I've been a critic of Zoom in the past for some of their narrow-minded software development decisions. As with most online conferencing platforms that market their software mainly to people looking for an informal peer-to-peer meeting solution, Zoom tends to focus on that core customer base and neglect the narrower scope of people who use their software to host formal webinar events. But I'll give credit where credit is due and report that Zoom has rolled out a new feature designed precisely to help webinar organizers execute smoother-running webinars.
In order to tell you about what this new feature is and how it works, I first need to provide some background on how visual material (typically, slides) is transmitted to an audience during a webinar. There are two main ways, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. This will take a little bit of explaining, so please bear with me.
Some webinar platforms (Webex and BigMarker are two examples) enable organizers to upload slide content directly into the webinar interface itself for all of the presenters to see. Then, during the webinar, anyone on the presentation team can control those slides with a built-in slide control mechanism on their screen (usually clickable arrows or clickable slide thumbnails).
This "upload" method is very convenient. It allows each individual presenter to easily advance their slides with a single click of the mouse when it's their turn to present. They don't have to transmit their slides locally from their own computer, which usually results in long awkward pauses as they try to figure out how to do this on the fly, and they don't have to rely on someone else to advance their slides for them.
The "upload" approach, however, also presents some major downsides. The platforms that employ this method usually convert each slide into an individual static image, discarding any transitions or animations that were built into the original presentation. The conversion process can also cause other problems, including font substitutions, misaligned text, and other formatting issues.
Other webinar platforms (Zoom and GoToWebinar are two examples) use a different process to convey slides to an audience. Rather than allowing organizers to upload a single, consolidated slide deck into the webinar interface, presenters are required to share their slides directly from their own computers using the platform's built-in "screensharing" functionality.
The "screensharing" method has its benefits. If a presenter is literally broadcasting the slides they pull up on their own computer screen, then the audience will see the slides exactly as the presenter intends them to be seen. There are no formatting problems to worry about and any original movement effects remain in the presentation.
But to be perfectly frank, the "screensharing" method is a pain in the neck. As already mentioned, presenters never pull this off smoothly when it's their turn to present. You can't expect an already-nervous speaker to quickly find the screensharing apparatus, remember the correct series of mouse clicks to initiate the screensharing, smoothly navigate to the first slide in their slideshow, and do all this without making the embarrassing mistake of accidentally sharing something else on their screen first. And then, since their entire screen must contain only the visual material they want the audience to see, they suddenly lose easy access to the webinar interface and all of its important tools. Screensharing was never made for webinars. It was made for informal collaborative meetings between small groups of co-workers who need to share documents with each other.
But for the webinar platforms that require the screensharing of slides, there are ways to make things easier. The best way is to combine all of the individual presentations and other webinar slides into one single slide deck and then assign one person, ideally a non-presenter like the webinar producer or host, to share those slides continually from a dedicated "slide host" computer. This prevents the series of awkward pauses and mishaps as the webinar transitions from one screensharing presenter to another. However, like a game of Whac-A-Mole, one problem is solved as another one pops up. Now, there's seemingly no way for the presenters to advance their own slides. They'll have to rely on that one non-presenter "slide host" to do it for them using their verbal cues.
Fortunately, many screensharing platforms offer a "remote control" feature that enables the person sharing the slides to give control of their keyboard to individual presenters as needed. Since PowerPoint can be controlled by a keyboard's arrow keys, the presenters can use this remote control method to advance their own slides using their own keyboards. In theory, it sounds great. But in practice, the process of initiating the remote control can be even more complicated for each presenter than starting their own screenshare. Plus, there are all kinds of PowerPoint-related issues involved with this approach that I won't even get into. In the end, it's easier to delegate slide control to that one person and live with the repetitive "next slide" cues from the presenters.
A while back, when all hope of a satisfactory solution to multi-presenter screensharing webinars seemed lost, I stumbled across a third-party web app that actually lets presenters remotely control the slides running on another computer with their phone! This is the primary solution I still use today when producing and hosting webinars for my clients. The single consolidated slide deck is opened on a dedicated computer which also runs the third-party slide control app. Each presenter is sent a link that they open on their phone—and presto!—their phone screen becomes a slide clicker with forward and backward arrows. Just as if they were up on a stage with a portable clicker, they simply tap the arrows on their phone to move their slides. The slide host even has a control panel with which to enable and disable control for individual presenters.
I don't really know how this works, but I don't need to. All I know is that it does work. Granted, the app isn't perfect and it needs some tweaks and improvements, but it does the job and solves all of the problems cited above. My only concern has been that the little company that developed it will go out of business and the app will disappear.
Finally, now that we're up to date on the development and evolution of webinar slide transmission and control, it's time for the big reveal. What exactly is this new feature released by Zoom that makes multi-presenter webinars easy?
It's all of the above—rolled into one!
Zoom has combined the benefits of the "upload" method with the benefits of the "screensharing" method using the very viable remote control approach taken by the third-party slide control app I've found so useful.
On Zoom, you still have to screenshare your slides as always. But if you consolidate all of your slides into one single slide deck and assign one non-presenter to share those slides from a dedicated computer, that slide host can now select individual presenters (or "panelists," as Zoom calls them) from a control menu to remotely control those slides. This isn't the old-style keyboard remote control. This is the exact same concept used by the third-party web app mentioned above. The only difference is that, instead of controlling the slides from a phone, Zoom has built the control arrows right into the Zoom interface for each presenter given access by the slide host. It's as if the slides were loaded right into the webinar interface, à la the "upload" method, allowing the presenters to advance their slides with one easy mouse click.
Since finding that third-party app, I've often wished that the webinar platforms employing the screensharing approach would implement this concept. Heck, Zoom could have bought out that little company for their software and made someone a millionaire. Instead, it must have been easy enough for Zoom to develop the same thing in-house on their own.
In any event, I'm just happy that, for a change, Zoom is finally thinking about ways to make life easier for their webinar customers.
UPDATE: After employing the new Zoom slide control feature for a few months, I've discontinued using it with my webinar clients. On numerous occasions, presenters have had their slides move rapidly forwards or backwards for no apparent reason while using the feature. I've reported the problem to Zoom, but they insist that nobody else has reported the problem (probably because the feature is disabled by default and most people don't even know it exists in the first place) and that they can't replicate it themselves. When a software company can't replicate a problem reported by its users, the software company usually doesn't consider it a problem. So now I'm back to using the third-party slide control web app, which I've decided I like better anyway. Even when I try to compliment and credit Zoom for forward-looking innovation, I find myself having to retract it in the end.
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