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Visualizing Complex Concepts Together
June 7, 2021   |  Articles

Virtualizing Events Part 5: Annotations

Although I am known for my love of chat and have claimed that breakout rooms can improve almost any attendee experience, the past year has convinced me that Annotations are the single most underappreciated function of most virtual events. Why then, you might ask, did I wait until the 5th installment of this series to address them? Because this series has thus far focused on platform agnostic features and techniques but the logistics and limits of Annotations vary widely across platforms. So this article is going to be Zoom and WebEx oriented, with a nod towards Teams, while I extol the virtues of a feature that has proven so valuable to my teaching and facilitation over the past year.

Let me begin by clarifying what I mean by “Annotations”. This is Zoom’s name for the feature that allows multiple people to contribute collaboratively to a shared screen in a virtual meeting or event. I say “shared screen” because Annotations in Zoom are the equivalent of marking up the glass of your monitor rather than making changes directly to a document. The Annotations are fixed in place, which can be annoying when the content moves and the marks lose their context, but the upsides can far outweigh the challenges. Annotations is a function available directly within Zoom and WebEx, indirectly in Teams with the right add-ins, or through the use of 3rd party tools that can create similar functionality.

An Origin Fable for Annotations

Having done zero research into the origins of Annotations within Zoom’s Product Philosophy, I choose to believe that the feature evolved through a conversation that went something like this:

Product Manager: “We need a way for people using Zoom to be able to recreate the experience of drawing on a whiteboard. Let’s make a whiteboard feature that people can use to write and draw!”

Engineer 1: “No problem! We can also have shapes for people who can never draw perfect circles and maybe some stamps for anyone who just wants to put stars EVERYWHERE when they are excited!”

Engineer 2: “You know, from a technical perspective, there is really no reason why we have to limit these drawing tools to whiteboards. We could pretty easily allow people to do everything we just talked about when someone is sharing slides or a browser window!”

*A pause ensues while several developers imagine a world of mayhem and madness where anyone can mark up anyone else’s work at any time*

All voices together: LET’S DO IT!

Of course, no product development conversation has ever gone that quickly but my imagined dialog serves to address the key points.

Annotations as a Virtual Whiteboard

Many people begin by viewing Annotations as a whiteboard equivalent. Before I move on to more powerful ways to leverage this feature, I think it is worth noting the benefits of virtual whiteboards. Assuming you already know the power of using a whiteboard in the physical world for collaboration, Annotations supports the same type of interaction while allowing dozens of people to contribute to the same space rather than the few who can crowd together with pens in hand. As someone with minimal artistic talent and legible handwriting only when I remember to concentrate on my penmanship, I personally appreciate the ability to type or insert specific shapes.

Comparing Annotations to physical whiteboards is also a good time to address one of the most common critiques I hear about Annotations: On Zoom, only the person sharing their screen can move an Annotation once it has been finalized. While this limitation is definitely frustrating, the function still offers more flexibility than a physical whiteboard where no one can move anything once they have finished drawing or writing unless they want to erase their marks and start over.

Turning back to the power of Annotations, despite my personal artistic shortcomings, my favorite use of Annotations on a blank whiteboard is creating art together. “Let’s draw ________ together” has become one of my favorite ice breakers and wrap up activities. I used this recently with a Mastermind group during my turn to facilitate and we created powerful images of Gratitude and Hope. For those who prefer a less abstract approach, collectively creating a beach scene or a garden can be equally fun. Even when the instructions call for silence, I find that anyone who remains unmuted tends to let loose at least a giggle or two before the process is complete – audible evidence of the rapport building that is taking place.

Beyond the Whiteboard

At this point, however, I almost never use a blank whiteboard in Zoom for anything other than drawing exercises or spontaneous collaboration because I have learned how impactful a tiny bit of preparation can be. You may recall from Part 3 of this series (Breakout Rooms) that I strongly encourage preplanning a specific question or prompt for discussion in the breakout rooms and also a “debrief” where people can bring their discussions back together. Many facilitators debrief by asking for insights from each breakout room or volunteers to come off of mute and speak. Others solicit insights via the chat. Both of these are effective techniques that I use on occasion but my favorite way to debrief is with Annotations.

If you know the breakout room prompts before an event begins, you can create a slide that has plenty of whitespace but already has the prompts written in. The key is to save or screenshot the Annotations before clearing the input and moving on to the next slide. I am including an example from a presentation I did last week below and you will see that the slide template also included instructions for finding the Annotations feature in Zoom in the lower left corner. In the past, I have put those instructions in the chat but I have found that having them on the shared screen directly is far more effective. Even when I use a blank whiteboard now, the first thing I do is paste the “how to find Annotations” instructions somewhere on the whiteboard.

The results of a group annotation session

Using Annotations as a mechanism for breakout room debriefs can be particularly powerful with groups that are working in a second language or that are just beginning to build psychological safety. Unlike the chat window, where the first comments can quickly scroll out of sight and out of mind, everyone’s input remains visible. Unlike sharing input verbally, multiple people can be working on their contributions simultaneously. This allows team members to build on each others’ thoughts and allows facilitators to engage with the initial input while more thoughtful participants add their own perspectives.

Other Opportunities for Annotations

To prevent this article from becoming a novel, here are a few more glimpses into the various ways I have used Annotations in the past year:

  • As a voting mechanism: Asking people to stamp can be more fun than completing a poll. Participants can see each others’ marks, which should be taken into consideration when soliciting votes, but slapping stars and question marks on someone else’s slides seems to create far more enthusiasm than clicking a poll button
  • As a teaching aid: While teaching for the Berkeley Extension School this spring, I used Annotations to debrief homework assignments and have students share thoughts and ideas as new concepts were introduced
  • To prove a point: During a session of ILVW early this year, I asked everyone to draw me a tree and only after they had beautifully decorated the entire slide did I clarify that I was looking for “a Christmas tree”. The juxtaposition of the various versions of greenery visible on the slide and the notion of Christmas tree made my point about assumptions and the importance of clear and complete instructions quite quickly
  • To capture a shared summary of ideas: Whether debriefing a breakout room or more broadly brainstorming, capturing many perspectives on a single whiteboard creates a shared record that can be referred back to many times in the future

Limitations of Annotations and 3rd Party Alternatives

Which brings us to the limitations of Annotations. I have already mentioned the fact that only the person sharing their screen can move Annotations around once a participant has “finished” that input and the fact that I am careful to put instructions on how to find the feature front and center. “Annotate” is one of the least discoverable features in Zoom. Another particularly frustrating limit of Annotations is the inability to paste images, which makes sense after the “Zoom bombing” spree of mid-2020 but can be frustrating nonetheless.

More broadly, however, Annotations are limited to text, a handful of shapes, a few stamps, a limited range of colors, and a set number of font sizes. While there is a *lot* you can do within that toolset, there are several 3rd party “virtual whiteboards” that are simply more powerful. Miro, Mural, Conceptboard, and LucidSpark, to name just a few, allow you to do everything Annotations supports and so much more. From something as simple as having far more “space” to work with to the expansive library of templates each tool offers, there are many advantages to learning and leveraging these platforms. The primary downside is simply that participants need to “leave the Zoom window” to engage with these tools, which can be stressful for less technically advanced audiences.

Zoom, WebEx, Teams, and the Future

So for regular Zoom users, I have included my standard “how to access Annotations in Zoom” instructions below. WebEx users can learn how to access Annotations (and how to control permissions with a degree of refinement unavailable in Zoom) here. Teams users can look forward to an Annotations-like feature coming soon from Microsoft in PowerPoint and I am hoping that some of my Teams power user colleagues will chime in on the chat with more insights.

I have come to truly value and appreciate the power of Annotations and hope that if you have yet to embrace this fantastic feature that this article has sparked some ideas to increase engagement moving forward. Offering everyone on a call the ability to share their perspectives and talents in parallel, at a scale that no physical whiteboard could ever support, has been one of the great gifts of virtualizing our world. I look forward to seeing what you all will create in the future!

Belle’s Standard Instructions for Finding Annotations

ANNOTATIONS: Look for the green bar at the top of the screen and the “View Options” button next to it. Click “View Options” and a list will appear with “Annotate” on the list. Click “Annotate” and a toolbar with the Annotation options will appear. On Mobile devices, look underneath the shared content for a pen icon. Tap on the pen to access Annotation options.

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