How to Run Online Talks

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I'm coming back to the idea of revising my Aphorisms on Writing, Speaking, and Listening. In particular, though good writing never changes, technology does. I need to talk more about how to use software in writing articles. I need to talk about programming style and posting data and code on the Web. And I need to talk about online seminars, the subject of this page.


Markus Brunnermeister's Princeton webinars have the good idea of a waiting room with Bach playing for some minutes beforehand and with a poll for those waiting, with questions like "Should the government lean against market bubbles?" Yes, No,  Uncertain. 


  • For the audience: use your print screen button. Snipper, or the much superior new version, in which you
(a) Create a new MS WOrd or Powerpoint or other diagram-pasting file.
(c) Use your mouse to outline a capture box and create it by releasing your finger.
(d) Do CTRL-V in your MW Word file to paste the box in there for later reference.


  • SEMINAR NOTE: Use exaggerated motions of Waving Goodbye, Nodding Yes I Can See Your Cursor, Smiling, etc. Our minds are just not as able to read body language in little box movies. It’s lke stage actors.

  • In a zoom meeting, going around the room, say who is on deck, coming after the current speaker.

  • The zoom chat box will revolutionize law school research seminars. In the past, it's been lecture plus queue of monologue questions. The chat box allows for interruption and interaction, like econ seminars.

When zooming here or zooming there

Please don’t show your underwear,

Or pics of sunsets at the beach

Where nudists linger, when you teach.

  • It might be good to point your webcam so your portrait shows your fingers typing, so others know you are in the process of responding.
  • In online panels, don't refer to other panelists by first names. That's bad for newbies, who only know last names. It's clubby and self-congratulatory. Live sessions are different; everyone is a little bit an insider just by being in the room.
*Never say a speaker is too well known to need introduction. Either that's a lie, or you insult people who don't know the big names. If it's a lie, you've humiliated the no-name and lost him publicity he needs.

Either say nothing, or say something worthwhile, e.g. one of his article titles (*not* a prize, unless it's JB Clark, Field, or Nobel). For panels, especially, I'd like to learn a *little* something about them besides how prestigious their employer or degree is.

Essay Draft

  A fundamental principle is to make the look-and-feel of an online seminar as close to  a real seminar's as possible. That means seeing people's faces, whether they're talking or not, hearing background noises such as chairs shuffling, seeing whose hand is up, allowing interruptions where appropriate, and having a pile of papers for people to grab as they come in.  

There are two styles I'm seeing. One is the "webinar", where only the moderator and speaker appear and can communicate with the audience. This reduces the seminar to the level of a You-Tube video, but less organized and polished. The webinar is favored by organizers who like tight centralized control and think of the audience as being like undergraduates, and below the level of children, who, if not heard, at least are to be seen. The seminar becomes a TV episode.

The other style is the Zoom session proper, where as many people as possible have video and audio, and there is expectation of true interaction. When I have taught using Zoom this is how I have tried to run the class.

There actually is a good case for having a number of styles. I writing this, though, I see we must talk about presentations in general, and their various purposes, before getting to the special features of online presentations.

Style A: The Lecture. If the point is for the audience to just listen to what someone has to say, then the lecture should be pre-recorded and posted as a web link. There is no point to it being live except to discipline the audience to tune in at a particular time instead of procrastinating--- though that point is valid sometimes. It should be recorded in 15-minute chunks as distinct, titled, sections. It should be recorded more than once, and only the best "take" kept. Academics should try to live up to the standards of You-Yube cooking demonstrations, which are more polished, intelligent, lively, and professional than our video lectures.As someone said about college plans for Fall 2020, "What do you mean you don't want to spend $5000 a semester watching really bad versions of Khan Academy lectures over Zoom?"

Style B: The seminar. If the point is to have an economics-style "seminar" or "workshop", the main objective is to get interaction between speaker and audience. It is best, in fact, not to think in terms of "speaker", but of "main speaker". When I visited Chicago in 1989, I found that at the law-and-economics workshop at the law school, notorious for its liveliness, the "main speaker" ordinarily spoke fewer words than either David Friedman or John Lott, two regular attendees. That was good, though it is important with those two people to tell them to stop talking if they talk too much--- which, they would willingly do--- if told, though sometimes not otherwise. When I was at UCLA, it would happen in Industrial organization seminars by PhD students that the main speaker stood silent and confused as Harold Demsetz and Ben Klein argued over what the paper was about. That was good, because often PhD students don't know what their own papers are about, and don't have much interesting to say, whereas Demsetz and Klein were always worth listening to.

Our own Indiana University Business Economics and Public Policy workshop is "Chicago style", though not such an extreme. The point is to learn things and improve the paper being presented, not to give the speaker a chance to show off (unless it's a job talk). If learning and improving are the objectives, then the audience questions and comments are far more important than the speaker's prepared talk. It isn't particularly important for the speaker to get through all his slides, or even to get to the end of his talk. When I was a student at MIT, Peter Temin told us that a talk has three objectives: (1) Teach something to the audience. (2) Learn something from the audience to make it a better paper. (3) Show off how smart you are. He said that (3) is appropriate and important for job talks, but only for job talks.

Questions should not be at the end, but sprinkled throughout. I will write on that later, since it is so important and so often done badly. Law schools, the Ostrom Workshop, and Liberty Fund conferences are bad in this dimension. They often employ "the queue", a list kept by the moderator of people who have raised their hands to ask questions. This seems like a sensible idea, but it means that people do not get to ask their questions when they're appropriate and useful for understanding what has been said so far. As a result, people skip asking that kind of clarifying question. They tend to make comments instead of asking genuine questions. They also tend to repeat other people's questions, since they have been saving up their question for so long they're reluctant to tell the moderator "somebody else already asked that question". They have to talk more about the context of their question since it was so much earlier in the seminar, creating redundancy. The questions cannot so easily interact with other; one question can only awkwardly stimulate another one.

Style C. The Lecture with Questions at the End. This is like conference presentations and titled Lectures, e.g. the Clarendon Lectures. It combines a straight lecture with questions from the audience at the end. This is what the Webinar tries to do, but fails at every time I've been to one.

Style D. The Large Seminar. This perhaps is unique to online. It is appropriate when a scholar is presenting to other scholars, but there are going to be lots of non-scholars present. Or even perhaps just when there are 100 scholars present. The difference from style B is that there are 200 in the audience rather than 20, and many members of the audience don't know how to behave in a seminar and are shameless about it (unlike grad students, who must learn how to behave but are scared stiff about their ignorance), or can behave well but are so ignorant that their questions and comments are a waste of time.

Show faces of people in the audience even if you mute them. But don't mute them unless you have a good reason. Background noise is good, though maybe it doesn't show up unless a person's noise exceeds a certain fixed level. Anybody know if that is the case? Will people be disruptive? Maybe, but that's no different from a large lecture, except for being much less of a problem because it's much easier to mute someone than to call the police and have them hauled away screaming.

If there is a large queue of question, use the Zoom thumbs up feature and tell audience in advance to thumbs up questions they like. At Princeton, 90% of questions were boring and mediocre, so you definitely need a moderator to filter a large seminar with nonscholars present.


"Since I'm an economist, I'll dispense with the sometime-hypocritical, sometime-sincere, but always nauseating flattery of saying what a great paper this was and how utterly brilliant an author. I'll get right down what's good in it and what's bad, especially what's bad, since that's where the author needs help."

Have a list of who's attending. Allow opt-out from the list. On Zoom and the Chinese mirror, the attenders show up in alphabetical order in the menu that shows up if you try to send private message. I don't know if I cut figure out a way to cut and paste the list. Probably not, but a solution is to use the excellent OBS Studio freeware program to do a video capture of your screen, so you can scroll through all the names and have a video of the entire list that way.

Show faces of people in the audience even if you mute them. But don't mute them unless you have a good reason. Background noise is good, though maybe it doesn't show up unless a person's noise exceeds a certain fixed level. Anybody know if that is the case?

One way to do question is to have the moderator be like Snerdly on Rush Limbaugh and choose questions and turn the audience members on to read them, after coaching for conciseness. In general, try for the live feel. If it's a small seminar, though, just let everybody chip in when they want to, as in regular seminars.

Explain the technology and rules to audience carefully at the start-- e.g., that thumbs up feature for seeing what the audience is interested in.

7. Encourage the audience to use the chat box to help with citations, pinning down facts (e.g. population of France, if that comes up and the speakers are uncertain).

8. Have a grad student or colleague help the main moderator keep track of chat and questions and technical difficulties, and for backup if the main moderator's computer goes dead.

9. Post the slides on the web, and the paper. Put the addresses in the chat box so the audience can get them in the middle of the seminar.

10. Encourage people to raise their hands to get the speaker or moderator's attention, and to wave their hands, because the movement is easier to see.

11. Allow the audience to share the screen.

12. Be prepared for zoombombing, but use ex post rather than ex ante solutions. Don't require registration and a password and other thigns that discourage participation and shut down discussion. But think in advance of all the ways an evildoer might try to sabotage you, adn think of ways to shut them off. For example, know how to turn off people's video and sound, how to expel them and prevent reappearance from the same computer, and how to stop them from sharing their screen; and know how to do these things instantly, not after 10 seconds of fumbling.

13. Open the meeting 15 minutes early, so early arrivers know it's going to happen. Use a Zoom waiting room, or just turn on the organizer's video even if he isn't there yet and it just shows an empty chair. Use Screen Share to say what's going to happen next, give links to the paper and slides, set out the ground rules, and suchlike. Some pleasant music--- Vivaldi perhaps--- would help.

In your email and webpage announcements, give the zoom link prominently (not hidden on a page of useless garbage about what to do if you're stuck in a jungle with only a pocketknife and a cellphone), together with the other relevant info: Time, Geographic Place, speaker, and title.

Also: give the Time for different time zones. In particular, list the starting time for New York, London, Los Angeles, and Peking. Maybe Melbourne, Berlin, Jerusalem, and Delhi too, but there's always a tradeoff when adding info. The main thing is to have at least one US time and at least one European time.

Do not add security to a Zoom meeting unless you really need it.

Send out code emails over and over. Espcially, right before. In the 5 minutes here you look up which physical room the seminar is in. We pasted the visitor schedule to the secretary’s desk for in-person seminars.

Post a link to the ground rules where participants can see it. Zoom doesn’t allow that, alas. Have a webpage for each sminar where stuff like that can go,a dn post it on each speaker’s screen at the bottom. Or, tell audience how they can set it up on their desktop, with one window for browser, one for zoom video, one for zoom chat, no screen maxing that covers up all but one screen. Have a screenshot for them of a good auidence member.

Tell people to get their faces close enough tot he webcam so their face dominates teh video, especially if the screen is going to have 10 people showing at once so each person is small.

An amazing number of peopel who think that their boss owes it to them to let them take care of their famileis while being paid to work. See this Twitter thread.

Set meetings to run from five-past to five-to, never hour to hour. That way everyone gets a break between.

Be prepared with a backup site. If your talk isn't working, post a link to a new web address, preferably on different hardware and software, and have the entire panel and audience move with you.

If someone wants to speak, require video. Open up chat. List attenders. Have a way questioners can test their audio and video--- a separate zoom session address with a clerk. Give the list of people who want to ask questions.

Required open meetings: should require people to be there visibly,tho they can wear masks (and use fake accounts). Allow chatting of people on the chat box, like in the hallway. You aren't using the chat box anyway.

What is the best way to tell someoen that they need to unmute themselves? (photo of me with ears). A new software command? We cannot rely on the moderatior along--too busy.

You don't need to mute yourself while you're typing notes.

A Virtual Finance Conference

When someone is in the Waiting Room, email them to let them know they got in. Have a message there to let them know they’re in, even better.

Make commenters into co-hosts so their portraits show up at the top and the general audience can see them.

For lighting, each person should use a lampshade and test out how they look. Be careful of having light bulbs on behind you on desk lamps or the ceiling.

To get a permanent announcement, rather than share screen or chat, use the kludge of inventing new person whose Portrait photo is the announcement. Make him a co-host, so maybe he can be pinned to the top always.

Is there a way to fix the position of people in Zoom, so everyone knows who is top right corner? Also, everyone should have a label, like a page number, so you can look to John Doe at row 45 column 2 when someone talks and says, “John Doe, (he’s row 45, column 2)…This should be a small 45-2 in the upper right of his photo bo.

Slides are really important when the audience doesn’t understand spoken English very well. In such a case, the usual maxim that Slides Shouldn’t Be Notes does not apply. Put the slides up on a webpage and let the audience know where it is. Have a webpage for the seminar, with links to the slides, the paper, and bio details for the speaker. Each speaker should set up this page himself. I will create one right now at Ostracism Seminar Webpage.

One way to do questions is to email the collection of them to the co-author, who can choose which to have the author answer. Then the author doesn’t have to think about that, and can just concentrate on answering and on listening to commenters.

Here is the link to the other platform called Xueshuzhi in Chinese, which probably can be translated into something like "Chronicle of Scholarship" or something like that. What they do is to create a mirror view/site of the actual Zoom meeting and have someone join the latter virtually and then broadcast from the latter's screen to their site for more people to view/hear. There will be 20-second lag between the original meeting site and their mirror site, which should not make any difference to the audience.

Maybe have 5 esteemed scholars as licensed questioners, who can interrupt at any point. That is how a lot of seminar work anyway, in effect-- the Big Men ask questions, and the assistant professors and grad students are all too scared to ask. Though, we should make one of the five the Enthusiastic Assistant Professor who generally asks questions without fear that he'll doom his tenure chances by asking a dumb question some day. (I should mention that I've often heard senior people criticize assistant professors for not asking enough questions and being useless in seminars; occasionally have heard them critize one of them for being too rude with questions; but never, ever, heard a senior professor mention some assistant professor's question as being dumb, even though they are sometimes dumb, tho less often than questions by the Big Men. The Big Men know that dumb questions are inevitable so they are less scared to ask them and it has less effect on what they think of people. The assistant professors may be correct that if he asks a dumb question, the PhD students will think less of him; it's like people who dismiss a scholarly paper because it has a typo.)

See what I used for handouts and slides and paper for the audience, at,_2021).

Improvements for Zoom

  • 1.In zoom chat, a single speaker must put in blank lines to seaprate his various message suless onter speaker is in between.

2. Zoom should show you in Gallery EXACTLY what people's screens look like, rather than everybody having a differen torder of people's pictuers. I want to know whether people are seing my photo right next to that of the person who is sepaking, as they're noticing me.
3. Post a link to the ground rules where participants can see it. Zoom doesn’t allow that, alas.
4. I think if you enter a meeting, you don’t get to view the Chat that happened before you entered, so you miss all the announcements. That’s bad.

  • In Zoom, you can move yourself to everybody’s upper left corner by raising your hand. When you start talking, you return to somewhere else though.

How To Be a Good Member of the Audience

  • For Zoom sessions, have a lamp with a lampshade next to you, so the light is diffused and bright and you don't look reflective in the wrong way, or sickly. A 90-watt bulb with a lampshade works. Natural sunlight facing your through a white curtain is best, though.
  • Interesitng thing happened with me and Emily Owens. Jonah Gelbach was answering a Jen Doleac question. I had my hand raised. Emily then raised her hand. I thought Emily had a follow-up question, so I lowered my hand. Emily, however, was looking down, and didn’t respond immediately when Jonah called on her. I realized that maybe she was counting on a minute pause to think while my quesiton was being asekd and answered, so I raised his hand again to try to rescue her. But she recovered, so she did ask her question just fine. And it turned out to NOT be a follow-up question.
The moral of the story: a disadvantage of the online seminar is that it’s hard to know when to jump in and when to hold back. In a live seminar, the audience member can hold back if he sees that somebody else has a follow-up question, or jump in if he has a follow-up question and show that to the speaker by the way his hand and body moves and his facial expression, but that doesn’t work well online. I don’t know what can be done about that. Maybe leave the mute buttons off, to allow for people to jump in, or to say, “Emily, do you want to ask your question first?”

On the Road

People sometimes ask me about honoraria, and my answer is that I'd like whatever honorarium your group customarily pays for similar events. If it doesn't normally pay an honorarium, I'll generally be glad to do it for free; I view it as part of the "service" component of a professor's job ("research / teaching / service"), and it's part that I enjoy. But if you'd like to send me a locally themed care package (three places so far have done that), especially items that I can display or eat or drink on the video, I think that makes for a fun extra connection for the audience—a little bit more like I was physically there. In any case, please let me know if some group you're involved with would be interested. --Professor Eugene Volokh, (2021)