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Enhancing the conference call experience

The use of collaborative tools has exploded – and so have efforts to make sure staff don’t fall asleep during the calls

With home workers taking to collaboration tools to keep in touch with colleagues and customers, the number of people using online tools has expanded considerably.

But just because more people are using these tools does not mean they are being used well. There are already moves by some players to develop artificial intelligence (AI) systems that will discourage snoozing through conferences.

These developments come as vendors such as Microsoft and Amazon are publishing more details of their AI engines to encourage their channel partners to create more efficient use of conferencing.   

Lifesize and Zoom are understood to be developing software that analyses camera data with a view to improving the active participation of conference attendees.

The coronavirus lockdown provides multiple disruption moments – from product planning to the supply chain – and conference providers have probably had their cause pushed the most. However, their methods have barely progressed in the 70 years since California’s Bell Labs unveiled the first prototype.

Timeliness is a primary condition for conferencing, says Lifesize. “Everybody is late for their video conference,” says Bobby Beckmann, chief technical officer at Lifesize. Performance figures available to Beckmann indicate that there are call spikes at 9.05 and 8.10am every day, indicating a universal tendency for laxity.

This, in turn, creates the second widespread fault among conference holders – a lack of preparation and a hurried, panic-driven meeting culture.

But Beckmann doesn’t blame people for being confused. “It seems like there are certain conference apps that people are always being forced to download,” he says. The ideal conference technology is easy to use and hard to abuse, according to Beckmann.

Many of the mooted dividends of conferencing are neutralised by tardiness. However, almost as much damage is done by over-conferencing in various forms, such as crowding (the tendency to pack out the conference with “room meat”), verbal diarrhoea, skypertrophy (excessive enlargement of the presentation) and “corpsing”.

Kick off your shoes

Webinars have introduced a new dynamic to many companies. The Friday afternoon conference has become a great time for kicking off your shoes, letting your mind wander and getting in the mood for the weekend.

Zoom and Lifesize are attempting to address this with “engagement management” systems. Don’t worry – they aren’t going to use robots to shame you for drifting off when Gavin from sales plods through a 94-page PowerPoint presentation.

“Nobody wants to be called out,” says Beckmann. “This is more about sentiment analysis.”

Cameras will focus on people and attempt to measure how much active interest they are taking in the online meeting. AI software will look for tell-tale signs of atrophy, such as over-use of the word “innovation”, presentations that exceed 20 pages, and impassive, expressionless participants.

“Most online conferences are webinars on steroids”
Alex Theuma, SaaStock

Although this will be initially harsh on people with poker faces, the refined version of the software will eventually help companies to run more efficient meetings.

One essential “conference quality” that LifeSize and Zoom are aiming to instil, through the use of AI, is brevity. But that is easily achievable through a good host, says Alex Theuma, founder and CEO of SaaStock, which hosts conferences for tech investors.

“Most online conferences are webinars on steroids,” says Theuma.

Having an explicit host for meetings is a must, says Neill Lawson-Smith, managing director of security service CIS. Someone must keep the call in line with the agreed agenda, and they can also police the conversation if necessary.

“Without a host, people speak over each other and the direction of the call can soon be lost,” says Lawson-Smith.

No AI chairman

But it will be a long time before AI can chair a meeting, he adds.

Logging in now is Johnny Boufarhat, founder of online events platform Hopin Connects.

A Hopin seminar can have 100,000 attendees. It mirrors the experience of a physical event – with one-to-ones, group breakouts, a main stage, a backstage, ticket rage, recordings, multi-level chat and analytics. Clients include the Drum, the Greens and HackingHR.

“Bring sponsors and speakers into the conversation,” says Boufarhat.

Meanwhile, Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, managing director of Clearly PR, says you should “never put some something in a conference that could be done in an email”.

A very good point, which emphasises the important conference qualities of brevity and warranty.

According to MacKenzie-Cummins, the point of video is to explore a topic in more detail, but a lot of the time, collaboration is about editing down the details. The more you open out a subject, the more likely it is to be leaked. Everything can be recorded for training purposes, but that doesn’t mean you would necessarily want to – you are just creating more management costs for later, he says.

In fact, the less you record, the better. Everything that happens in a conference should, ideally, be recorded in the brains of all the participants.

So, how do you host a good meeting? How do you ensure meetings maintain a cracking pace and don’t get boring?

Know your ratios

Set limits, says Beckmann, know your ratios. If, say, you have a 30-minute meeting and you are expecting people to take in 20 slides, then you have unrealistic expectations. The ratio is usually one slide to five minutes.

Also, be realistic about the number of messages you are going to get across. The classic advice given to politicians was to view a speech in three parts: tell the audience what you are going to say, then say it, then tell the audience what you just said.

But some people are already suffering video conference fatigue. Mark K Smith, founder and CEO of ContactEngine, groans: “If I hear ‘we have another 15 minutes to go’ again…”

“If I hear ‘we have another 15 minutes to go’ again…”
Mark K Smith, ContactEngine

So, should there be a conference cull?

“God, yes – maybe a lever that if more than half of people pull, attendees, irrespective of seniority, will be thrown out,” says Smith. “Especially ones who hog the meeting, drone in a monologue, interrupt or bore.”

But there is an opportunity for the channel to add value here, according to Smith.

He says technology needs to be built that spots the repeaters, the bores, the energy wasters, the rude, the ignorant, the poorly prepared, the vampires (who suck your life away with their tedious thoughts) and shine a light on the real deal, the people with the ideas, the collaborators, the energy givers. And yes, technology is being built that can do all of that and more.

The ease of conferencing is its downfall. Many people justify their employment by attending eight meetings a day and then muting and doing something else during the call.

Security ignored

Also, in the headless rush to get online, security is ignored. This is where the argument for simple browser-based systems like LifeSize is strong. People are being encouraged to blindly download software that could have all kinds of trojans.

Ultimately, the most important conference quality is veracity. Without any truth in these online meetings, every exchange is meaningless and the information worthless. Given that information is the lifeblood of the company, that is a condition more dangerous than Covid-19.

“There really is hardly any difference between a Teams, Zoom, Bluejeans, Skype or Uber conference,” says Smith. “What they all need is more, better analytics and a connection between agenda-setting and outcomes, with some nice simple analysis of the contributions.”

If you want to see where this world is going, try, says Smith.

Well, that sounds like a conclusive point on which to end this conference. Thanks you all for taking part.

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