Friday, November 01, 2013

Running Google+ Hangouts: Tips and Tricks

Goggle+ Hangouts seem to be a "thing" these days. I'm a bit ambivalent about them myself. I confess to finding low to middling quality video of talking heads tends to detract from content rather than adding to it. That said, a lot of people seem to really like video and Hangouts are a really easy way to create some. Therefore, on the premise that anything worth doing is worth doing right, I thought I'd share some tips and tricks to doing Hangouts right. 

Where noted, some of these tips are lifted from a post by my Red Hat colleague Rich Bowen. Others are based on my own experiences.

Your studio

I use the "studio" term somewhat ironically because most people participating in a Hangout won't have a studio, nor is having one expected by the audience. But a little care will go a long way in the quality of the final product. 

Use a microphone and headphones. The mic doesn't need to be anything especially fancy, but there is a world of difference between using your laptop's internal microphone and just about any external microphone including even something like a gamer's headset. 

If you get into doing Hangouts seriously, you may consider getting a good-quality external webcam like the Logitech C920 although this definitely falls into the "optimizations" bucket as opposed to something that's really essential.

Shut the door. Avoid barking dogs and children.

Take some care with the lighting. Again, it's not essential that you setup a bunch of fancy studio lights. But avoid being backlit against a window or otherwise being especially poorly lit.

Similarly, you don't need to get all fancy with the background but people really don't want to see your unmade bed. In some cases, it may make sense to get an appropriate backdrop printed in order to provide a consistent visual identity for your Hangouts. (As with other social media use, however, be careful not to do something that violates your company's guidelines about using their brand.)

Hangout limits (via Rich)

Hangouts have a 10 attendee limit. We found that out the hard way the first time. So your audience doesn't actually join the hangout. Instead, they watch a live stream on Youtube, where there's no limit. Don't invite people to the hangout unless they are actually going to be talking. 

You can schedule a Hangout, but you cannot schedule an On Air Hangout. Don't get confused and schedule a Hangout and then have to change it later on. That'll just lose you half your audience.

[I'll just add that, in general, I find the whole UX associated with Hangouts to be incredibly confusing and obtuse. It will probably take you a while to get the hang of it.]

Mute the mic (via Rich)

Camera switches on voice - that is, the person talking gets the camera. So if you're not presenting, mute your microphone so that it doesn't suddenly switch to a shot of you cleaning your ears when you happen to rustle a paper. 

[You can also "mute" the video, which may or may not make sense depending upon the format of the Hangout. It probably doesn't make sense if it's an interactive discussion. But, if it's in the form of sequential presentations, your video is probably just a distraction if you're not speaking and, furthermore, you don't really want to spend the entire preso studiously looking at the webcam and trying to appear interested.]

Test, test, test (via Rich)

Presenting in a Google Hangout requires plugins, and the controls aren't immediately obvious. Create a test On Air event and have the presenter join and share their slides. It can be weird talking to your screen for an hour without seeing the audience, and it can be doubly flustering if things don't work quite how you thought they would. Give them the option of doing a full runthrough if they really want to, but at a minumum ensure that they can join the test hangout and get their slides shared, and that their microphone works well, there isn't a terrible echo in the room they're in, and so on.

YouTube stream URL and more UX confusion (via Rich)

The event that you've created in Google Plus, and the actual "On Air" event, are not connected to one another in any way. You need to create an event, and then put the URL of the On Air event in the description. Unfortunately, you can't schedule the On Air event ahead of time. So you create the On Air event (i.e., YouTube stream) and then edit the description 20-30 minutes before you're scheduled to start.

Start the On Air event well in advance and share a window with details about the hangout and when it will start. You can edit that bit off when you're done, so that it's not in the final video.

What I'm going to do next time is have placeholder page for the weeks leading up to the event. Then, the day of the event, create the On Air event and redirect that URL to the event. Of course, to do that, you'll need to have a server where you can redirect URLs, or a URL shortener that you can update, or something like that. Failing that, just update the Google Event when you have the YouTube URL, or perhaps publicize a blog post or forum post which you then update with that URL.

Lower Third Tool

Especially for panel-style discussions, the Lower Third Tool is a handy way to clearly identify the participants.

Q&A (via Rich)

Although the Hangout has a Q&A tool, that's only for people that are in the hangout. I'm still looking for a good Q&A tool, but for now we're using IRC. I recommend that you create a new IRC channel, rather than using your existing one. This removes the off-topic chatter, and makes it easier to have a transcript and an attendee list.

For the many people who are not comfortable with IRC, give them a web link, like which takes them directly to the web chat applet [in this case, for our RDO--upstream Red Hat Enterprise Linux OpenStack Platform--hangouts].

Editing the video (via Rich)

Once the event is over, Youtube has a simple edit tool that will let you trim off the 30 minutes of dead air at the beginning of the recording. This takes a LONG time, so make sure it's done before you start publicizing the URL of the video. 

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