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It was, perhaps, the most frightening ten minutes since I set up my business seven years ago.  More scary, even, than when the teleprompter goes down in a news studio.  And it taught me an important lesson that I hope will help you in your business.

It’s just before 1.45pm on Monday 24 August.  My three hour workshop for a big client (with breaks, of course) is due to start at 2pm.  I’ve agreed to ‘meet’ Jane, the person who’s booked me, at 1.50pm.  We’re going to check screen sharing and talk through any final requirements. 

But the Zoom link is taking a lot longer to load than usual.  

And then up comes a message:  ‘this account does not exist’, followed by lots of scrambled numbers.  It’s not a good look. 

I try again.  Same message.  I try with my Ipad.  Same message.  While trying with my Ipad, I turn off my laptop, hoping a reboot may revive things.  It doesn’t. 

It’s now 1.52pm.  A text from Jane: ‘are you on yet, John?  

It was time to break the news to her over the phone: the lively, powerful, fun, interactive online training experience that was going to help her staff deliver online meetings with style … might not be happening after all.  And it’s, surely, all my fault. 

She sounded as alarmed as me.  And then — oh, the relief — I heard her say: ‘er, hmm … I’ve got that message on my screen too … what’s going on here? …”

Within seconds, we’d figured it out.  I googled ‘zoom crash’.  This wasn’t my fault; this is an international problem.  I think we both felt as relieved as a pair of shipwreck survivors clinging to each other as they were tossed upon a dry shore. 

So it got us thinking about the need for a Plan B when you rely on tech. 

How we get around this in TV News

Plan A. Plan B is in the air conditioned studio.

Working in TV News, Plan B is a default position.  A recent “OB” — ‘outside broadcast’ — had been a case in point.  During a baking hot summer’s day, the editor had suggested we broadcast most of the programme from the local park.  By 5pm, we were out there: sofa, cameras, crew … but back in the studio, there was also a spare presenter, with spare scripts and spare reports, ready to go in case the satellite link to us in the park went down. 

We have a phrase for what this is trying to avoid.  “Falling off air”.  

So let’s just say that Jane and I spent some of the spare three hours we suddenly had to fill, testing out some Plan Bs, for the next time the tech lets us down and we fall off air, online.

Since then, I’ve taken the research further.  

I’d hoped it would be easy to come up with a simple recommendation online for alternatives to Zoom.  But an hour’s research just now has only offered contradictory facts amidst a jungle of articles, some clearly planted to promote one and knock the other.

 

What I’ve discovered that might help you

Ticks and crosses – my notes on my research. It’s a confusing picture.

Here, though, is what I’ve discovered that I hope may help you: 

  • Teams looks very much like Zoom, but Jane had problems seeing me while screen sharing during our tech check – though a subsequent test with another client leads me to believe that may have been a setting at Jane’s end.  I’ve read conflicting information about whether it has easily usable breakout rooms, or not.
  • Google Meet, it seems, can be instantly opened to any google user – I used it for the first time yesterday and it was smooth as silk.  But it appears not to offer private ‘chat’ or breakout rooms. 
  • WebEx allows you to record meetings locally, and has practice rooms for participants if you’re hosting big events.  But setting up a breakout room looks a bit fiddly.  

There’s a lot of advice out there, not all of it objective.  But of all the articles I read, this struck me as the clearest and most impartial: 

https://beebom.com/google-meet-vs-zoom-vs-microsoft-teams/

… while this had an easy comparison table: 

https://community.pepperdine.edu/it/tools/gsuite/googlemeet/comparison.htm

Two things, though, remain crystal clear. 

What’s on offer changes as fast as this virus.  You need to keep up. 

And if you don’t, and rely on only one platform, you could find yourself falling off air, online, more often than is good for business.


If you’d like to help your staff deliver more engaging meetings and training online, my “Hold the Zoom Room” workshop may be useful.  It’s based on the fact that in TV News, we know a thing or two about holding the attention down a lens.  

For a free trial, give me a call or drop me an email:

john@johnyoungmedia.co.uk or 07850 188620

Maybe I’m too old school.  Maybe 31 years reporting for BBC have turned me into too much of a fusspot when it comes to professional standards on air. 

But I’ve been quite taken aback at the shambles I’ve seen produced recently by companies hoping to be taken seriously as key players in our now online, “on air”, working world.  

Here are three recent examples — followed by three suggestions of how you can avoid making the same mistakes.  They may ensure that in this unforgiving new world of the laptop lens, your first impression isn’t your last.  Because people can turn off very easily when you’re online. 

PROBLEM 1:  The Business Guru who slurps his coffee 

I tuned into a talk given by a top Canadian business analyst guru the other day.  He’d done Ted (not just TedX), he was big on the US circuit, it seems he’s done the lot.  The title of his talk seemed relevant:  “Agility Online”, so I thought I’d give it a go.  But for me, his credibility online was undermined before he’d uttered a word. 

For the four minutes before the 4pm start (11am in Toronto), the gathering audience watched as he shuffled his papers, slurped his coffee, scratched his forehead, looked slightly stressed, fiddled with his laptop in front of him (at least, I’m assuming it was his laptop), adjusted his collar …

SOLUTION:  Don’t go on air until you’re ready to go on air.  There’s a reason TV News bulletins start at a set time: we’re need the minutes beforehand to shuffle our papers, slurp our coffee (well, water in a news studio: no hot drinks permitted), look slightly stressed, etc etc.  

It’s easy to conceal all this when presenting online by sharing a slide on your screen until you’re ready to go on air.  A bit like that test-card image anyone who watched TV in the 70s will be familiar with.  Though it might be better for you to use it for, say, the title of the talk, or information about the structure of your event.

PROBLEM 2:  The Interactive Trainer who wasn’t Interactive 

This comes from a webinar I watched recently, delivered by a hot-shot training company, promising tips on how to make online workshops more engaging.  (I’m pretty sure I’m ahead of the curve on that, but complacency can lead to a downfall, so I like to keep an eye on these things.)  

The trainer stressed the point I often make:  that online you need to work harder to keep your audience’s attention.  She urged us to use chat, use breakout rooms and polling.  But she didn’t use any — “no time” she cried, as she tore into the next text-heavy slide. 

SOLUTION:  if you suggest it, do it.  It goes back to the basics of good training: don’t simply tell people about an experience, get them to experience it for themselves.  And if that sounds a bit risky — because you’re not 100% sure of how to use chat, breakout rooms and polling yourself — then consider rehearsing on a forgiving audience first: your family.  

My step-father turned 86 in April: the little Zoom party I organised happened to involve a quiz (polling), a chance to catch up in smaller groups (breakout rooms) and written answers (chat).  It was the equivalent of me taking the car for a spin with the L plates on, to ensure my paid for webinars aren’t a car crash themselves.

 

Standing up gives gravitas. And banners give your business a plug.

PROBLEM 3:  Look Behind You 

Many people are picking up on all this now.  But there are still plenty of examples out there — in free webinars and paid for training, as well as interviewees on TV News bulletins — of people who appear not to have given a moment’s thought to, well, how they appear. 

I don’t mean hair and make-up.  We can all be forgiven for that these days.  I mean: the distracting image over the shoulder, the plant shooting out of the top of the head, the weird camera angle that suggests the speaker is about to either pounce down the lens, or disappear altogether if you blink. 

SOLUTION:  if you run a business, use this as a chance to promote it.  Remember those pop up banners gathering dust because you’re not popping up at any business conventions these days?  Pop them up. 

If you’ve not got banners, find a neutral wall for your backdrop.  Dress it a little with a plant (orchids look good), but not, I suggest, with a funky psychedelic piece of artwork that will only draw your audience’s attention away from what you’re saying.  And put your laptop on a pile of books to make sure you’re looking it in the eye, not down your nose. 

It’s easy for me to sneer.  We’re all learning fast.  Broadcasting has, until now, had a touch of glamour and mystery to it: look smart on air, they’ll never see the mess in the dressing room just across the corridor from the studio.  

But that era has gone. 

If you run a business, you’re in the broadcasting business.  We’re all on air, now.


If you’d like to experience a 45 minute workshop that uses polling, chat and breakout rooms to help you Hold the Zoom Room, I can help … find out more here …

Thank you, John, for a fun and inspiring session.

It’s made me think, laugh and learn – and I certainly left with some new, positive perspectives on my broadcasting approach.

I attended to get better at running training webinars — but soon realised that I can learn a lot from you on simply how to have a much more productive and useful video meeting!   So important in these days.

Maria Paviour, Occupational Psychologist, Trainer, Keynote Speaker

Did you sit up when you heard that question from the bespectactled vicar from Brighton? 

It was during one of those Zoom televised, socially distanced, remote controlled news conferences that we’ve become so used to.  And it put the Secretary of State for Health on the spot. 

Back in March, only journalists asked the questions of the Minister for the Day.  After a few week, the public were invited to join in.  I’m wondering whether the person who came up with that idea is having second thoughts now? 

The morning after the Rev Martin Poole asked his question, he was invited to appear on TV and radio bulletins across the land.  Here are three reasons why … followed by a suggestion of what anyone in business (especially if they are involved in internal comms) might takeaway from his big moment.

1. It was brief.

The question lasted 8 seconds and consisted of 16 words.  Here it is, in full.  “Will the government review all penalty fines imposed on families travelling for childcare purposes during lockdown?”

This isn’t the place to go into a background analysis of why this question was asked; if you’re reading this blog I’ll assume knowledge of the Cummings affair.  

Nor does the fact that I’m writing about it indicate any political agenda of my own — nine days after Mr Cummings was criticised for his road-trip during lockdown, the Labour MP for Canterbury, Rosie Duffield, was criticised for a countryside stroll during lockdown. The SNP have come unstuck, too.  

The point I want to share is that the question was so very short.  And it came in the setting where the public have become used to observing questions from reporters — some very senior reporters — that have been very, very, very long.  

Many of those very long questions have begun with an emotional story before moving onto a claim and then meandering to a point … and finally … sometimes to two people on the panel … an actual question.

Long rambling questions aren’t how I was trained as a BBC journalist back in the early 1990s, and I’m not sure it showcases journalistic techniques at their best. 

Short questions get more revealing answers.  That’s because there’s less time for the person answering the question to choose between their range of prepared answers.  

2.  It was pointed.  

One commentator the following morning described it as a ‘hallelulah’ moment for the nation.  Rev Poole himself told Good Morning Britain that a viewer in Spain had got in touch and used the same word. 

Nobody was left in any doubt what the vicar was driving at.  Nobody could argue it was unfair or irrelevant.  The response it got — ‘we’ll look into this and get back to you’ — was far more solid than most reporters’ questions have achieved.  

The fact that the answer very soon came back as ‘we won’t change anything’ is beside the point, and Rev Poole accepted that.  His carefully worded question had obliged a senior figure to respond. 

3.  … and it was polite.  

There was no anger in it.  No backstory filled with emotion to cloud the judgement.   There is a place for these things in communications, of course, and real human stories play a huge part in that.  But sometimes, all that’s needed to get a result is disarming brevity and courtesy. 

So — my Takeaway?

So here’s a suggestion for anyone who wants their teams and their staff to respect and trust them more.  Remind them of the Rev Poole Approach.  

You probably already encourage them to ask what they like, to be unafraid, to tell their stories and to seek straight answers.  I suspect you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t. 

But if you set them the the 16 Word Challenge next time you have a Zoom Team meeting, you’ll be showing them you’re happy to be put on the spot, too.  And that could be good news for both of you. 


Looking for a web-based workshop that will encourage your staff to keep the pace up during Zoom meetings, and help you get more messages across?  

Tap “Holding the Zoom Room” into Eventbrite, and join my 45 minute workshop online at 11am on Tuesday 23 June.   It’s £25 + VAT, but if you don’t feel it was worth it, I’ll simply give you your money back. 

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