When technology fails...


By Jim Mortleman

A cautionary tale this week on the perils of putting too much faith in new technology. Here at Gleanin.com we have always been enthusiastic about the potential of social media to improve events, but equally it’s important to understand the limits of the technology. This was brought home to me a couple of months ago at an IT trade show that was specifically focused on the business benefits of ‘the cloud’, a catch-all term for computing services (including social networking) that are delivered over the Internet.

Generally, the event was one of the year’s better tech trade shows, with an excellent line-up of customer speakers from some of the world’s best known organisations. They all gave frank, non-salesy presentations on how companies could find a way through the cloud hype and add real value to their businesses. The chairing was tight, and speakers were kept to strict 20-minute slots which resulted in refreshingly punchy and relevant sessions.

The organisers’ use of social media wasn’t bad, either – at least in terms of delivering timely content. They updated their Twitter feed regularly and pointed to interesting links. They ran live Twitter Q&As with some of the speakers. They retweeted people saying positive things about the event. They posted blogs and podcasts regularly before, during and after the event. All good.

The ‘fail’ moment came on the second day. One of the keynote speakers due to fly in from the US couldn’t make it, so they decided to ‘livecast’ her onto the stage, presumably via a web-based videoconferencing service. No doubt someone thought this would be a great way to showcase the power of the cloud (“see how it miraculously makes the distances between us vanish!”).

The chairman greeted the speaker, who appeared on a big screen at the front of the stage. The picture quality was okay, if a little choppy and pixellated at times, but the audio was largely undecipherable. After a minute or so and a brief chat with the technicians off-stage, the chairman interrupted: “I’m terribly sorry, but we’re having some difficulty hearing you this end, so we’re just going to try to re-establish the link.”

After a few more minutes of faffing, she was back. The link was no better. At this point, the chairman should have ended the session with an apology and moved on. However, he clearly hadn’t been briefed on what to do if the feed failed and instead let the speaker witter on unaware that no one in the audience had the faintest clue what she was saying.

A second screen displayed her slides, and during the (very brief) moments of intelligable audio it also became evident that we weren’t actually seeing the slides she thought we were seeing at particular points. Not that it mattered a great deal, since the feed was so dire that no one was able to follow her presentation anyway.

After five more minutes or so of this fiasco, people began walking out of the keynote theatre. A trickle soon became a mass exodus and, by the ten-minute mark, barely a handful of people remained in the audience, all of them now checking their smartphones or thumbing through conference bumf. The chairman paced on and off stage, whispering to the technicians and looking decidedly embarrassed. Yet still he let the remote speaker continue, blissfully ignorant of any problem. After 20 minutes, the speaker reached the end of her presentation with a smile and a: “Thank y–. I h–p –ou’ve enjo––– my pr–. I’m sure you have some quest–s f–– me, which I’m mo–– th–– –appy to answer.”

Of course, no one had any questions. The smattering of people in the room had not heard any of the presentation and were no longer paying attention. The chairman responded to the speaker with a few diplomatic words along the lines of: “Thank you. Very interesting speech. Unfortunately, we do still have a few difficulties with the feed so I think we’ll have to leave the Q&A, but fascinating stuff. Thanks.”

So what does this incident teach us, and could the organisers have handled it better? First, if you’re planning to livestream remote speakers into an event (or indeed livestream on-site speakers onto the web), it’s important to ensure your venue has sufficient bandwidth to handle the feed. My guess is that the organiser had tested the connection before the show opened and everything seemed hunky-dory. However, once the doors opened, there were hundreds of people on site competing for that same bandwith: lots of visitors using the show’s free WiFi, as well as tons of stands hooked up to the Internet to give live demos of their cloud services.

The organisers should have made sure they’d put in place a dedicated Internet link, with a guaranteed level of bandwidth, for something as important as a livestreamed keynote speech. It is possible to get this stuff right, as long as you plan properly. I watched an entire event live-streamed from the US last year, with no technical hitches at all. Livestreaming keynotes via web videoconfrencing applications isn’t the sort of thing you should attempt “on the fly” if a speaker pulls out at the last minute.

Second, the organisers should have had a contingency plan for failure and briefed the chairman accordingly. When the video link failed for the second time, the session should have been brought to a prompt close and replaced with an audience discussion, coffee break or some such. Alternatively, they could have switched to an audio-only link, which requires far less bandwidth than video and probably would have worked fine.

In many ways it was fortunate that most of the audience left the presentation early. For an event designed to promote the cloud, the incident could have been highly embarrassing. As it happens, few people tweeted about it and to a large extent the organisers got away with the error. But this was more by luck than design.

Okay, I was one of the few who did tweet about it, but the event’s Twitter account made no effort to respond. And I knew they were monitoring mentions because they’d retweeted a positive comment about the event I’d made the previous day. Meanwhile, the speaker (who I’d mentioned by @name) promptly promised to “publish a follow-up for anyone who couldn’t hear”. But it would have reflected far better on the organisers if they had done this themselves, rather than remaining silent in the hope no one would notice.

We all know technology doesn’t always do what it should. You’d be dumb to put blind faith in it. What’s most useful about social media for organisers today isn’t so much the whiz-bang stuff like livestreaming, but the fact it allows you to build closer relationships with the community of people surrounding your event. That means doing what you should, even when the technology doesn’t. Be open, honest and human. Both technology and humans cock up from time to time, of course. In both cases, you’ll earn a lot more forgiveness and respect by explaining what happened, apologising where appropriate, and assuring your event’s community of the steps you’ll be taking to rectify the situation or ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Great content every Thursday!

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