Lessons from moderating three virtual panels

I spoke at a conference Tuesday for the first time since February, and this time the dress code was a little different: no pants required.

That’s because my appearance at Futureproof IT came through my laptop’s webcam and the Zoom video-chat app, leaving nothing below my chest visible to the remote audience. That’s also how I moderated two more panels this week for the Collision conference that was originally set to run in Toronto in June but has since migrated to a digital format, with my appearances among those recorded in advance.

And that’s how I expect all of my conference speaking to happen for at least the next few months, thanks to the novel-coronavirus pandemic ruining everything.

I’ve learned a lot about successful panel moderation on a physical stage, but doing so in a virtual environment brings new challenges.

Start with picking and positioning a webcam. The camera in my aging iMac is at a good height relative to me when sitting, but it also delivers a subpar 720p resolution–and from that angle, I’d have natural light from the windows hitting only one side of my face. My HP laptop, meanwhile, has a 1080p webcam, and by parking it atop a stepladder and then a large tin topped by the thickest book I could find in my office (a hardcover of Dune), I could position it high enough while allowing myself to face my office’s windows.

(If I’d only bought the Wirecutter-endorsed Logitech C920S webcam in the Before Times, I could have stuck the thing on a tripod and be done with it. As the song goes, there’s a lot of things if I could I’d rearrange.)

The Collision panels added another complication: a request for a pale, blank backdrop. I managed that by hanging a white bedsheet from the ceiling with packing tape and binder clips–the tape stuck to the drywall, but I needed the clips to hold the tape to the sheet.

And then none of my other panelists showed up with pale, blank backgrounds. That’s one reassuring aspect of this: Not only can you expect somebody else to have audio or video hiccups, you can also expect somebody else to have a worse backdrop or camera angle.

Before kicking off a virtual panel, you must also silence every other device in the room, and my failure to think through “every other device” meant the Futureproof panel was not interruption-proof. As in, we were distracted by the one thing I didn’t think to put in do-not-disturb mode, an old Trimline land-line phone on my desk mainly for nostalgia purposes.

At least I didn’t have to change any settings on the laptop, thanks to Windows 10’s Focus Assist quashing interruptions from other apps once I switched Zoom to full-screen mode. But that also meant I had to look elsewhere for a timer: I couldn’t see the lock in the Windows taskbar, while Zoom’s option to show your connected time doesn’t account for minutes spent prepping on a call before a panel begins. I made do with the clock apps on my phone and iPad.

All three panels suffered from a certain latency as other speakers paused before answering my questions. You can’t point or nod to one as you would onstage to encourage them to jump in–and if one starts filibustering, it’s also harder to signal him to wrap things up. Simply reading the facial expressions of other panelists can be difficult if they use a lower-resolution webcam or neglect their lighting.

Reading the audience seems even harder in Zoom unless, I guess, you keep the chat pane open and have an audience that is exceptionally concise in their feedback. The way Facebook and Twitter let a live video audience respond with emoji and hearts ought to deliver easily-understood feedback at scale, and perhaps one of the many virtual-event apps now seeing escalating interest–see my friend Robin Raskin’s writeup of a handful at Techonomy–gets even closer to the real thing.

But I highly doubt any app will recreate how great it can feel to have a live audience tuned into the talk, laughing at your jokes and then applauding your work.

Ban the panel prep call

Tuesday morning had me moderating a panel discussion, which made the workweek nothing out of the ordinary: I’ve done 20 or so panels so far this year.

I enjoy the exercise–when you only have to ask interesting questions, call out any departures from the truth, throw in the occasional joke and try to end things on time, you’ve got the easiest job of anybody on the stage. But there’s one part I resent: the inevitable request by the event organizers that everybody get on a conference call first to discuss the panel.

If it’s just going to be me interviewing another person and we’re in the same time zone, this need not be too bad. But more often, you have four or five people with widely varying schedules.

That leads to a flurry of e-mails in which the panelists or their PR reps try to pick out a mutually agreeable time–instead of, you know, using the e-mail thread to discuss the panel itself.

The con call itself is likely to run on some 1990s phone-based system, not any sort of online app that would make it easy to tell who’s talking (pro tip: when on a con call, play up whatever regional accent you have). Using a text-based collaboration tool like Slack that would let people on planes or an Amtrak Quiet Car get in on the conversation never seems to come up.

Last month, the only time the organizers offered for the prep call was 5 p.m. on a Friday when I had to get to Dulles Airport for a flight later that night. I replied that this wouldn’t work and suggested we “use e-mail the way God intended,” then wrote up an outline of the talk as I would have needed to do even if I’d hacked out time for a con call. The panel went just fine.

So if you ask me to dial into a con-call service to talk about what we’ll talk about on a panel and I suddenly get cranky, please understand that I’m just trying to act as if we’re doing business in the 21st century.

Once again, I’m writing for the business section

As I trust you all have noticed, I’m still writing for a Yahoo news site. That was not what I could have guaranteed in mid-February, when Yahoo announced plans to “simplify” and “focus” its content strategy–which resulted in the folding of several digital magazines and the exit of my friend Dan Tynan as Yahoo Tech’s editor in chief.

Yahoo sign at W. 43rdI knew then that my Tech colleagues David Pogue and Daniel Howley would move over to Yahoo Finance, but the people at Finance had to make their own decisions on whether to bring over freelance contributors. Fortunately, Tech kept on running with a smaller staff, and about six weeks later, I got the answer from the Financial folks I was hoping for.

(When I wrote about my five years of full-time freelancing, I should have added that this occupational strategy can subject you to moments of fear that a large fraction of your future income is about to vanish–that, in fewer words, you’ve just become Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff. You need a core of self-confidence or at least stubbornness to get through times like that.)

A month into writing for Yahoo Finance, I’m covering most of the same topics and at about the same frequency–with my word count slightly padded by the stock-quote links that are part of the house style at Finance. But a few things have changed at the margins.

With my editors based in New York instead of San Francisco, I can no longer kid myself that at 5 p.m. I’ve got another two hours to finish a story. (Weirdly but appropriately for somebody with my newsprint-stained career, both the NYC and S.F. offices are in buildings once occupied by newspapers.) For the same reason, I’m more likely to see my editors in person–Yahoo’s space in the New York Times’ magnificent old building is only a 15-minute walk from Penn Station.

Finance has also been doing a lot of work with live video, so you may see me in one of those streams the next time I’m in Manhattan–for instance, when I head up for CE Week at the end of the month.

The distributed-workplace banter has moved from HipChat to Slack, which rates as an upgrade overall. Slack doesn’t clutter my inbox with notification e-mails, and it’s also the Wirecutter’s chat system of choice. It looks like my phone will lose an app, while my MacBook has already gained one–it’s easier to switch between different teams in Slack’s OS X app.

If you have any other questions about my latest affiliation, please see me in the comments.