Google+ is the new kid on the block among the "big four" social networks. While some people think it's useless, a "ghost town", or irrelevant, others are finding lots of value in this new network.
While Google+ has some similarities to Facebook, there is one feature that sets it apart: Hangouts.
A Google+ Hangout is a group video chat that can hold up to 10 people at once. It's great for meeting with attendees in different locations, coaching groups, board meetings, and even social discussions. The audio quality in a Google+ Hangout is usually very good, and the system does a decent job of correcting for lag and other issues.
However, as with any video conferencing situation, the wrong technology or behaviors can degrade the quality of your Hangout. Here are some tips for ensuring that your Google+ Hangout runs smoothly.
1. Resist the "cluster around the computer" temptation. When more than one person on the Hangout is in the same location, the temptation is for that group to cluster around a single computer and share the same camera and audio. While this may seem like a good idea at the time, it usually leads to poor audio since some people are further away from the microphone. Instead, encourage everyone to join the Hangout from their own computers. This will keep everyone on an equal playing field.
2. Use a headset. While you can sometimes get away with using your computer's built-in microphone and speakers (especially if you're using a Mac... ahem...), it's usually much better to use a headset so you get clear audio. I sometimes use iPhone earbuds or a bluetooth headset. Trust me on this... if everyone uses a headset your Hangout will run much more smoothly.
3. Establish a moderator. If you are meeting with a larger group (more than 2-3 people) then it's a good idea to establish a moderator. Normally this is the person who is organizing or leading the meeting. Having a clear moderator will ensure that this person can keep things moving along if there are communications difficulties.
4. Set "raise your hand" expectations in advance. In larger groups, it's also a good idea to let everyone know that a raised hand is the best way to request a turn speaking. Since talking via VoIP can result in a slight delay, it's easy for people to end up talking over each other. A raised hand (hey, we're using video, after all) is a good way to keep participants organized in turns. The moderator can then call on people to speak.
5. Keep it lively. Ever sat on a conference call where you end up listening to participants droning on and on until you can barely stay awake? Don't let this happen to your Hangout. Engagement in virtual meetings is naturally going to be lower so you'll need to inject more energy and expression into the meeting so things stay lively and on track.
6. Give verbal cues for off-screen events. Remember that other participants can't see what's going on outside the view of your video camera. This means that if you pause to write something down or look for something on your desk, it may confuse the other participants who don't know why you've suddenly disengaged. If you need to pause to write a note or do something off-screen, give a verbal cue, such as "stand by please... I'm taking a few quick notes" or "give me five seconds while I look for a pen."
7. Join five minutes early. I'm sure you know how disruptive it can be when someone walks in late to an in-person meeting. Well, it's even more disruptive over a video conference because the latecomer will inevitably have to check audio, fiddle with some settings, say hello, and generally cause a ruckus as they join. Don't be that person. Get prepared before the meeting starts so you can be as productive as possible.
A Google+ Hangout can be a great way to stay in touch with your virtual team or conduct business across multiple locations. Make sure your Hangout runs smoothly with the guidelines above. Better yet, send this blog post to everyone that you plan to run a Hangout with to make sure everyone is on the same page :)
Feel free to circle me on Google+ (link: Michael Reynolds) if you want to experiment with Hangouts further. I'm always up for a chat.
Have some experience with Google+ Hangouts? Share your comments below!