQ and winter lunches with club member speakers. These event have multiple objectives, however socializing is the primary driver. We are unlikely to try to squeeze a conference into them. In any case, many of the talks we had are more conveniently done by video. Speakers don't have to travel and we can reach a larger audience.

I have several months to ponder alternatives.

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