Teleconferencing Tips

Idiosynratic "lessons learned" from 15 years of teleconferencing in academia. The more people on the call, the more valuable these tips, but even for a one-on-one call, they can help alot.

This post was inspired by David Joseph Wrisley's recent blog post "From Brick to Click, Overnight," which I highly recommend. If you have other suggestions, or want to dispute or correct something I suggest here, please drop me a line on Twitter or send me an email. I promise credit in any future updates.

Get really ready in advance

This should go without saying: preparation matters. Get familiar with your gear, your software, and your space in advance of the call. Don't wait till the last minute to figure out how your set-up works. Contact a friend or colleague in advance and run a test.

It's all about that bandwidth

  1. Use a cabled ethernet connection, rather than wifi, if at all possible. It's almost always a bigger pipe and it's almost always more reliable.
  2. Make sure your machine is using the cabled connection, rather than the wifi (I have to turn off wifi on my Mac to make this happen).
  3. If you must use wifi:
    • Find a spot to sit where you get the strongest signal possible.
    • If the wifi is unreliable: fix it, go somewhere else, and/or complain to the management (i.e., "Get really ready in advance", above).
  4. Plug your laptop into A/C power. It's a bummer (and may be embarassing) if your machine goes to sleep part-way through a call. Plus, some computers and operating systems try to conserve power when on battery by ratcheting back wifi radio power, CPU speed, (and other things). Such quiet economies can have negative effects on your teleconferencing experience.

Video killed the radio star

If you're on a teleconference and it looks like there's a bandwith/connection problem (halting video or audio, very grainy video, garbled audio, etc.), try using the settings on your software to reduce the "quality" of the video you're sending and receiving. These are often two different settings, and it may be characterized as something like "Use HD (or not)". If that doesn't work, turn the video off entirely. Caveat: Reducing the amount of video data you're sending or receiving may make more space for audio to go back and forth if you need it, but video is not useless! It can help you determine when another person on the call wants to speak, or disagrees with what you're saying.

You may also find that good lighting from the front, and a lack of lighting behind you (especially windows!), will significantly improve the quality of the video you send to others.

I've got a headset and I know how to use it

Get a headset. Learn how it works and how the computer's built-in audio settings and the teleconferencing software audio settings work. This can be non-trivial because different teleconferencing software interacts differently with your computer's operating system and its built-in audio settings. This is especially important in noisy settings like coffee shops and in big echoing rooms.

Why?

Signal-to-noise ratio: The microphone on your headset is much closer to your mouth than the mic built into the computer. That means the difference in the volume of your speech relative to any background noise (including room echo) is much greater when it hits the mic on your headset than when it hits the mic on your computer. This makes it easier for the teleconferencing software to process your out-going audio signal to remove noise and echo. That cleaner signal requires less bandwidth to transmit. Moreover, your voice is easier to hear and comprehend for your interlocutors.

Noise canceling: Many headsets advertise built-in noise canceling functionality. Depending on make, model, and marketing, this "noise canceling" feature may affect the quality of your outgoing audio signal, the quality of what you hear in the headphones, or both. If it is switchable, make sure it is turned on unless it has given you problems in the past. Such features generally reduce background white-noise from things like crowds, air handlers, fans, and traffic. It won't get rid of randomly loud stuff, like a barista yelling out people's names, but it will usually improve the experience overall.

Radio discipline

Learn where the "mute" controls on your microphone and your teleconferencing software are and make use of them. If you are not talking, mute yourself. Seriously. If you've never been on a group call where people do this reliably, you'll be amazed at how much it helps.