Three Features For A Webinar Or Conference Call

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in skmurphy, Tools for Startups

We have resisted doing webinar or phone versions of our workshops because there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to facilitate the pair discussions and highly interactive nature of the conversation in the room. I would like to see an integration between (VoIP/POTS) telephony and chat such that we could do the following during a conference call or webinar that has a related chat window:

  1. Let Someone Raise Their Hand and Speak: an attendee who wants to speak or ask a question can “raise their hand” in the chat window and then have their connection patched into the voice stream back to all attendees. This might require passing out a serialized password to each attendee (or on an 800 dial-in recognizing the number, or leverage Caller ID to determine who is who). This can be done on the honor system in a group that knows each other or is otherwise well-behaved, by using the chat window to control the queue to the mike, but often you would like to mute everyone but one or two speakers. Inspired by Clay Shirky‘s wiki+chat+phone pattern (see below).
  2. Break a Larger Group Into Small Groups and Then Reconvene: as an example break a group of 12 into six pairs or three groups of four and then have them join back into a single audio stream. Their status could either be communicated via the chat window (which should now be restricted to “just those in their small group”). This was suggested by an observation that John Smith made in 2004 that “what would really make our CPSquare class conference call effective is the ability to break into small groups and then come back.”
  3. Automatically Manage The “Queue for the Microphone” during the Q&A segment: offer a simple way to “get in the line for the mike” that allows everyone to see the backlog of questions.

I welcome any feedback or suggestions on systems that already support this, or other ideas for how to go beyond the POTS conference call model.

We currently follow the wiki+chat+phone pattern that Clay Shirky identified in “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy” with client meetings but this is normally less than 6 people

“But since conference calls are so lousy on their own, I’m going to bring up a chat window at the same time.” And then, in the first meeting, I think it was Pete Kaminski said “Well, I’ve also opened up a wiki, and here’s the URL.” And he posted it in the chat window. And people can start annotating things. People can start adding bookmarks; here are the lists.

So, suddenly you’ve got this meeting, which is going on in three separate modes at the same time, two in real-time and one annotated. So you can have the conference call going on, and you know how conference calls are. Either one or two people dominate it, or everyone’s like “Oh, can I — no, but –”, everyone interrupting and cutting each other off.

It’s very difficult to coordinate a conference call, because people can’t see one another, which makes it hard to manage the interrupt logic. In Joi’s conference call, the interrupt logic got moved to the chat room. People would type “Hand,” and the moderator of the conference call will then type “You’re speaking next,” in the chat. So the conference call flowed incredibly smoothly.

Meanwhile, in the chat, people are annotating what people are saying. “Oh, that reminds me of So-and-so’s work.” Or “You should look at this URL…you should look at that ISBN number.” In a conference call, to read out a URL, you have to spell it out — “No, no, no, it’s w w w dot net dash…” In a chat window, you get it and you can click on it right there. You can say, in the conference call or the chat: “Go over to the wiki and look at this.”

This is a broadband conference call, but it isn’t a giant thing. It’s just three little pieces of software laid next to each other and held together with a little bit of social glue. This is an incredibly powerful pattern.

John Smith offers a well thought out set of “Conference Call Practices To Generate Knowledge and Record Learning” that refine and elaborate on Shirky’s wiki+chat+phone model. These are very applicable to any geographically dispersed team that is relying on periodic conference calls to keep a project moving forward.

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