Remote Presentations

by Guest on February 17, 2010

Here’s another guest post! This one is contributed by Mark Marley, a scientist at NASA Ames Research Center working on modeling the atmospheres of planets and brown dwarfs.

Video ConferencingYou’ve been invited to give a talk at a workshop that will lead to a new spacecraft instrument proposal in Europe, but your spouse is leaving town the day of the meeting and someone has to get the kids to school. Facing this dilemma this week led to my first ever experience giving a remote science talk. Experience with video conferences for things like committee meetings, remote observing, and panel reviews really didn’t provide as much relevant experience as I first thought. There are a number of considerations unique to giving a talk to a camera lens while your virtual audience sits 9 time zones and 6000 miles away. I felt my first stab at this was acceptable, but the experience left me wondering about how to do it better next time. In that vein I’ll share my experience and I hope anyone who has given or listened to a remote talk will add their suggestions.

The Setup

First I’ll say a few words about the setup. Our conference room has a Polycom video system that was clearly installed with committee meetings in mind. The camera, sitting atop a big TV, looks down at a large conference table. This normally would allow a remote participant to see everyone in the room during a committee meeting, for example, but provides an odd perspective for a talk. I think next time I would move the video equipment to a separate spot that provides a friendlier, less detached view.

Stand or Sit? Zoomed in or Out?

Apple 1984This leads to a second perspective issue, should I stand or sit? A quick pre-talk poll of two friends who had each done this once found one vote for each option. Thinking that standing would be awkward, I chose to sit and framed the video to show me at the table, anchor man style. Certainly you wouldn’t want to zoom in too tightly, lest you look like the “1984” Macintosh ad But I’m thinking I was probably a bit too pulled back, reducing my face to a small fraction of the screen. I also wonder if standing, with the video zoomed in to show upper body and arms, wouldn’t be a better choice.

Where to Look?

As I spoke the remote system played my presentation back on the TV at my location, while the audience saw both my presentation on the main screen and a smaller side video of me. Thus there were none of the usual audience cues for me as a speaker and despite my best intentions, I think I ended up speaking to the charts on the TV more often than the looming camera. Next time I’ll bring a stuffed animal or a bright sign to place by the camera to provide an extra cue to smile and look at the “audience”.

No Pointer!

It goes without saying that the presentation slides themselves need to be clear and self-explanatory (as they should be regardless). As there was no remote pointer I used lots of bright red lines, arrows, and labels to point out key features of graphs and images.

Until we get closer to routine Avatar style 3D presentations, I don’t think there is any way that a remote talk can be as effective as an in person one (but has anyone ever attended one of the motivational speaker events hyped by Donald Trump?). Any ideas for what works well? Has anyone used a more modern setup with better presenter tools?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Raffaele D'Abrusco February 17, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Thanks for your post, Kelle, it’s very interesting and useful, just like all posts on Astrobetter…
I’d like to point you at the possibility of having remote talks and meetings in a virtual environment like Second Life. We at MICA ( have had scientific seminars, professional meetings and informal talks for three years now gathering people from far away spots in the world. My feeling is that the immersive environments represent an amazingly intuitive and natural medium for scientific and professional interactions – even if not reaching (yet?) Avatar-esque heights… I was skeptical but had to change my mind. Give it a try, if you are interested in experiencing new channels.


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