Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How to Record a Presentation for the Web (Well)

By Adam Crymble

Few things are as ephemeral as speech. It is spoken, and it is gone. This is fine if you have just delivered the worst presentation of your life and want nothing more than to forget it. But, there are speeches worth saving. Research is global; not everyone who is interested in the speaker will be able to attend in person. Not everyone who will be interested is interested now – for example, a first year student may want to hear the presentation four years from now when she is working on her Master’s degree.

Academia has developed a solution to the ephemeral speech and it has become increasingly popular. The recorded lecture, often mistakenly referred to as a “podcast”, is a way of archiving what transpired at an event and making it available online. Many conferences and public lecture organizers are adopting this idea to increase the reach of their event to those outside the immediate room in which the presentation occurs.

However, while the solution is in place, the skills needed to enact it well are not. The recording process is frequently an afterthought, thrown into the hands of an inexperienced graduate student or an already taxed session chair. The recorder is left fumbling with a device he or she has likely never used, hoping desperately that they get it right on the first try.

Predictably, the results are usually poor. Even comparatively good examples often suffer from low-quality audio. Frequently, listeners will feel the recording lacks context and they will be frustrated if the speaker refers to slides that have not been included with the recording.

All this can be avoided with a little bit of planning and practice to ensure your recorded presentations are good recorded presentations that do justice to your speakers and your listeners.

Listen to or Watch a Good Example

Start with the best. No one has better online presentations than TED. “Ted Talks” are live presentations by passionate speakers that have been recorded and posted to the website. They have become an Internet sensation and anyone considering archiving a speech should watch at least one Ted Talk. I am not suggesting you do as TED did and hire multiple professional cameramen, a director and a sound editing team. What I am suggesting is that you follow TED’s lead on the following key points.

Talk to your Speaker Beforehand

I do not mean simply get permission to record – although of course this is important and you should get permission in writing. Instead, I mean find out what type of presenter your speaker is. Do they use PowerPoint slides, and if so do they own the copyright or have permission to use all of the material? Do they wander around the room as they speak? Do they ask the audience to participate frequently?

By asking questions about the style of presentation the person intends to deliver you can preemptively find solutions to problems before they arise. If your speaker tells you she likes to move around a lot during the presentation, use this advanced knowledge to track down a wireless microphone that can clip onto her lapel. If your presenter plans to use a PowerPoint presentation with images that violate copyright, suggest he look into using images licensed by Creative Commons so that you can legally share his presentation.

Dedicate Someone

As soon as you decide to record the presentation, find someone whose sole job will be to handle the audio equipment and get him or her to practice. Days before the event, the recorder should know exactly how to use the recording equipment, what volume levels are suitable, and how close to the speaker the device will have to be. If the microphone must be clipped onto the speaker, the recorder should try the mic on a few locations on his or her own shirt to see how placement affects sound quality.

If the chair and the speaker are fairly far apart – more than a few feet – then be sure to check if the device will clearly pick up the chair’s voice. If it sounds like he or she is far away or “tinny” then consider getting a second recording device and record both people independently.

The audio testing should be done in the same room as that in which the presentation will take place, and if required, your recorder should make note of nearby power outlets to determine if an extension cord is needed.

By spending even one hour practicing and preparing, your recorder will be confident when the time comes for them to do their job.

When that time does arise, it is best to push the record button well before the presentation starts. The audio can always be edited later, but once a presentation starts – and often they start unexpectedly – what has been missed is gone. Make sure your recorder gets the speaker introduction, as well as the speech.

If the presenter is using slides, have your recorder note the time in the recording when the slides transition. This will make it much easier to combine the slides and the audio later.

The Context of the Room

A major complaint of listeners who access presentations online is the lack of context. When attending an event in person, you have the context of the physical space, the other people in the room, and even other presentations you have heard or plan to hear at the same event. When you listen online, this context disappears.

The chair of the session or the person introducing the speaker can provide this context, as long as they have been warned ahead of time. Most people in this position do their introduction the same way whether they are being recorded or not. That is, they speak only to those listeners in the room and often seem uncomfortable at the idea that people might be listening that they cannot see. Rather than address this virtual audience, they pretend it does not exist.

To get beyond this barrier, sit down briefly with your chair and give them some pointers on providing context to the online audience. One effective way of dealing with this problem is to have the chair acknowledge both audiences in the introduction. Thank everyone for coming, but also thank your online listeners. Provide a short blurb about the event and why you have gathered for it. The listeners in the room will recognize that your blurb is for the benefit of the online audience and will not be put off.

If you are recording multiple sessions with the same audience present, this can become repetitive and strange. In that case, record this context information later and it can be added to the start of your presentations in the editing stage. If you are not sure what context is missing, ask a colleague to listen to the recorded presentation; they will be able to tell you what needs to be added.

Question Period

Decide if you plan to include the question period in your recording. Often this means seeking the permission of everyone in the audience, but will vary depending on your jurisdiction and university policy. The challenge with question period is that it is often difficult to catch the questions on the recording device, particularly in a large room.

One solution is to require people who want to ask a question to go to a microphone. This can be obtrusive and adds to what is already a complex process, so you may decide to end your recording after the speaker finishes the formal presentation. By ending early, one tends to avoid the chair thanking everyone for coming and inviting them to head to the pub; the result is a more professional conclusion.

After the Fact

The work does not end when the recorder pushes the stop button. The audio will have to be edited. If your presenter used slides, ask for them and plan to create a “slidecast” that will pair the audio with the relevant slides. It is also a good idea to get a one to two paragraph abstract of the talk from the speaker, a one to two sentence bio of the presenter, and a half-dozen keywords that allow online visitors to find the presentation. Search boxes still cannot let us find out what is in an audio or video file, so you will need to provide enough information with the recording to let interested people find it.

Once you have received the slides and contextual information, you are ready to edit. This can be done by anyone and need not be the same person who made the recording. However, if you have more than one lecture it is a good idea to dedicate this job to one person. This will ensure that all of the recordings are consistent.

Editing the Audio

There are a number of good audio editing programs available. Audacity is an open source, free program that you can use to edit the audio and to adjust volume levels if needed. Mac users will find GarageBand, preinstalled on most new Mac’s, a useful tool for achieving the same.

If possible, try to avoid too much “dead air” at the beginning or at the end of a file. It is also a good idea to make sure you end the recording at a suitably calm point. Stopping abruptly in the middle of applause is less professional than fading down the volume or waiting for an appropriate break. MP3 is still the industry standard file format for audio, so if given the choice between formats, MP3 is a safe bet.

Adding the Slides

Often with online presentations if slides are available they will only be provided as a separate PowerPoint file available for download. This is better than nothing, but often it is not clear when the speaker transitioned slides and the listener must fumble to figure out which slide to look at. Because your recorder kept notes while listening to the speech, it should not be difficult to combine the slides and the audio into a video.

Again, Mac users should find iMovie installed on newer machines. This program makes it easy to drag slides and combine them with audio. If you do not have a Mac, SlideShare (, a website dedicated to sharing slides, now allows you to combine audio and slides, and to adjust timing all within your Internet browser window.

Share it

Once you have finished editing the presentation, you are ready to share it. Post it to your event website, department website, or to a video or audio sharing site. Make sure you let the presenter know it is available, and finally, promote the presentation as widely as possible. By promoting the recorded presentation, your conference or lecture can live on beyond the end of the live event and can continue to engage listeners for years to come.

Taking a few moments to plan and adding a little extra time editing will ensure the recorded presentation is almost as good as the original. Some presentations are worth saving, and those that are, are worth saving well.

Adam Crymble is the Webmaster for the Network in Canadian History & Environment, an organization that has archived over 150 academic presentations. Adam would like to thank Sean Kheraj for his comments on a draft of this article.

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