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Presenting During a Pandemic

Posted By Rick Horowitz, Prime Prose, LLC, Friday, June 12, 2020

Hello, ACLEA-Mates!

So it looks as if I’ve made the transition from Baby Boomer to Baby Zoomer...

Consider this a dispatch from the field. An after-action report you might find useful as we all grapple with these new realities for scheduling and presenting CLE programs.

In a nutshell? I now have three full-day, online, legal-writing sessions under my belt, and I’m still standing. (Well, sitting, actually – I don’t get to walk around the room the way I do in my in-person classes.) There were only a few minor technical stumbles, thanks to plenty of terrific help from my colleagues at the DC Bar and Minnesota CLE. And lots of excellent conversation – again, with thanks to my colleagues, who monitored the chat lines, launched the polling questions, shared the accreditation codes...

Anyway, I’ve noted some things that stood out to me in these first attempts, and that might be relevant to your efforts as well, on Zoom or elsewhere. Your experiences may differ, of course, and I’ll be grateful for your feedback; I suspect we’re all compiling lists of “Lessons Learned.”

Before we start, one upcoming change worth noting: At the suggestion of Brendan Ruane at the DC Bar, and quickly picked up by Tom Genung at the Connecticut Bar for a class next month: I’ll be splitting my standard full-day class into two half-day sessions instead. We’re thinking that six hours of content in a single block – even with lunch and bathroom breaks – is an especially long commitment for people who are generally working from home these days, and subject to all sorts of distractions. By contrast, two three-hour sessions on consecutive (or close-to-consecutive) days may be more manageable, and more appealing. I’m up for it, and looking forward to seeing how it works in practice.

In the meantime, a few of my early reactions to these first Zooms...

DC Bar: “Zoom Meetings”

For the two DC sessions, with relatively small crowds, I could both see and hear the participants; DC uses Zoom Meetings. I found it enabled me to read the “room” – I could respond to puzzled looks, note that someone was nodding in agreement with a prior comment, encourage a hesitant participant whose body language suggested a question forming, even see if a joke landed with its intended effect. All very helpful, plus the full complement of Zoom features: screen sharing, polling, and even breakout rooms. We can take attendance higher, I’m confident, and still make good use of most of these functions.

As for the microphones and the possibility of background noise: We started the day with all participant microphones muted, but invited participants to individually unmute themselves and dive in with any questions or comments they might have. (I also suggested that they briefly identify themselves when they did so, for those who were following by phone, and to help those who might not have been able to scan through “Gallery View” quickly enough to see who was speaking.)

At one point early on, we even had everybody unmute, just to do a test run on the background noise; it was acceptable. From time to time during the day – and this is almost inevitable – someone would forget that their mike was on and answer a phone call, or have a conversation with a housemate. We were able to gently suggest muting; no feelings were hurt, and no secrets were revealed. J And at a couple of points during the day when we wanted a particularly freewheeling discussion, and because the crowd was small enough, we invited everyone to unmute. Again, it wasn’t a problem.

We actually held off on the breakout rooms until my second DC session – our pre-session tech run-throughs had convinced all of us to be judicious in adding the various bells and whistles. But when we deployed them, they worked well – and as host, I was able to move easily among the groups, as I do in my in-person sessions. Unless you have a reason to do otherwise, I’d recommend allowing Zoom to do a random sorting for the breakouts, after you’ve decided how many rooms you want and therefore how many people should be in each room, or vice versa. Zoom will do the math and make the assignments for you.

[One interesting wrinkle: If you choose to go back into breakout rooms again later in the session, and you want to keep the group assignments the same for the sake of familiarity/continuity, you can choose “Recreate” from your breakout options, and the groupings will stay the same, rather than getting a different random sort or having to personally assign them to their original rooms.]

Videos: I bailed on using videos during these sessions – performance anxiety, I suspect, even after doing a major upgrade to our internet service here at the Wisconsin Production Center. (Also known as our dining room.) But when I couldn’t locate and launch the videos immediately, I chose to describe them instead of wasting class time searching for them. I’m hoping, with a little more practice, to use them in future sessions – or at least the videos that don’t eat up too much bandwidth and start stuttering. The tech run-throughs were very helpful for making those decisions, too.

Overall? Both DC classes went well. Huge thanks to Brendan Ruane, Suhana Rai, and Keith Wilson for tech and moral support along the way. Our next session together will be in mid-June, and most of the features I liked and used seem scalable for larger classes as well. We’re hoping the split sessions will bring in even more attendees.

And for really larger classes?

Minnesota CLE: “Zoom Webinars”

For Minnesota, with a much larger group, we used Zoom for Webinars. No cameras, no microphones for the attendees, but we urged them take full advantage of the chat function, which they absolutely did.

I was able to see the arrival of the chat messages, although apparently not their full content, while I was using Share Screen for my PowerPoint deck and workbook. What made it work was having a willing co-host/sidekick/conversation partner – in this case, MinnCLE’s Luke Olson, who kept track of incoming message traffic, and dropped in to share the comments and questions at opportune moments. (Occasionally, I’d notice the flashing chat box at the top of my screen and invite Luke in to offer up the latest arrival.)

It’s fairly labor-intensive for the co-host, but it offered a reasonable solution to the Zoom for Webinars limitation of (mostly) one-way communication. It also meant that attendees had an occasional second voice to listen to, rather than just my own for the entire session; I considered that a definite plus! Attendees seemed to like it, too.

Big thanks in Minnesota to Luke, and to Brianna Fitzgerald – and to our colleague Leslie Sinner McEvoy, who got the whole thing rolling before departing MinnCLE to launch her own consulting firm. 

Attendee Response

My goal in both locales was to offer – as much as possible in a virtual setting – the same kind of back-and-forth, give-and-take energy that has proven popular in my in-person sessions. All the features we used were chosen and deployed in ways designed to increase attendees’ comfort with the new arrangements, which we saw as a way to increase their participation.

So, for example, our first use of the chat function in Minnesota was simply to ask the attendees to tell us what room of their house they were now working in – or if they weren’t in the house, what park bench or lawn chair or tattoo parlor(!) was serving as their current base of operations.

I wanted to ease them into typing with a light and low-pressure question. I wanted them to see how – and how quickly – their responses appeared on-screen as I read them out. And I assured them that this was the one writing class they’ll ever take where they shouldn’t care about typos; I didn’t want them polishing a fifth draft of some comment and missing out on the flow of the conversation!

It seemed to work. Participation was strong in both locations, and the evaluation comments from attendees in both locations were everything I could have hoped for. Among my favorites:

  • “I really liked the interactive webinar format.”
  • "Felt like a conversation instead of a presentation.”
  • “Rick did a great job of engaging people, especially considering the move to Zoom. The content was great, too!”
  • “More interactive than most in-person CLE’s.”
  • I would highly recommend this webcast to my associates no matter what area of practice, no matter the background or number of years’ experience; there are really great tips for all of us here.”

Key takeaway: I think that the tech run-throughs were essential in getting these kinds of positive evaluations, especially for those of us who are relatively new to Zoom or similar platforms. The run-throughs made for better (if initially more modest) decisions, and much smoother results. With the logistics under control, and attendees comfortable that we seemed to (more or less) know what we were doing, we were able to focus on content. That was a plus for everyone.

Strange times, these – but we’ll get through them! Thanks for reading, and thanks in advance for your own suggestions and comments.


Rick Horowitz
Wordsmith in Chief
Prime Prose, LLC

“More Effective Writing Makes More Effective Lawyers”
(cell) 414.899.7178

Tags:  COVID-19  pandemic  presenting 

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