online meetings

The #1 Enemy of Online Conferences – Poor Audio Quality

Conference calls from noisy locations

More meetings than ever are taking place online. Increased mobility of businesses and individuals means more cloud-based webinars, team meetings, and customer service. I think audio quality is the most important element in determining the success of an online conference. Poor quality audio can result in missed communication, lost productivity, and poor customer service.

Because the brain is not good at multi-tasking, hearing is the most difficult of the senses for it to handle. Vision reaction is impacted by motion, and the brain can quickly focus on one thing. Likewise, the brain can deal fairly easily with taste, smell, and touch. Not so easily with sounds.

Typically, the brain reacts to the loudest source of input. Any combination of poor volume, background noise, line static, echo, distortions, and other impairments can be introduced simultaneously, causing the brain to work extra hard to find focus. Ever have a day of multiple audio conferences and wonder why you’re so tired? It could be “brain fatigue” from the effort it takes to get through poor audio quality.

Technology and user involvement determine the level of audio quality. Let’s look at 3 issues of each, technology first.

Noisy communication might mean no communication

When the signal, the content you’re trying to focus on, is strong and the background noise level is low, communication is easily understood. That’s called a high Signal to Noise Ratio or SNR. As lines are added, if they’re not mixed properly, they increase the noise factor, while the broadcast signal remains constant. That lowers the SNR and makes it difficult for participants to stay engaged.

Most modern bridges – conference mixing devices – handle noise pretty well. They can limit additive noise by scanning input lines, mixing the three best lines and muting other channels. Switching lines between individual speakers happens quickly, so conversation flow is maintained. The quality of the mixing device, therefore, can greatly impact the audio experience. Participants lose focus when there’s too much noise.
Echo in a canyon is fun… In a conference, not so much

Too much retransmitting, or sound echo, can severely impair understanding and even bring a conference to a halt. Fortunately, most modern audio devices, speakerphones, I-phones, etc. have built in echo cancellation. They make sure the speaker’s words are not retransmitted through the microphone.
Echo problems can arise in a conference room setting. A microphone source in the room and a voice connection over the Internet (VOIP) from a laptop microphone creates two different audio paths into the bridge. That can cause what’s called a closed-loop echo, severely disrupting the conference.

So, echo can be a result of poor audio devices that don’t do a good job of echo cancellation or conflicting connection configurations.

Let’s not both talk at the same time

Analog communication, basically electric impulses, is prone to distortion from signal loss. In digital, real-time communication where bits or packets are being sent, signal loss is not as much of a concern. However, depending on the type of connection, there can be packet loss or delays. This gets into some technical issues of Internet transmission protocols (IP), better addressed in a more technical discussion.

The concern here is the effect the delays can have on the meeting outcome. The host of an online meeting may not be able to control how people are connected or the type of network they’re using. If they’re on a real-time data connection such as VOIP, excessive delay can result in people talking over one another. That creates halted or ‘broken’ conversation. Besides potential voice overlap, pauses occur when one person is not sure another person is going to start talking. The disruption to the natural flow of a meeting creates frustration and poor communication.

Now let’s look at user involvement, i.e. conference management and human logistics:

How to keep track of participants

The conference moderator can control what happens when participants enter or exit a conference. The participants name can be announced, an audible signal or beep can be sounded, or it can just be noted to the moderator with no audio involvement. 

The entry-exit control should be based on the size and type of conference. Using name announcements is best limited to small, controlled groups where it’s important for everyone to know who is or is not on the call.

Tone announcements are fine for small groups, but can be highly distracting in a large group where there may be frequent participant entry and exit. With large groups, it’s best to let the moderator visually see the activity without any audio interference.

Could someone please let the dog out?

Remote attendees of meetings and conferences aren’t necessarily in an office. They may be in their home, car, or coffee shop where the potential for background noise is significantly higher. It’s not unusual to have disruptions from a dog barking, wind, traffic, other phones ringing, or people talking. These distractions can result in poor communication to literally shutting down a meeting.

Another issue, user and technology based, is the signal generated by a remote participant. The audio signal coming out of the handset or mobile device is the best it’s going to be. If you start with an inferior handset or a poor network connection, the resulting audio is what’s experienced throughout the conference. Moderators can monitor who’s talking and perhaps can manage those disruptions to a certain degree.

You’re in the conference room – others are not – two different experiences

Online meetings that include a group in a conference room and remote attendees has it’s own set of audio challenges. Awareness of the dynamics can help minimize communication failures.

  • Those listening remotely may not be able to hear someone who is at a white board or across the room from the speaker microphone.
  • A projector fan won’t be a distraction to those in the room, but can transmit through the microphone and be a major distraction to remote participants. Keep the projector away from the microphone.
  • Remote attendees already feel a bit disconnected. They can’t see who’s talking in the room. Side conversations can create background noise and cause them to lose focus.
  • Poorly designed rooms with hard walls and white boards can create echoing. Again, remote participants have to work extra hard to stay involved.

A fairly new technology, speakerphones with multiple microphones, can help solve some of these issues. They allow directional tuning so the sound energy can be focused at the person speaking.

Being aware of, and compensating for, remote attendee logistics will help them have a better experience and improve overall results for everyone.

Engage your audience, but don’t wear them out

The success of audio conferences depends greatly on getting participants engaged, keeping them involved, and not leaving them exhausted at the end of the meeting. If participants have to work intensely to hear everything, they may lose concentration and drift away to other activities. Fatigue will also reduce their productivity.

Poor audio quality is the #1 enemy of online conference success. ReadyTalk is always looking at ways to eliminate or minimize audio problems, to make sure customers have the best experience possible.


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