10 tips for getting the most out of your videoconferences

Meetings: We all hate them. But like death and taxes, they seem to be inevitable. Whether your company is a multi-site corporation or a one-person consulting operation, traveling to and from meetings can eat up a large chunk of your budget. But with today's technology, there's more than one way to conduct a meeting.Telephone conferences have been taking the place of face-to-face meetings for a long time, but they leave a lot to be desired. With multiple people talking "blindly," it can be hard to discern who's saying what. Online chats solve that problem but add a new one. Without being able to hear a person's tone of voice, a lot of the meaning of their words may be lost.

Videoconferencing is the next best thing to being there. You're able to communicate via facial expressions, body language, and vocal variances, as you do in person. But getting the most out of a videoconference requires some preparation and planning. In this article, we'll discuss some best practices to help make your videoconferences more productive, whether you're running the show or attending your first videoconference.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Have the right hardware

Videoteleconferencing (VTC) systems are complex because they transmit both video and audio streams in real time, and in most cases, these streams are compressed and decompressed for more efficient travel over the network. Each participant needs a video camera or webcam and microphone to input data, and a monitor (or projector) and speakers for output of incoming data (and, of course, a sound card for the mic and speakers to plug into).

The easiest but most expensive way to ensure a high quality videoconference is to use a dedicated VTC system, such as those made by Polycom, Tandberg, and other companies. The less expensive method is to use desktop or laptop PCs with the appropriate peripherals. The low cost of webcams and the other necessary peripherals puts videoconferencing within almost everyone's budget.

Either way, good quality equipment can make the difference between a productive conference and one in which you spend so much time adjusting the equipment and trying to get a good picture or sound that you miss the content of the conference.

Note that you'll get the best sound quality if you use a good headset. When you have a microphone and speakers set up, it's common to get feedback that's unpleasant to listen to and that can obscure the conversation. Microphones that are built into webcams are usually low quality, too, even on high quality cameras. A headset almost always works best.

#2: Have the right software

Dedicated systems will come with their own software, but if you're going the poor-man's route with webcam-equipped PCs, you can choose from a variety of software programs. If you're meeting with one person, you can use free software, such as Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, AIM, or Skype, among many others.

For multiperson video meetings on a tight budget, you can use free or low cost programs, such as iVisit, ineen, and SightSpeed Pro edition. Enterprise-level conferencing tools include WebEx and Windows Live Meeting software.

Many subscription-based Web conferencing services are available in a wide range of prices, such as HearMe and eBoardroom.

The most important factor in choosing software is to ensure that it will do what you need. Some conferencing software limits the number of conference participants, for example. If you need to be able to give PowerPoint presentations, transmit whiteboard diagrams, share applications or the desktop, distribute files to participants, etc., be sure that the software you pick supports those options.

#3: Check the equipment beforehand

Because a video conference is a somewhat complex operation, plenty of things can go wrong. Just because your equipment worked last week or even earlier today doesn't guarantee that something hasn't changed in your settings or on your network. Just as a pilot goes through a preflight checklist prior to every takeoff, you should test your equipment prior to every conference. It can be embarrassing and frustrating to have a dozen people waiting on you to troubleshoot a problem before you can join the conference.

#4: Check the firewall

A common cause for failure of videoconferencing software is that the protocols it uses are being blocked by the firewall. If you don't have sole control over your company's firewalls, you could find yourself in this position at any time. For instance, if your conferencing software uses the H.323 protocols and the firewall is not H.323 aware, it will block the conferencing traffic. You'll need to open the appropriate ports on the firewall.

Professional conferencing products can work around this problem. For example, Tandberg's Expressway solution traverses firewalls without creating a security risk.

#5: Deal with bandwidth problems

Videoconferencing puts big bandwidth demands on your Internet connection. If you have a low bandwidth connection (or a high bandwidth connection that's being shared by many users), you may have trouble transmitting clear video and audio signals.

Many people don't realize that the more movement the camera has to record, the higher the data rate. If you're in a limited bandwidth situation, you should make an effort to avoid excess movement (such as "talking with your hands").

#6: Use the self-view window

Most videoconferencing client software lets you see yourself (as seen by your camera) in a self-view window. Use this feature to check how you appear to others in the conference. Ensure that you're not too close or too far away from the camera, that you aren't off center, that part of your face isn't obscured, that a light source isn't lighting you up harshly, that you aren't in shadows, that you aren't looking up into the camera, and that it isn't looking up at you from below.

You should check all this before the conference actually starts and make adjustments as needed to present the most professional appearance, but it's also a good idea to keep checking throughout the conference. However, don't make large, obvious adjustments while the conference is going on, as this can be disruptive to the meeting.

#7: Remove distractions ahead of time

Before the conference starts, remove distractions -- or potential distractions. If you're at your desk at work, close your office door and lock it if possible or consider placing a sign on it to prevent co-workers from bursting in during the conference. Turn off the ringers on your phones (including cell phones).

If you're videoconferencing from home, it's especially important to deal with possible interruptions beforehand. Let your spouse and kids know that you're going to be in a business meeting and should not be disturbed for anything short of a real emergency. Lock pets out of the room; even the most well-behaved animals seem to have a knack for barking/meowing or jumping up onto your lap at just the wrong time when you're on camera.

Whether at work or at home, close computer applications that may play sounds at inopportune times (such as the chime your e-mail program plays when mail is received). It's often a good idea to mute your audio completely when you aren't speaking, especially if there are a large number of participants.

#8: Dress the part

The nice thing about a telephone conference is that it doesn't matter how you look. You can conduct business when your hair's a mess and you're wearing your grungiest sweats. That's not so for a videoconference. Even if you're working from home, the best practice is to dress professionally, as you would if you were meeting with these people face to face.

Some folks try to get away with "half dress." Because the camera will normally be focused on your face and upper body, you might be tempted to wear a dress shirt and jacket over cut-off shorts and bare feet. Usually, you can get away with it. But what if something unexpected happens and you have to get up while the camera's running or the camera itself falls over and shows the rest of the meeting attendees what your bottom half looks like? It's easier to just dress in normal business attire -- for all parts of your body. You also might want to take a tip from the TV news folks: Light, solid-color clothing (such as pale blue) looks best on video.

#9: Don't multitask

Because you're at your desk with your computer in front of you, you might be tempted to work on other items, read your e-mail, or surf the Web during lulls, such as when someone else is talking/presenting. Don't. Even when you aren't speaking, others may be watching your facial expression to gauge your reaction, and it's best to appear interested. Besides, you may miss important parts of the discussion and thus be unprepared when it is your turn to speak.

Checking your Blackberry during a normal meeting is rude, and it's just as rude to attend to other things while you're in a videoconference.

#10: Observe standard meeting etiquette

All the same rules apply as when attending a "real" meeting: Don't be late; don't interrupt or speak when others are speaking; don't get emotional. Introduce yourself the first time you speak (unless it's a one-to-one meeting with someone you know well). State your positions or comments clearly and concisely -- don't ramble on or hog the floor, and don't bring up issues that aren't related to the agenda of the conference.

Debra Littlejohn Shinder is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. These include Scene of the Cybercrime: Computer Forensics Handbook, published by Syngress, and Computer Networking Essentials, published by Cisco Press. She is co-author, with her husband, Dr. Thomas Shinder, of Troubleshooting Windows 2000 TCP/IP, the best-selling Configuring ISA Server 2000, and ISA Server and Beyond.