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PRO TALK - Virtual Genealogy Presentations

Professional genealogists and societies know how expensive, inconvenient, physically draining, and time-consuming it is to schedule a speaker. There are issues with lighting, having sufficient handouts, and connecting to an LCD that has relationship issues with your laptop. There are numerous ways for professional genealogists to continue presenting economically without ever leaving home. Not only is the technology there, it is literally there on most people's computers – both presenters' and attendees' computers.


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It is a misperception that the cost of virtual presentations is expensive. It is not, especially in comparison to the cost of room and equipment reservations.

Teleconferencing, via telephone or the internet, is also less expensive for attendees. Someone who might not be able to attend because they cannot afford the hotel and airfare, might jump at the chance to participate online.

The Cost of Virtual Presentations

Let's use the conference costs at a central Illinois college as an example. This campus charges $400 per day for a lecture room large enough to accommodate 90 attendees, with a ceiling mounted projector and microphone. If presenters sell merchandise on campus during their presentation, the college collects 20 percent of the profits. Food service and parking is additional. Speakers or societies are also responsible for presenting proof of insurance against personal injury or death, or damage to campus property.

For the presenter, there is the added cost of travel and perhaps overnight accommodations. While it might seem reassuring that a conference center could provide technical support, they may charge in the neighborhood of $25 per hour just to connect your laptop to their LCD projector.

Teleconferencing is a more economical solution for both the presenter and for clients. The facility rental cost disappears immediately. Instead, presenters "rent" teleconferencing time.

The approach many people are taking is to have everyone call in at the beginning of the session and remain online until the end. During most of that time, attendees are merely listening.

What Happens to My Current Presentations?

Using your existing presentations, you can easily adapt to teleconferencing. The presentation is the same, and incorporates interaction with those attending the presentation.

Presenters generally reserve time at the end to field questions; however, there is nothing preventing a presenter from inviting questions throughout. To prevent interruptions, most presenters require that all attendees mute their lines during the bulk of the presentation.

That means the attendees cannot speak while the presenter is speaking. It also means that, if someone sneezes during the presentation, it is not broadcast to all of the participants online!

When the presenter is ready to receive questions, attendees un-mute their lines. The teleconference provider will issue a specific number to press on their telephone to alternate between muted and un-muted status.

If you are merely doing teleconferencing, a webcam is not necessary. Unfortunately, it does mean callers are staring off into space while the presenter is talking. To overcome this, I provide callers with a PowerPoint presentation they can click through while I am speaking. Chances are you already have PowerPoint presentations you use when you speak. You will use those same presentations in a teleconference.

Attendees reported that it is not distracting at all that I tell them when to click to advance the next slide. As a speaker, I make a point of anticipating smooth segues from one slide to the next. Instead of constantly telling callers to click, I used devices such as, "On the next slide you'll see a list of the three most important things we need to be aware of."

Is Teleconferencing Expensive?

Teleconferencing is far less expensive than traveling, renting space, and perhaps even renting an LCD for projecting your PowerPoint slides.

The bulk of the cost is borne by the caller who pays for a long-distance phone call for the duration of the presentation. Let's say a caller is paying ten cents per minute for a long-distance phone call. A two-hour presentation delivered via a long-distance teleconference will only cost them $12.00. While we all grew up with the fear of racking up exorbitant long-distance charges, $12.00 is the cost of lunch in a sit-down restaurant.

The question you should be asking at this point is how to get some of that money into your pocket. In a traditional presentation setting, attendees would pay perhaps $25 per session, each lasting about an hour. Plus, attendees would pay the cost of travel and accommodations. With teleconferencing, they no longer have to spend money on travel and accommodations. They connect from home.

Presenters can still charge a fee per person, requiring that attendees pay a registration before being given the teleconference number to call in order to participate. Even if a presenter reduces the usual cost for registration to counter the cost of the long-distance phone call, they still benefit because the presenter also does not have to travel and stay overnight. And, you'll be much fresher for having slept in your own bed the night before!

There are a couple of added bonuses that warrant a closer look. In a traditional setting, you are no longer dependent upon someone else's scheduling. Teleconferencing frees you to present any time you want. You no longer have to wait until that once a year conference, or the random request to give a presentation. You can present year round, when it fits your schedule.

Some teleconferencing services offer the option of recording your presentation. This means you can record your portion and, at the end of your presentation, open up the phone lines for callers. Or, you can skip the call-in portion. Another option is to give away the recorded portion free, as a download, and then charge a fee for live support. Some presenters are using text-based chat tools which you will find all over the place. Some use traditional telephone calls. Others use web-based technology with a live webcam to communicate.

The great thing about all of these options is that presenters already have the content. Presenters do not need to change anything they are already doing. In order to compete, they simply need to learn to use a few additional tools.

Is Teleconferencing Complicated?

So how do you go about doing all this? It is largely a matter of rethinking what you already have. First, you need to charge a fee to cover your costs. This is not the long-distance phone call cost. This is your speaker fee.

Just about everyone has PayPal these days. That is one of the simplest ways to process the fee. Registrants can also opt to submit payment to you by electronic bill pay from their checking account. If you have a credit card processing system set up, you can also use that. The most time-consuming method is to accept a check or money order by U.S. mail. That process is slow and registrants need to be sure to submit payment in time to participate. With PayPal, registration can take place right up to presentation time.

You already have a telephone and you will need that for the most basic teleconferencing. Although, there are web-based teleconferencing options that do not require a telephone.

Can I Do This On My Own?

I have participated in events where a presenter had a mediator who introduced them. Coming from a traditional classroom setting, I am used to being a one-woman show. I prefer not to have a mediator. I find that the purpose a mediator serves best is to clarify how the session will go, where to find additional resources, and general instructions. As an instructor, that has always been part of my job and I don't feel that I need a host.

As a professional presenter, keep in mind that it is not necessary to point out obvious things like if a caller gets disconnected. They cannot hear you confirm that they have been disconnected and it does not affect the others on the call. If someone does get disconnected, they simply call back.

My experience has been that the caller's connection has been the issue and there has been nothing the teleconferencing service or I could have done to prevent it. I suspect features like an attendee's call waiting may have been the culprit.

What Can I Do With Just A Telephone and A Computer?

There are a number of services available. Some services are inexpensive, while others are free.

First, decide if you want to use audio, or whether you feel it is essential to include video. There are audio teleconference services that require nothing more than giving your presentation over the telephone while attendees listen.

I have used successfully. This service does not charge the presenter anything. The caller merely pays their usual long-distance telephone charge. This service can handle up to 96 callers at one time, all listening to you present live. The sound is sharp and the service is reliable.

Anytime you are using audio, consider using headphones. Without headphones, you will hear some audio feedback, at times.

How Do I Give a Video Presentation?

Video teleconferencing services require that you have a webcam. Your attendees need nothing more sophisticated than their favorite web-browser and probably a plug-in like Quick Time. If they have been watching videos of kittens on You Tube or videos of their grandson's first steps, they are probably prepared to participate!

You deliver the same presentation you would have given in person. The only difference is no one has had to travel.

You can email your slide presentation to attendees ahead of time. During the teleconference, they can click through the slides alongside you. If you are distributing a PowerPoint presentation, keep in mind that it might not open on a computer using a different platform. Test it first. Make sure you have saved it in a compatible format. The same goes for any text files you distribute: verify they will open on attendee's computers.

The advantage to using a webcam is you can demonstrate items, just like you would in a traditional classroom. If you cannot live without a whiteboard, set your webcam up in front of a whiteboard! Of course, you can always email the information you normally write on a whiteboard, or create a download link for it ahead of time.

When I give video presentations, I use two computers. I have my laptop, with the camera and microphone, sitting right next to my desktop monitor.

I use the webcam and microphone on my laptop for the presentation but, if I am clicking through a PowerPoint presentation, I use my desktop computer to walk through what the attendees are doing. According to attendee feedback, it is not distracting. I prefer doing it that way so I can see what the students should be seeing at any given moment.

What About My Beautiful Handouts?

I email handouts to attendees ahead of time. I use the same materials I use in a live presentation.

To make them more accessible by attendees, I distribute them in PDF format. PDF formatted files can be read by any computer, regardless of platform, using a free PDF reader.

What About That One-On-One Connection?

Whether you use a telephone or Internet connection, you can still include a two-way conversation. Everyone on the call is privy to the question-and-answer period.

Some presenters offer the individual interaction as a fee-based option. If you prefer to offer individual call-in support for a fee, I recommend"TokBox. This is a Mozilla product and requires the Firefox browser. TokBox phonecalls are free, and it is very easy to set up. Each user needs an e-mail address and must log in to TokBox in order for it to work. Essentially, it "calls" from one e-mail address to another, which is why it involves no cost. It works quite well with a webcam so you and your client can see, as well as hear, one another. It is limited to one-to-one communication.

Skype is another popular product that you can use for communicating with clients. If all callers are Skype clients, the call is free. Skype teleconferencing can include up to 24 Skypers. Skype software is free and must be downloaded and installed on the attendee's computer.

What Do My Attendees Need to Do?

Teleconference attendees need to communicate with you based on whatever method you choose. If you opt for the more traditional telephone-based teleconference, I highly recommend a speakerphone. Often attendees will want to take notes and it will be much easier if they are using a speakerphone.

If you choose to use TokBox, your end-user will need to install Mozilla's Firefox, if they do not have it already. Skype users need to install the Skype software on their computer.

Regardless of the web-based system you choose to use, attendees will need to register for their accounts prior to class. Remind registrants that they need to test out their account prior to class by contacting someone they know, just to make sure their account is working and that they know how to find and adjust the volume control. Some services have a practice account participants can use beforehand to make sure they have everything installed and functioning properly.

For a more positive experience, I recommend attendees wear headphones or use external speakers. They will likely be able to hear the presentation better, especially if they are surrounded by ambient noise.


You may be wondering what the drawback is to all this. You do have to rely on attendees setting up their environment. But, frankly, I find setting up the few technical necessities far less daunting than making travel arrangements and getting a strange presentation room set up.

Once an attendee has things set up, they do not need to make arrangements in the future. They connect the same way as during previous sessions.

The biggest drawback you are likely to encounter with web-based presentations is the fact that some users are still using modems to access the internet. Audio and video over the Internet rarely ever works well over a modem, if it communicates at all.

Libraries and historical and genealogical societies often have computers with fast Internet access. If attendees use headphones and are granted access, they can probably participate by borrowing computer time.

Telephone-based teleconferencing does not involve Internet access. Teleconference attendees need only a telephone.

There are many teleconferencing services out there. Hearing-impaired attendees often appreciate the online or teleconference approach because they can control the volume so much better. As time goes on, we all become more accustomed to new ways of communicating.

When I was a child, we had a party-line. When I got a little older, I had my own telephone in my bedroom. Eventually, cell phones appeared. And then the Internet became a way of life. Distance education – televising a class in session – became more popular.

Each step along the way became a traditional way of doing things. These transitions have each increased communication and the number of individuals we can communicate with. This is just one more step along the way and it is becoming the new tradition.

Source Information: PRO Talk, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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