Your eyes are up there: an unfixed problem with virtual panels

After all of the practice the last year has given me at looking into a camera as if it’s another human being and carrying on a group discussion, I still struggle with one important bit: keeping my eyes focused on the camera.

File this under panel-moderation problems: If you’re going to write an outline of the talk beforehand and then consult that during the panel–as you should–you’ll leave your audience wondering why you keep glancing down.

In a real-world, non-virtual panel, the spectators almost always sit far enough away to not notice a moderator’s checks of their notes. But in a virtual panel, where the optimum distance for the camera is a couple of feet at most, this is hard to hide. Especially if you’re following the virtual-panel best practice of using a dedicated webcam and fastening it to a tripod in whatever spot will leave your face evenly lighted.

If I could ever boil down a panel outline to a large-type one-page printout that I could tape to a tripod, I might be in better shape–but then I’d still need to find some way to mount a screen close to the camera.

For those of you who also can’t self-edit panel notes and and also struggle with this first-world problem, here’s a workaround I latched onto today, when the unavailability of the Logitech webcam in the photo above may have been an advantage: After attaching my aging smartphone to the top of a chair with a cheap GorillaPod tripod and using the DroidCam Android app to employ its camera as a higher-quality substitute for my HP laptop’s white-balance-impaired webcam, I flipped that 2-in-1 convertible computer’s screen roughly 270 degrees into “tent mode” and draped it over that top railing with the screen facing towards me.

That left the screen placed just below the phone and allowed me to look more focused on the talk… right up until this recording ran over schedule and into my next appointment, leaving me squirming in my chair as I hoped everybody else would wrap things up already.

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.