Zoom: Making your guests comfortable (the why-to guide for hosts)

I’ve hosted webinars via Zoom since 2017. Since mid-March, my partner and I use Zoom to

Cat on an orange pillow on a big green chair

Imagine your guests this relaxed…

host a daily neighborhood check-in with a dozen or more participants, ranging in age from the early 30’s to early 80’s. This is what we’ve learned.

Zoom, the videoconferencing platform, provides comprehensive, easy to read how-to documentation explaining “what buttons to push and what happens when you push them.”

This is a companion “why-to” guide, with tips on when to push those buttons. It’s intended for you if you are new to hosting Zoom meetings, especially if you expect four or more participants.

The visuals: Focus on faces, be mindful of smartphone participants, and sparing of screenshare

Grid of four rows of faces, 3 faces per row

Physically distant, socially connect, all 12 strong.

Especially now, seeing everyone else adds a dimension of engagement and closeness.

When you screenshare a presentation, the space available on participants’ screens to show faces shrinks by 50% or more. So each face is smaller and fewer at a time will be visible.

Smartphones, in particular, make only four participants available per screen. One can scroll through all of them.

So, leave screenshare off until you need to refer to the material. Then turn it off again for discussions. Tell participants on smartphones and tablets know how to scroll through the grid of faces.

Advanced visual tips

Gallery View shows as many faces as possible – up to 49 on some monitors. Speaker View shows the current speaker in a large window occupying the bottom 3/4 of the screen, with a row of 4 or so faces across the top.

Each participant controls this for themselves, so show them how to toggle between these two views.

Screen showing blurred text on the left, grid of faces on the right

Text on left of slide, leaving space for the faces.

Coach your participants in how to use the controls on the floating window to see more faces or to see a smaller number of larger faces.

Show smartphone participants how to scroll through the various views available to them.

We’ve found it helpful to design slides so that the content fits on the left half of the screen. This allows participants to use the right side to display a grid of faces without obscuring the contents of the slide.

Audio:“Silence!” vs. “Friendly chatter”

There are two schools of thought on muting participants. The “silence!” school prefers that participants be muted by default and then selectively unmuted by the host when it’s time for participant comments and questions.

Mikes for JL and MC are picking up noise.

Mikes for JL and MC are picking up noise.

The “friendly chatter” school prefers to let people control their own muting, which makes interaction more spontaneous. A little bit of buzz is fun.

With a dozen or less participants who will mute themselves if needed and keep the background blender/vacuum/parakeet off, we prefer “friendly chatter”,

But do watch for stray noise. You can see which participants are generating background noise by watching for the buzzing microphone icon in the participant list. Then you can mute people selectively. If you can’t detect the source of background noise, or there’s too much of it, mute all participants. When you “Mute all”” you have the option of allowing participants to unmute themselves, which works as long as participants are cooperative.

Advanced audio tips

“Toss”

With four or more eager participants, from time to time, two or more participants will start speaking at once, “step on one another”, then back off.

When the order of speakers is clear to participants or when it doesn’t matter who goes next, invite the current speaker to “toss” it to someone else when she or he is done. For instance: “Hi, I’m Joe, checking in with anticipation. I’d like to talk about making jellies and jams at home for a few minutes. Karen, go ahead with your check-in.” Let participants know that you’re about to do this, and allow them to say “pass” if they’re not ready to participate.

Alternatively, the host can also pick the next speaker, unmuting him/her as necessary.

Speaking “in unison” – a joyful muddle

As with some face to face events, it may be desirable for all participants to speak at once, e.g. for shared reading of a passage or a team chant. Audio lags make this a little messy, but if you prepare participants by asking them to speak a little more slowly and to expect something of a “joyful muddle”, it’s workable.

“Walk a mile in your participants’ shoes”

Beware that what you see on the host’s screen will not match every participant’s experience.

Each participant’s device and actions affects what they see on their screen

Laptop participants have some control over what they see on the screen — as noted above, for instance with Gallery View vs. Speaker View. So coaching is helpful.

Especially for smartphone participants

Smartphone participants can see at most four other participants at a time and of course screenshared content will be smaller. They may find it particularly helpful to get any shared presentation materials in advance.

If you will be screensharing, consider making those materials available in advance, via a web link or PDF. That allows participants to print out the slides beforehand or to use a second, offline display to track the material, leaving the smartphone screen focussed on their fellow participants.

Monitor yourself on another laptop or smartphone

Use another device to sign in as a second participant, and position the second screen so you can see it as you host the Zoom meeting. This allows you to see what participants are seeing. It also reduces the need for “can everyone see this slide?” chatter.

If you expect participants across the full range of devices, laptops, tablets, and smartphones, having one of each logged into your meeting will be helpful, especially for the test session (see below).

Have a stage manager

Hosting a Zoom meeting, especially with four or more participants, active screensharing, and ongoing muting and unmuting of participants, requires managing a lot of detail in the moment.

If you have a colleague acting as the “stage manager”, you can focus your presentation and pay attention to participants’ questions and comments.

The stage manager monitors the audio and mutes participants as necessary.

It’s often helpful to have the stage manager handle the screensharing as well. That allows the host to focus on the material, on participant feedback, and on modulating the flow of the presentation and conversation.

It’s ideal for the stage manager and the host to be in sight of one another. My partner and I sit six feet apart, with separate laptops, using headphones to eliminate feedback.

The stage manager can also be remote. If so, it’s useful to have a separate text channel – a Facebook chat or WhatsApp chat, say – to coordinate without cluttering up the audio for participants.

Bring the stage manager online at least for the second rehearsal. (See below)

Rehearse

Since there are many details to manage, the platform to learn, and coordination to work out, it’s incredibly helpful to run a couple of “rehearsals” before you go “live” with the real audience.

During the first session, walk through the script, checking that you know how to get Zoom to do what you need it to do, and practice coordination with the stage manager.

For the second session, recruit a few friendly participants, ideally people with the same skill levels and range of devices that you expect to encounter when you go live.

Again walk through the script, and tweak your process – the presentation timing or format, how you call on participants, when you turn screenshare on and off.

These rehearsals with other participants and with another device you can use to monitor what they can see, will also reveal what tips you should pass on to participants. For instance, we discovered that participants appreciate the “Gallery View” so they can see as many other participants as possible, vs. the “Speaker View”. However, only a few participants discovered this capability themselves. So now we make a point of coaching new participants how to toggle between the two views.

Get started early and invite others to join you.

Especially the first few times you host a Zoom meeting, give yourself lots of time to settle in before participants show up.

For instance, if the session is scheduled to begin at 2pm, invite participants to connect at 1:45 pm to kick the tires and get comfortable. Be sure to get yourself and your stage manager online by 1:30pm to start the meeting and review your arrangements.

Expect that very few participants will get on early (in our experience; you may be able to set stronger group norms), and that quite a few will connect at 2:03pm.

Expect to spend a few minutes at the start helping people understand what they need to understand about the technology (here’s where the test sessions pay dividends).

Considerations for repeated sessions

Landing page

Inviting people to a single session via the standard zoom url (e.g. https://zoom.us/j/123456789) is fine.

For multiple sessions, there’s the problem that the url is not memorable. So in these times, when many are participating in one Zoom meeting in the morning and a different one in the afternoon, it’s helpful to create a more memorable “entrance” to your event, i.e. a landing page.

Memorable url

If you can publish on your own website (e.g. WordPress), make the url simple. I prefer all lowercase, run together. It’s got to be easy to remember, and easy for someone to convey correctly over the phone. So http://mycompany.com/onlineteamchat is much better than http://mycompany.com/Online-TEAM-chat%78.

If you can only publish via a Google Doc or another tool that generates long and unfriendly urls, use tiny.cc or another url shortener to create a nice url. http://tiny.cc/mycompanycoaching is do much better than https://docs.google.com/document/d/e/2PACX-1vQs6IZUAyKl_Xb18dEa5fnsQjzvBYO0xn4OytAsxnjdBjOASb7vRyd/pub We prefer tiny.cc because it allows you to edit the target url after you create the friendly url. So http://tiny.cc/mycompanycoaching can send participants to one Google Doc on Tuesday and to a different one on Thursday.

Contents

The landing page provides the Zoom meeting link. So participants don’t have to distinguish one Zoome meeting url from another one (for a different organization’s event). It also lets you change Zoom meeting rooms if necessary or shift to some other video technology at some point. Make the change in your landing page, and you’re done.

Google Docs - Publish to the web command

Google Docs – Publish to the web command

The landing page is also the place for notes and links to other materials (e.g. a PDF with exercises).
If you don’t have the ability to publish on a website easily, you can use a Google Doc or similar, with the “publish to the web” url.

Pace yourself

Give yourself time to tune up your offering. Do the bare minimum the first time, then add a feature for the second session, another feature for the third, etc.

You and your participants will get better at this. Set your participants’ expectations accordingly.

So get started already

There’s only so much one can read about a new dance step before it’s faster and more illuminating just to try it. Videoconferencing with Zoom is similar.

If someone else is hosting a session you can join, start there.

If not, set up a “rehearsal” with a couple of colleagues, and then try it live. The show must go on!

Cat on the chair photo by Tucker Good on Unsplash