Hybrid seminars: why the majority fail
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.
1. What are hybrid seminars, hybrid workshops and hybrid conferences?
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).
2. “List of horrors”: experiences that you will want to avoid during hybrid seminars at all costs
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.
a) Technical problems in hybrid seminars
Technical problems for event organizers
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.
- The Internet connection is unstable. The picture freezes, the sound breaks up and can barely be heard or is lost completely. The remote participants become annoyed.
- The web conferencing tool stops unexpectedly. It crashes or kicks the participants out because the scheduled time is up. Sometimes too the event organizer hasn’t booked enough spaces, meaning that participants are not even able to log in.
- Another cause for embarrassment is when the event organizer has forgotten their password and is desperately trying to start the web conferencing tool (Zoom, GotoMeeting, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, etc.).
- Audio issues are a regular problem for speakers and participants at the live event: Barely audible or intelligible comments from remote participants squawk out of the mini speakers on the teacher’s PC or the specially provided external speakers bought for €19.80. Unfortunately, they’re not capable of getting the sound to the back rows.
- When the volume is finally turned up so it’s loud enough, you get annoying feedback. This not only happens when the attendees log in to the web conferencing tool, but also when the speakers in the seminar room are too close to the speaker’s microphone.
- Audio issues annoy remote participants too. They can’t understand the attendees’ questions and feel left out. Often it is not just a case of the volume being too low. Fluctuations in the volume and echoing are also tiresome.
- For many speakers, technology is synonymous with pure stress. Starting from the moment when it becomes clear that their computer won’t connect to the event organizer’s infrastructure. These incompatibilities include old VGA connections, different HDMI plug sizes and missing USB-C to USB 2.0 adapters and vice versa.
- Then there are compatibility problems with the other hardware: microphones and cameras are not recognized. Audio interfaces only transmit one channel. The speaker’s PC no longer has a mini plug socket. This is unfortunate when the videos that form an important part of the seminar are then rendered useless.
- Even when everything works, the following challenges can arise: the screen resolution on the speaker’s PC changes for the worse and neither they nor the participants can read the text-laden slides.
- Because the OHP can only display the same video signal that the remote listeners can see, the attendees also see the speaker’s camera image on the screen. That doesn’t give a very professional impression.
- Sometimes it’s just small things that lead to the remote participants being excluded: the headset battery is flat. But it’s often only detected when all the cables have been checked and replaced, the audio mixer and the speaker’s PC have been restarted and, just to make sure, another microphone has been tested.
Technical problems for speakers
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:
- Streaming and showing the presentation simultaneously is too much for the computer, which then stalls. The egg timer symbol sabotages a successful day of seminars.
- The cloud service has decided it’s a good time to sync everything. There’s not enough bandwidth left to transfer audio and video, which tries the patience of the remote listeners.
- The security policies on the speaker’s computer prevent the web conferencing tool from being used, the screen from being shared or data from being accessed. It would have been useful to be able to forward the practical task to the remote listeners.
- It’s also vexing when an operating system or security update, which unfortunately can’t be interrupted, brings the speaker’s computer to a standstill for an hour.
- Sometimes computers also seem to crash for no reason. The speaker can’t remember the last time their computer was rebooted.
Many speakers don’t know how to use the technology and this is not just down to their abilities:
- The web conferencing tool disappears behind the presentation. This means that the speaker can neither see the remote listeners nor their questions in the chat. The interaction collapses.
- The speaker’s display is no longer working. The speaker only sees the presentation, not their notes or the preview of the next slide. This makes many speakers nervous.
- When the teleprompter fails, many lecturers don’t know what to do: sit at their computer like in online conferences? Stand like in a normal face-to-face seminar?
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.
Problems due to a lack of preparation
Speakers could save themselves a lot of embarrassment such as:
- pop-ups that inform them that they’ve received an email from their partner asking them to call at the drugstore on their way home
- a desktop crammed with files and folders, which the participants hopefully don’t associate with the speaker’s classification system
- open programs that are of more interest to the participants than the contents of the presentation.
Technical problems for participants
Issues also come up for participants at almost every event:
- they don’t know their access data (anymore) or have forgotten the link;
- security policies don’t allow the web conferencing tool to open;
- the microphone or camera don’t work or are of questionable quality;
- or the Internet connection is unstable and leads to poor audio and video quality.
b) Communication issues in the case of hybrid seminars
Even technology in working order is no guarantee for a successful hybrid seminar. The setup can make communication difficult:
- concentrate on the attendees and forget the remote participants
- overlook the questions in the chat
- fail to pay the remote participants as much attention in the break-out rooms as the attendees
- never look directly at the remote participants because to do that they have to look into the camera and not at the auditorium. As a result, the remote participants feel that they are not being addressed.
The remote participants
- don’t pay attention, or they answer emails at the same time, surf the net or do the housework
- despite the explicit request of the speaker, don’t give any feedback or answer any questions
- switch their cameras off, making interaction even harder
- register with a fake or incomplete name, meaning that the speaker cannot address them personally
- can’t follow everything that is happening in the event room, so get bored and switch off,
- (for the same reason) suddenly interrupt the presentation with questions
- distract the speaker and attendees with “creative backgrounds” or surprising insights into their home environment.
c) Organizational problems in the case of hybrid seminars
Sometimes hybrid seminars fail due to organizational problems:
- the link to the web conferencing tool is invalid or was sent at too short notice;
- there is no concept of how the answers will be checked in the case of exercises or presented by the remote participants;
- the event organizer has the crazy idea that as many participants can join as they like just because the web conferencing tool allows it. They overlook the fact that more participants also take part in the exercises and need their questions answering.
d) Consequences of these issues
Most participants can see the consequences of these problems in online and hybrid seminars for themselves.
- These formats not only mean a great deal of stress for the speakers but for organizers too. This means that the necessary energy is lacking for the seminar.
- The remote listeners are also stressed: poor acoustics, especially changes in volume, background noise and echoing lead to cognitive overload. This is why they switch off.
- The above-mentioned problems make them feel left out, get bored and miss relevant points.
So, neither the seminar participants nor the speakers achieve their common goals:
- to convey and obtain knowledge and skills respectively
- to have a good day (together).
3. Requirements for hybrid seminars and other hybrid events
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:
- remote participants
- event organizers
a) Requirements from the speaker’s point of view
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.
b) Requirements from the point of view of the remote participants
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 speakers
- their documents, such as presentations
- whiteboards and flip charts in the event room
- the (other) participants
The remote participants want to know exactly how the event is structured, what is expected of them and when breaks start and end.
c) Requirements from the point of view of the attendees
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.
4. Approaches to solving technical problems for hybrid events
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:
- Signal 1: their own computer screen. This would be the Presenter View on PowerPoint. Some speakers prefer to use their own computer as a monitor;
- Signal 2: the remote participants and the web conferencing tool including the chat.
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:
- background noise like participants speaking among themselves, chairs scraping, the rustle of papers
- echoing in a non-soundproofed room
- different volumes depending how far the person asking the question is from the microphone
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:
- a professional audio and video mixing table to enable the routing shown above
- remote controls for the cameras
- a streaming PC with web conferencing software (Zoom, GotoMeeting, Google Meet, Big Blue Button, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, etc.) installed
- a preview monitor for the operator
5. Possible solutions for teaching at hybrid seminars
Technology is not enough. It only offers the necessary, but not sufficient, requirements for successful hybrid events.
a) Challenges that need to be taken into account when teaching
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:
- participation is more tiring, even in the case of high-quality audio and video signals;
- even if the technology is really good, you still have to get used to using it and be able to get it running smoothly;
- remote participants are usually in an environment where they are surrounded by more distractions than in the event room;
- because nobody’s watching them (e.g. the person next to them or the speaker), there is a great temptation to carry out other tasks at the same time: reply to emails, surf the Internet, do tasks for the boss.
b) Measures for speakers
Shorter blocks and longer and well-communicated breaks, reduce cognitive overload
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.
A clear value proposition increases motivation
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.
Activation through exercises and tasks increases concentration and learning success
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.
Handouts help speakers and remote participants to overcome the obstacles
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.
6. The costs of equipping hybrid events with technology
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) Success factor 1: technology
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.
b) Success factor 2: organization and active collaboration
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:
- speakers must adapt their teaching methods and make an extra effort to actively involve remote participants;
- remote participants must concentrate hard, actively collaborate and resist distractions in their home environment and on the Internet.
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.