The Secrets of Large Skype Meetings

Since late last year the UKOLN remote workers have been having a weekly (Tuesday morning 10am) Skype ‘catch up’. Ed Bremner, one of my UKOLN remote working colleagues, was the originator of the ‘catch up’ idea.

Ed and I worked together on the IMPACT project where Skype telcons were a daily activity. During this time he built up a collection of tips to ensure a happy telcon for all, and he’s sharing them with us.

Ed is a veteran home worker having worked for himself and in consultancy roles for academia and the museums, libraries, archives and galleries sector for many years. Ed works in the field of technical imaging, media production and online learning. Currently his work includes projects with the ISC at UKOLN, the University of Bath and an associate lectureship at the University of Plymouth. He works from home on the banks of the Tamar River in South East Cornwall and dreams of the promised advent of ‘superfast’ broadband to all of Cornwall. Contact him via his web site, Twitter and Instagram.

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For the remote worker, attending meetings can often mean a great deal of very time-consuming travelling, followed by a short meeting and then a second dose of frustrating travel again, leaving us exhausted and potentially unproductive. It is therefore not surprising that we are often the first to ask our colleagues whether some of these meetings would or could be better held online.

Online meetings, or tele-conferences are not always popular with many staff who associate them with bad experiences of being clustered around a small speaker on the table, trying to make sense of the garbled noise echoing around the room. But things have changed and now with improved VOIP technology and more available bandwidth, online meetings using Skype have become a regular part of our working lives. It is true that there is still some reluctance to this, with many people considering that although one-to-one calls work well with SKYPE, larger meetings are far from satisfactory.

The truth is that Skype can work well for larger telecons, but that you all have to know how to get the very best out of Skype to make them work.

I have broken down what we learned from these telecons into a few sections:

Technical:

  • Use the most up-to-date version of Skype. Updates are pretty regular and often deal with possibly security issues, so it is imperative to make sure you have the latest version.
  • Video and screen-sharing works well for one-to-one calls, but currently you have to upgrade to Skype premium to use this functionality in groups – avoid media and video in group calls.
  • Reliable Skype meetings depend on good sound quality, so always use a good microphone, preferably in a headset. You may find that good laptops give acceptable sound quality from their internal mics and speakers, but only if you are in a room by yourself without any background noise and especially nobody else on the same call as you. Headsets that connect via USB tend to be much more reliable and easier to set up. Keep the headset mic about an inch from your mouth. If you have it too close, it will pick up your breathing and make you sound like a ‘phone-stalker’.
  • Don’t group together and share a mic or use conference mics/speakers, they are hard to work very well and you lose the advantage of seeing who is speaking. One person per account works best.
  • Maximise your bandwidth and if possible connect to your network via cable rather than wi-fi .
  • Call quality is dependent on the bandwidth available to the computer than convenes the call and how powerful it is. This is normally someone sitting on an institutional internet backbone, but surprisingly these can sometimes suffer from very heavy traffic and a personal account using ADSL can actually give a better connection.
  • According to Skype the limit of numbers on a Skype call is for 25 audio connections and 300 instant messaging connections. In reality the maximum will depend on the available bandwidth to the convenor and the power of their computer.
  • Skype is very memory hungry. If you leave it on, you will need to restart your computer every now and again to stop Skype hogging too much memory. If you are convening a call, it can help to restart your computer before you call and make sure you don’t have too many other programs working at the same time.

The UKOLN remote worker group on Skype (as seen from Marieke Guy's machine)

Personal Etiquette:

  • Always mute your mic when not talking, especially if you are also typing or want to talk to someone in your own room.
  • When you first come on line, say hello and if it is a big call, give your name, so the convenor knows you are connected.
  • When the call finishes, always remember to check that the convenor has closed the call and if not disconnect yourself.
  • If you have other topics to discuss with someone in the meeting, don’t stay on the call, but close the call and start again.
  • Do have and use a good Skype avatar image. On large calls, not everyone may know what you look like and the Avatar is a big help in improving communication.
  • Watch who is speaking by seeing their avatar ‘flash’, and if you want to talk to one person in particular, start by saying their name. If it is off-topic, could it be done better by IM?
  • Start Skype at least 5mins before the call and mark yourself as ‘online’.


Running Skype Meetings:

  • Create a Skype group with all participants in it, this is useful for instant messaging, to re-connect and run further meetings.
  • Larger Skype meetings work best if they are kept pretty formal and stick to a known format, with agenda. You certainly need to have a ‘Chair’, ‘Secretary’, and ‘Convenor’, who invites everyone and deals with any connectivity or technical issues.
  • 5 minutes before the call send an instant message to the group with a reminder that the meeting starts in 5 minutes. This IM should include links to any necessary papers or presentations. It is also possible to send these files via SKYPE if this is easier.
  • Larger meetings may benefit from a quick round of introductions.
  • If you wish to send any messages outside the normal flow of the meeting, use the instant messaging, either to the whole group, a sub-set or an individual.
  • If you are using any plugins, such as Mikogo, then the convenor should make everyone has the required software and it works.
  • Chair:
    • Don’t be suckered into worrying about fixing other peoples technical problems – this is not your responsibility.
    • Start on time, be firm and keep everything on time. People timetable telecons much closer than real-world meetings and if you go late, they will drop out of call.
    • Before you move on, be sure that all interested parties are happy with a decision and understand it fully. Without body language, it is much harder to notice when someone dis-engages from the conversation.
    • Minutes Sec:
    • Do turn off your mic, when not talking! Headsets are better at not picking up the noise of typing.
    • If you want to record the meeting, for which there are many tools, do tell everyone first.
  • Convenor:
    • Make sure you have already got the contact details of everyone before the meeting
    • Contact everyone by IM 5 minutes before the meeting to remind them of meeting and make sure they have all the necessary papers.
    • Take responsibility for decisions regarding call quality. If you want to re-establish the call, it is up to you.
    • Keep your cool! If you are having technical problems, try and fix them without disturbing the meeting too much. Use IM to contact everyone when needed.

Taking it further:

  • On the whole, if you want to do anything more ‘advanced’ in your meeting, you may well be best off using other software more designed for webinars rather than meetings. For instance both Blacboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect will allow you to share a presentation, or video; however if these are not available, there are a few things that you can do to extend your use of Skype.

When it goes wrong:

For group Skype calls to work well the convenor needs good bandwidth and a powerful computer. If you are having problems with a call, it often helps to just restart the call and try again. If that doesn’t work, stop the call, restart your computer and try again. Failing that, see if there is anyone else who has better bandwidth than you or has a less congested network and a more powerful computer.

4 thoughts on “The Secrets of Large Skype Meetings

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  3. Yeah, Skype is great for casual social interactions with family and friends, but I’d never use it for a business video conference call. I need much more security, so I use R-HUB, which works from behind my firewall (instead of outside of it).

  4. Nice article. Skype is a great tool for video conferencing but i am using conferencecall.com
    because they connect through local toll and toll-free access numbers in 40+ countries worldwide.

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