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Podcasting, Webconferencing, and Webcasting

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A look at technology and how to build your Web-based speaking skills.

When Bob Solimeno wanted to do some marketing to grow the membership ranks of the Toastmasters club in his company, International Paper in Loveland, Ohio, he sought a fresh approach to complement traditional tactics, such as running ads in the company newsletter. So Solimeno created a series of podcasts, in essence short radio broadcasts online, trumpeting the benefits of joining the club. Prospective members could download and listen to these programs on their laptop computers or mobile phones.

Creating the podcasts was fairly simple, Solimeno says. All it required was using software called Audacity, a free open-source application for recording and editing sounds, along with a head-set and microphone connected to his laptop.

The podcasts made an immediate impact. During an open house a few weeks after the first audio recordings, Solimeno met many prospective members who had listened to the podcasts and offered positive feedback. As a result of the open house, podcasts and other recruiting efforts, eight new members joined his club.

Solimeno is among a growing number of Toastmasters using technology-delivered presentation methods not only to recruit club members, but to speak to or train audiences around the globe without the need for travel. Distance-shrinking communication tools like podcasting, webconferencing, and webcasting have grown in popularity by virtue of their convenience, user-friendliness, the growth of broadband Internet technology and the attendant savings in travel costs and headaches. Whether it's demonstrating a new product to sales prospects, holding training sessions for workmates or providing a company-wide update, Toastmasters around the globe increasingly find themselves presenting to a computer webcam or speaking into a headset rather than looking into the eyes of a live audience. While face-to-face speaking will never go out of style, it's important to learn the ins and outs of presenting via these new technologies since you'll no doubt be using them yourself, eventually. 

It's a Podcaster's World

The ubiquity of mobile phones and arrival of computer-based audio recording technologies paved the way for the growth of podcasting, which, simply put, is online audio content "" what some call radio on demand "" delivered in an automated way to a PC or portable device. Podcasting was first used for things like listening to music or self-guided walking tours, but soon was being used in corporate America for training purposes (for example, Q&A interviews with subject matter experts), to deliver organizational news or investor reports.

Although it may sound intimidating to the uninitiated, creating a podcast is relatively painless with the right tools at your disposal, as Bob Solimeno will attest. But for those who prefer some technology handholding, there are Web sites that will host your podcast for you. One such site is Podcastpeople.com, which gives speakers a place to host their audio files and a subdomain on the Web site you can call your own, which you can design with pre-built themes if preferred. It also offers content creation tools and even provides the chance to have your podcasts sponsored by advertisers. "Using a podcast to talk about Toastmasters topics or recruit new members is a far more alive and dynamic tactic than simply sending out e-mail with text-based testimonials," says Doug Taylor, founder and CEO of Podcastpeople.com.

But Taylor says choosing the right length for podcasts can make all the difference between creating rapt listeners and those who won't bother coming back for more. Solimeno initially experimented with five-minute podcasts, but he received feedback that his shorter, one-to-two-minute recordings were his best efforts. Taylor believes less is usually more. On Podcastpeople.com, he considers about 15 minutes the right length. "That's sufficient time to provide enough meat and detail, but not so long that listeners start to tune out," Taylor says. And while you want good production values on podcasts, you don't want to go overboard. "Many people feel like they need to create something that sounds incredibly professional the first few times out, so they'll have a podcast produced in a studio," Taylor says. "The problem with that is they set a standard they have to maintain, and it will inevitably fall off over time."

He also says speakers who worry their recorded voice will do little to remind people of Larry King or Garrison Keillor need to readjust expectations and work on honing the voice they do have, improving pacing, eliminating distracting "ums" and "ahs" and projecting in the same way they would for a face-to-face speech. The beauty with podcasting, of course, is that editing can eliminate some of those flaws. "The blueprint of people's voice is their greatest unknown asset," Taylor says. "Most people are taken aback or even disappointed the first few times they hear their own voice on tape, but my advice is to learn to love your voice, because it's your unique gift."

Webconferencing: Presenting from a Distance

More and more organizations also are turning to Webconferencing as a way to give key presentations, hold critical meetings or train employees without the need for participants to travel. The technology enables geographically dispersed groups to share PowerPoint slides, review documents like contracts, budgets or quarterly reports, and to interact via text chat or audio all from the comfort of their own cubicles.

Presenters new to webconferencing usually are able to master its technical aspects after a few sessions. Once they learn how to use interactive features like annotation, audience polling and audience Q&A, it's simply a matter of opening a Web browser and launching the presentation. No need to worry about things like ports, platforms, firewalls or the like. A bigger challenge is adjusting to speaking to a webcam rather than a sea of faces, since you can't use body language cues to get feedback from the audience.

WebEx, a Cisco company based in Santa Clara, California, pioneered webconferencing software and is a dominant player in the market. We talked to Laura Vizzusi, WebEx's international marketing manager, and David Goad, a WebEx market segment manager who also is a member of Toastmasters, for some tips on how to deliver effective and engaging webconferences:

Don't pooh-pooh prep time. A belief that it's much easier to prepare for an online presentation than the face-to-face variety will usually come back to bite you, Vizzusi says. While it's true you can deliver a webconference sitting at your kitchen table in your bunny slippers, if you haven't done the proper audience research, reviewed your PowerPoint slides, and planned (and practiced) some interactive events, you're likely to send your viewers off to snoozeland. Vizzusi suggests performing a dry run a week before the event going through your slides, practicing using interactive tools such as document annotation and audience polling and then reviewing again the day before your presentation.

Put your "phone voice" on the shelf. One common misstep is when speakers use their workaday phone voice rather than their speaker's voice when using the audio feature of webconferencing. Since your audience can't see you, the quality, pacing and pitch of your voice takes on even greater importance in online meetings, presentations or training sessions. Vizzusi recommends that web presenters stand up while they speak and use a headset, rather than a separate microphone, to help add energy to their voices. "Standing up while you are speaking allows you to project better and use the dynamic range of your voice,"she says. "It's akin to the difference between being in radio and TV. Radio announcers have almost an exaggerated range and have to project more, because their voice is all they have to communicate. It's the same with webconferencing."

Goad also advises against using a speakerphone, a mistake new Web presenters sometimes make. "A speakerphone creates distance, makes you sound farther away and less engaged in the session," Goad says, adding that it can make your voice fade in and out if you move your head around. "A simple mistake like that can ruin an otherwise great presentation."

He also suggests having one or two other people present with you, if possible, for the purpose of adding variety in voices that an audience hears. That might simply mean having a session moderator jump in on occasion, he says. 

Give your visual aids more scrutiny. Because the only thing a Webconferencing audience has to focus on is a computer screen, you'll want to move through your PowerPoint slides or other content at a slightly faster pace than you would in other settings. Vizzusi suggests using animations or other transitions as a way to keep antsy audience members from jumping ahead of you.

And because PowerPoint plays an even larger role in these online presentations, it's more important to have visually appealing slides that are relevant to the audience's needs. She suggests four to six bullet points per slide, and clean, simple fonts with few colors. To keep audience interest, consider experimenting with other images, such as photographs. Vizzusi believes presenting your slides in full-screen mode, rather than as partial screen, also helps keep viewers more attuned. 

Use interactive tools to keep audiences engaged. One of the biggest challenges of webconferencing is keeping audiences engaged and interested while narrated images parade by on their computer screen. WebEx offers tools like audience polling, Q&A and interactive chat to keep people involved. These diverse tools allow presenters to:

  • Take audiences directly to a Web site or conduct live demonstrations of a software application. "Instead of the presenter just showing a screen shot of a Web site, they can take the audience right to it and navigate around it, allowing them to actually demo what is being talked about in the session," Vizzusi says.

  • Use polling tools to gauge how well the audience is grasping material, to qualify sales prospects or simply to keep viewers engaged. WebEx suggests polling three to five times per session, throwing in a few humorous polls along with the serious ones. The polling feature automatically tallies results and presents on-screen summaries for viewers.

  • Use annotation tools that enable Web facilitators to use an on-screen pointer, highlight text, jot notes or make other amendments to on-screen documents.

  • Employ interactive chat tools to allow participants to communicate in online breakout rooms or private chat sessions, much like they would in a typical company or industry conference. "It's a great tool for breaking people out in small groups to brainstorm ideas or create solutions and then have them come back to report their findings to the entire group," Vizzusi says.

Another benefit of Webconferencing is the ease of recording your sessions. While you'd need to cart around a tripod and video camera to record an in-person speech, with Webconferencing you simply flip a network-based button and it records the entire presentation. "It also makes it easier to go back in and review your performance, which is a great way to continuously improve your technique as a presenter," says Goad. 

Webcasting: Online Video Gains Traction

Although similar to Webconferencing, webcasting differs in that it relies more heavily on video, typically involves less interaction or data sharing among participants and is used more often for communicating to larger audiences.

A typical webcast might involve a CEO delivering a company-wide update, a moderator interviewing a panel of subject matter experts or a sales manager giving a motivational talk to his sales staff. The use of live or on-demand video in webcasts is designed to provide an additional level of connectedness between the speaker and audience.

Netbriefings of St Paul, Minnesota, is a leading provider of large group webcasting applications as well as small, rich-media meetings featuring its new communications tool Proclaim. Using Proclaim, presenters beam their own video image out to viewers via desktop webcam as well as show PowerPoint slides or roll in pre-recorded video clips.

One of the biggest concerns for new webcasters is how they will look or sound on computer screens, says Gary Anderson, founder and CEO of Netbriefings. "Not everyone has the looks or voice of a TV news anchor, but the audience usually doesn't have that expectation of you," says Anderson. He says the awkwardness of speaking to a webcam usually diminishes over time, but you do need to project and pump up the energy the same way you would when speaking to live audiences. "If you have something important to talk about and deliver a good message, people will listen."

Anderson believes more organizations are using shorter video messages to adapt to workers' increasingly busy work lives. Rather than delivering one 30-minute motivational message to salespeople every week, for example, a sales manager might break it up into three 10 minute messages that, delivered at different intervals, help keep the message top of mind.

Why is use of video important online? Experts say video helps forge a more meaningful connection with viewers through an inclusion of emotion and body language. All you need do is think of a powerful, motivational message, they say (try Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech for starters), then consider whether the impact would be the same without video "" presenting audio alone. 


Resources for Building Your Web-Based Speaking Skills

There is plenty of help standing by for speakers looking to learn the ropes of Web-based presenting or facilitating. Two of the best starting points are the Web sites of WebEx (www.webex.com) and Netbriefings (www.netbriefings.com), pioneers in providing Webconferencing and webcasting services.

WebEx offers a two-week free trial of its conferencing software that walks you through its many features and applications. Click on an online demo and you'll have a WebEx expert at your disposal to answer questions or concerns about using the software. The company also offers a smorgasbord of training courses through its WebEx University.

For those looking to learn more about webcasting, Netbriefings offers free online demonstrations of its large and small group webcasting options, as well as online training courses and workshops.

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