Setting up my home studio for online sessions: A lesson in perseverance, grit and self care

Some of the most rewarding experiences in life are often the most challenging ones.

For the last five weeks, I’ve been delivering online sessions in schools.

What a steep learning curve!

But now it feels like second nature. It’s my new normal.

I have to stop and frequently remind myself that it wasn’t that long ago that running online sessions was completely new to me.

A disruptive start to the year

A week into the new school year, the state government announced restrictions on group sizes in schools. To prevent the spread of Covid, no large in person gatherings were allowed.

This meant my school talks could not proceed as they usually would.

Now I was faced with a difficult decision to make . . .

Should I stop giving talks and take a break?
Or should I quickly upskill in how to deliver online sessions and set up a home studio?

I thought to myself:

“You teach people how to learn more effectively . . . you know how to pick up new skills quickly, so you can do this! You can learn how to use Zoom, Teams, and Webex and set up a home studio!”

It was time to practice what I preach.

I had to learn a bunch of new skills. And quickly!

I didn’t have a month to learn and set up my home studio. How much time did I have?

Four days!

I had to focus my mind. I wrote a list and I swung into action.

Those were the most intense four days I have experienced in a long time. It was a similar level of intensity to when I used to pull all-nighters to complete my university assignments (this is not something I recommend doing).

In those four days, I learnt a lot. And not just about lighting, green screens, microphones, webcams and video conferencing software. I learnt some valuable life lessons.

Here’s what I learnt . . .
1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it

Initially, I felt overwhelmed. I wasn’t sure where to start. So I reached out to a good friend for help. He created a diagram to show me the equipment I needed to create a professional home studio. With his encouragement, I started sourcing equipment from Gumtree, eBay and camera shops.

The diagram my friend created for me (thanks Adam!)

My friend also suggested a piece of free software that could take my online sessions to the next level: Open Broadcaster Software (OBS). OBS is powerful software which connects in with any video conferencing software (e.g., Zoom, Teams and Webex).

I watched some online videos on OBS. This software looked a bit complicated, but I knew this was something I wanted to learn how to use.

I didn’t realise at the time but OBS requires a powerful computer to run on. The problem was I was using an old MacBook. It didn’t have the processing power to handle OBS. When I did a test run, my computer kept crashing and my image kept freezing on my friend’s laptop.

Was it my laptop? Or was my internet not fast enough?

I had to pinpoint the problem.

My friend Paul Litherland (cyber safety presenter) had mentioned he used OBS for his online presentations with schools. I was desperate, so I contacted Paul for help.

I spent 40 minutes on the phone with Paul, explaining all my tech problems. He said:

“Jane, think of it like this . . . it’s like you’re at the race track and you’re driving a mini and you’re trying to go really fast but you can’t.”

Paul was gently trying to say my tools weren’t up to the job of running OBS. I put down the phone and realised I needed a race car, not a mini.

2. The right tools and resources make a huge difference

Fast internet, good lights, a green screen, a good quality microphone, a solid computer and second monitor: it sounds like a lot of stuff to purchase but all of these things are essential if you want to run professional online sessions.

My home studio for online presentations

But I come from a fairly frugal family. I was taught from a young age to save my money. Mum and dad’s philosophy has always been this:

“If we can make something ourselves or find a cheaper alternative, then that’s what we do!”

When we first went into lockdown in 2020, a school asked me to run an online session. With the family thrifty mindset, my brother helped me to create a home studio on the cheap. I used lamps and spotlights from Bunnings for lighting and big sheets of white corflute as light reflectors. It did the job but looking back, it was kind of clunky and not ideal.

When I compare my new studio setup to the one I created in 2020, I now realise how much of a difference it makes to have good quality equipment. Sometimes it’s worth spending some money to get the right tools for the job. Those tools can make your life a whole lot easier.

3. Do a test run

I’m not someone who likes to wing things, especially when it comes to technology. I knew I had to do multiple test runs (I did at least 30) using different video conferencing software to iron out any problems.

Delivering a talk to a big group of students can be challenging enough as it is. But when you add the extra element of having to use technology and make sure that all works smoothly, that can take up a serious amount of your brainpower.

I had to get really comfortable with the technology to free up my brainpower to deliver the session. The test runs made this possible.

4. Avoid trying to learn complex stuff when you’re tired

Too tired to learn

I would do test runs with my friend late at night (8.30pm). The problem was I felt really tired at the end of the day. But this was the only time my friend was available so I had to work within his schedule.

On the first test run, everything that could go wrong did go wrong! And by the end of it, I was a mess.

I felt completely exhausted. I was not in the right frame of mind to work my way through each problem.

I went to bed feeling frustrated and demoralised on more than one occasion. This was dangerous because with my tired mind, I started to question whether I’d be able to pull off these online sessions that were scheduled in just a few days’ time.

When you’re feeling tired, it’s not a good time to try to solve complex problems. Those problems are more likely to occur as insurmountable and you run the risk of giving up.

The best thing you can do is stop before you reach the point of feeling totally exhausted.

5. A good night’s sleep makes everything better

After having a good 8 hours of sleep, I’d wake up feeling refreshed. And with this energy, I was determined to troubleshoot my way through the various issues.

You have to know when to say “That’s enough for today!” and hit the sack.

6. Chances are you’re not the only person experiencing this problem

There were moments when I found myself feeling frustrated and stupid. Why did I keep experiencing problems with running the software (OBS)?

I’d think, “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I figure out how to get the audio working in this video?” But then I would Google the problem and soon discover it was a common issue, which made me feel better.

Luckily, there were lots of YouTube videos and forum posts on the various issues I was experiencing. I’d sit myself down with a notepad and pen, and calmly watch the video or read the forum post, sketching out key bits of information.

Online resources
One of many YouTube videos that helped me to solve technical problems

This reminded me that when you feel stuck and confused, you need to stay calm and ask Mr Google (or someone) for help.

7. Be mentally flexible

I had to face the reality that I wouldn’t be able to use OBS for my first online session. My setup just wasn’t ready (I needed a more powerful computer) and there were some glitches I needed to sort out.

For my first few online sessions, I would need to go back to basics. Initially, I felt frustrated by this prospect. I cried out to my husband, “But I really wanted to use OBS!”.

He looked at me (he didn’t look impressed) and said:

“Jane, you need to learn to walk before you can run.”

He was right.

This was a process. I had to be patient. It was going to take a bit of time to get there.

To sum up

It can be deeply satisfying when you step out of your comfort zone and learn new skills. With my home studio, I surprised myself by what I could do in a short space of time, but there’s no way I could have done it on my own. I needed help from others. And when things didn’t go to plan, I had to take a step back and go back to basics.

My home studio has evolved and will continue to evolve. Perhaps in a few months’ time, I’ll be packing it all up. The future is uncertain and no one really knows how this pandemic is going to play out. But for now, I’m having a lot of fun presenting remotely from home and learning new skills.