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Revitalize your: Webinars can add variety and depthto your club gatherings--without breaking the budget.

Club Meetings

Want to watch someone run from a room faster than an Olympic sprinter? Suggest that he or she serve as the speaker coordinator for your club meetings. It's a tough job and few people want it. Whether you live in a big city or a rural area, it can be an enormous challenge to arrange engaging talks month after month. Yet many clubs have managed to dramatically expand their pool of public speakers, even in the most remote locations. Rather than relying on local talent, these clubs invite lecturers to appear live over the web from anywhere in the world.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Web-based talks? Wouldn't that be too impersonal? And wouldn't the quality of the presentation suffer? Years ago, watching a presentation over the web meant enduring grainy video and poor voice quality. But, as I've learned from firsthand experience, advancements in technology have vastly improved the quality of remote presentations.

Without leaving my office, I've spoken for dozens of clubs in locations all over the world, and I've received rave reviews. Meeting attendees feel like I'm right there with them because in addition to

high-quality video, most soft-ware now includes two-way audio, enhancing interaction during Q&A sessions. I can even see the audience from where I'm sitting in my office in Seattle.

More and more clubs have discovered that web-based presentations (commonly called webinars) can reenergize their club meetings by making available a larger community of fascinating speakers. Businesses regularly use webinars for cross-country and even international meetings; why shouldn't amateur astronomers do the same?

WWW: World Wide Webinars

Last year, three clubs in the Seattle area wanted to hear from renowned imager and supernova hunter Tim Puckett. So the International Dark-Sky Association/Dark Skies Northwest, the Seattle Astronomical Society, and the Tacoma Astronomical Society invited Puckett to speak via the web. Without leaving his home in Georgia, Puckett spoke to the groups about his supernova-search experiences, discussing the tools and skills needed for the job, as well as the challenges involved. Afterwards, club members posed questions to Tim in a two-way Q&A session.

"Many clubs, including ours, don't have the budget to fly speakers into town," explained David Ingram, one of the meeting's organizers. "We had never hosted a webinar speaker and were a bit apprehensive, but it worked wonderfully. It was almost like Tim was in the room with us."

"Our meeting attendees were really excited to have a chance to listen to such an important and well-known expert," Ingram added. "In fact, we are so happy with the outcome that we're planning to use the web to host a variety of other remote speakers at other meetings in the near future."

Puckett agreed--he felt that the presentation, his first by webinar, had gone smoothly. "I'm actually surprised more clubs aren't asking for these kinds of remote presentations," Puckett mused. "It's a great way for them to add variety to their meeting agendas. I think this is the wave of the future."

Webinars have become more common at club meetings, and not just in the U.S. In the past year, I've talked with clubs on four continents, including the imagers at Norman Lockyer Observatory, U.K., the Scope-X conference in South Africa, and several clubs in Australia. Distance isn't a factor, except when speaking from the U.S. to a club Down Under--I needed several cups of coffee to stay up long after midnight!

Making Webinars Work for Your Club

Webinar speakers can enrich club meetings, but before hosting a webinar, make sure you have web access. Fortunately, access speed from your club's meeting site doesn't have to be blazingly fast - if you can conduct a video chat from your meeting room, you probably have enough bandwidth. In fact, since the live video window in a webinar is typically a small window on the screen, you need even less bandwidth than a full-screen video call requires.

In most cases, the hosting club won't need special software. Speakers would host the show on their computer, selecting from a wide range of webinar software programs. One option is Skype, the video-chat software program. If speakers install Skype Premium, they can share their PowerPoint slides, along with live video of themselves. Personally, I prefer to use online programs specifically designed for webinars, such as Cisco WebEx, because the screen updates more quickly and the program offers more flexibility. Other webinar programs include Citrix GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, or TeamViewer. Most of these programs run right over the web with no local software installation required. And you'll find that some of them are free for noncommercial use.

Of course, Murphy's Law can strike even the best technology. So in advance of the meeting, I always send the hosting club a backup copy of my PowerPoint file. If we happen to run into a technical glitch, the club moderator can step through the presentation on the club computer while I narrate over a cell phone held up to a microphone feeding their public-address system. I've never had to resort to using this backup, but it's a comfort to know that we have a fail-safe way for me to address the meeting in case of technological problems.

Putting it all together

Now that you know how to host lectures from anywhere in the world, you have an enormous speaker pool to draw from. To find speakers who would be willing to appear remotely, you might have to dig a bit. Use your creativity. Since distance is no longer a limit, contact speakers you've seen at NEAF, the Winter Star Party, or other gatherings and star parties. You could also contact authors of articles you've read online or in S&T. You can even turn to online forums--if you belong to one, you might notice some participants stand out as being well informed. (Of course, not every expert will be a good speaker. You might want to ask for a 5-minute demonstration or references from groups he or she might have spoken to in the past.)

One resource that can help you find speakers is the free lecture referral service offered by the Astronomy Outreach Network. Founded by Scott Roberts of Explore Scientific, this site has a Lecturers page that lists a variety of speakers ( Clubs looking for webinar speakers can contact any of the speakers on the site directly and ask them about their availability. (By the way, if you're a speaker, or would like to be, I encourage you to list yourself there.)

Some lecturers speak for free; others might ask for an honorarium. One budget-friendly possibility is to team up with other clubs and, as a group, invite the leaders in the field to give presentations. With modern webinar software, the clubs don't even have to be in the same place--audiences in different locations (and with different computers) can listen and interact with the same speaker.

Over the next several years, I think we'll continue to see more and more clubs using the web to host remote speakers at their meetings. Webinars open up a whole new world of potential presenters for your club. They not only make the meeting coordinator's job easier, your club members will thank you for the added variety and rich-ness of your meetings.

RELATED ARTICLE: Preparing for Your 45 Minutes of Fame

Have you given a talk to your local club that you think other clubs might enjoy? Giving a presentation via the web isn't all that different from giving one in person. A few tips will help you make the transition.

* Practice, practice, practice. Once you've selected the webinar software you'll use, learn the basics of how to start a meeting, share your slides, and transmit your video image via webcam. Then practice giving your presentation over the web to your spouse, your children, or your friends--anyone who will listen.

* Prepare a demo. Clubs will want to know beforehand if you're a good speaker. When making contact with a club, offer to do a short demonstration talk for the decision-makers or pro-vide a "demo reel" showing a short clip of your presentation.

* Test it out. It's always a good idea to conduct a test session with the host well before the actual webinar. Make sure that the meeting room has adequate bandwidth to support your presentation, and confirm that the host club's computer can hook up to the public-address system.

* Decide how to do Q&A. Although not absolutely necessary, it's helpful if a microphone and webcam are built into the meeting room's computer so that you can see and hear the audience. But even if a club's computer doesn't have a microphone, the host can conduct Q&A with a cell phone. I've done this on several occasions with good results.

* Make eye contact. Look directly into your webcam during your presentation.

* Keep your audience engaged. Most webinar programs offer drawing capabilities, so you can circle, highlight, or draw arrows for your audience to see on the screen. Highlighting key points focuses your audience's attention in the same way as a laser pointer does.

* Ask for feedback. The day after your talk, ask your contact at the club what you could improve in your next presentation.

Tom Field of Field Tested Software is the developer of the real-time spectroscopy program RSpec. He enjoys giving talks over the web and has spoken to dozens of astronomy clubs and science classrooms around the world. You can see a recorded video demonstration of one of his webinars at
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Title Annotation:Long-Distance Astronomy
Author:Field, Tom
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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