With the coronavirus pandemic came hybrid seminars, hybrid workshops and hybrid conferences. They enable events to be held despite travel restrictions and limited participant numbers.
But what at first glance appears to be an innovative solution ends up being a disappointment for many participants: remote participants suffer from “Zoom fatigue” and feel like an afterthought. Face-to-face participants or attendees must put up with event organizers and speakers spending more time grappling with technology than looking after their audience.
Hybrid events can become the “worst of both worlds” – the physical and the digital world.
You need more than just a little technology to be able to offer successful hybrid seminars. But with clever setups and the right technology, you can achieve much smoother communication and even establish new types of events.
In the case of face-to-face seminars, the speakers and participants are in the same place at the same time (Fig. 1.a). On the contrary, in the case of online seminars, the speakers and participants are in different places (Fig. 1.b).
Hybrid seminars mean that some of the participants are in the same place as the speaker. The rest of the participants – the remote participants – are elsewhere, often in their home office (Fig. 1.c).
There is also the special case where the speaker connects from a different place (Fig. 1.d).
After many months of experience with seminars, conferences and workshops, offered online or in hybrid mode, many of us know what problems these new forms of communication can bring.
Unfortunately, once more the old adage rings true: anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
Go through the following lists of problems and use each individual problem to identify possible necessary countermeasures. In this way you will avoid similar problems and save your speakers and participants a lot of frustration.
The list of potential problems seems to be endless. For that reason, only the most common and most embarrassing problems are mentioned below that the team at the Johner Institute has encountered as participants in online and hybrid events.
It’s not just organizers who are not prepared for whatever may happen or don’t have a handle on their technology. More often than not it’s the speakers and their laptops who cause problems:
Many speakers don’t know how to use the technology and this is not just down to their abilities:
Because of a lack of practice with the specific tool, the lecturers don’t know how to use the chat, provide participants with materials, form groups for break-out sessions or let waiting participants join the conference once it’s started.
Speakers could save themselves a lot of embarrassment such as:
Issues also come up for participants at almost every event:
Even technology in working order is no guarantee for a successful hybrid seminar. The setup can make communication difficult:
The remote participants
Sometimes hybrid seminars fail due to organizational problems:
Most participants can see the consequences of these problems in online and hybrid seminars for themselves.
So, neither the seminar participants nor the speakers achieve their common goals:
Hybrid seminars and other hybrid events will only be successful if the above-mentioned problems are avoided and the requirements of all stakeholders are met:
Preparing and operating the technology is not the speaker’s task but the event organizer’s. For this reason, if possible, the speaker’s laptop should remain free from conference technology.
That means that the speaker should only have to connect their computer via an HDMI/VGA/USB-C connector and optionally with an audio cable (normally a mini plug); exactly how they would normally do with an OHP.
The speaker must be able to see and hear the remote participants just as they can the attendees. They must also be able to see any work results as quickly and easily as chat messages.
The remote participants should feel as close as possible to the event and be able to see and hear the following to the same standards as the attendees:
The remote participants want to know exactly how the event is structured, what is expected of them and when breaks start and end.
Above all, the attendees do not want to be disturbed by the technology and the fact that some people are participating remotely.
This also means that the technology must work reliably and discreetly and the attendees must be able to see and hear the remote participants well.
Good technology helps to prevent the problems mentioned in section 2 and meets the requirements mentioned in section 3. If possible, it should be out of sight, even if there is a lot of it.
The remote participants should be able to see the speaker, the event room (especially flip charts and whiteboards) and the attendees (at least when they ask a question). This requires at least two remote-controlled cameras.
The zoom, tilt and swivel angles, and the focus of these cameras must be able to be controlled using a remote in order to see the person who is speaking and the flip charts/whiteboards nice and big and clear in the picture.
In the case of hybrid seminars too, the remote participants should always see the person who is speaking at any given time. In the case of the speaker, picture-in-picture mode is an option. This means that remote participants will be able to follow both the speaker and their computer or presentation respectively.
The speaker needs two video signals, which they see on one or two monitors:
So that the remote participants are also visible to the speaker and attendees, it is enough for the remote participants to use a webcam, in a pinch the built-in one in the laptop. A neutral background prevents unnecessary distraction.
On the one hand, the attendees see the video signal of the speaker’s presentation (without overlays), normally on a projector. On the other hand, they see the remote participants or the web conferencing tool respectively on a monitor.
However, they neither see the lecturer nor the whiteboard video signal on the screen.
The remote participants should ideally be equipped with a good headset and be in a quiet room.
The speaker wears a professional wireless headset, which enables them to move about freely. Remote participants hear both the speaker and the attendees via a PA system.
One or more microphones in the room have proven unsuitable for conveying the attendees’ questions well to remote participants. Typical problems here are:
For this reason, the attendees should be provided with microphone units such as those seen in the European Parliament.
To be able to control and mix these signals, other components are necessary. These include:
Technology is not enough. It only offers the necessary, but not sufficient, requirements for successful hybrid events.
Just as they need to adapt the technology to this special setting (the hybrid seminar), event organizers and speakers also need to adapt their teaching methods. Not only those present at the event location, but also remote participants are faced with special challenges:
In the case of hybrid seminars, speakers should choose shorter intervals. Half-hour, and at the most one-hour, sprints are better than the usual one-and-a-half-hour blocks.
Breaks should preferably be longer than the default time of 15 minutes. The remote participants should be able to see on a timer how much longer the break will go on for. After all, the speaker can’t call them back in as easily as they can the attendees.
Clear communication of the agenda is even more important in the case of hybrid seminars than your usual face-to-face events.
The event organizer and the speaker should let the participants know exactly what the benefits of the event are for them. This applies to the event as a whole, as well as each individual block (sprint).
The recognized benefits not only boost the motivation and attention of the remote participants.
The speakers also want to spur the participants into action with exercises and tasks. When the goal is to be able to do something better after the seminar, this can only be achieved through practice.
This constant practice also helps participants to resist distractions and focus on the event.
Polls also help participants to keep their eye on the ball and measure their own progress.
For many speakers it proves particularly difficult not to forget the remote participants. In the truest sense of the word, the attendees have a stronger presence. So, speakers need to make more of an effort to actively involve remote participants and invite them to participate and ask questions.
As always in quality management, procedure specifications and work instructions as well as checklists are helpful tools for minimizing problems. Here too, the skills of the speakers and technicians should be defined and guaranteed.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and hundreds of thousands of streamers, the demand for the above-mentioned technologies has increased. This has boosted production numbers and ultimately led to lower prices.
However, a professional setup for hybrid seminars and other hybrid events costs tens of thousands of euros.
This is no one-time investment. Standards are also continually changing; new interfaces must be supported and the growing requirements of the participants must be met to a higher quality.
What’s more, the event organizers need people who can select, integrate and configure suitable components.
Without an operator, it is practically impossible to keep things working. Otherwise, the speakers are subjected to unnecessary stress.
Even after several months working from home, and after what feels like hundreds of web conferences, hybrid seminars are still particularly challenging. They combine all of the technical and organizational difficulties of face-to-face and online seminars and make existing issues all the more visible.
A face-to-face event, alongside which the camera and web conferencing program are allowed to run, is far from being a hybrid seminar.
Figure 2 shows a possible technical setup. But there are no standard solutions. These depend on a lot of factors such as the conditions of the room, the number of participants, the number of speakers, the goals of the event and the speakers’ abilities.
Professional technology is expensive and requires professional support from an expert when choosing and using it.
Handouts and checklists help speakers and remote participants to prepare better for the special challenges of hybrid events.
But without active collaboration between speakers and remote participants, the hybrid seminar cannot succeed:
Hybrid seminars appear to be a solution in exceptional times. Only thanks to this concept can the Johner Institute, for example, hold courses despite the fact that some of the (e.g. foreign) students are unable or not permitted to travel due to current travel advice.
However, this advantage not only comes at a financial cost: technology must be selected and mastered, existing events redesigned and usual practices adapted.
For event organizers and speakers this means one thing: practice, practice and more practice.