In mid-March, everything changed. Since then, I've spent my days running remote advisory councils, remote Haute Dokimazo (my company) strategy sessions, remote HD(x) events, and consulting with people on virtual experiences. (If you need Zoom tips, I'm kind of an expert now—give me a shout!) I've joined a couple of virtual events as well, and a few were awesome...but most of them have been unbearable information dumps.
After gathering feedback from these events, I wanted to share my top 10 ways to make your virtual events not suck.
10. The Welcome
The welcoming moments of the attendee experience are just as vital to the online experience as they are at your in-person event. Have some background music, have trivia wallpaper going, and have someone welcome people either through chat or voice-over as they join to let them know they have been noticed and you're glad they're here.
9. Staff Correctly
This isn't a one-person show. Virtual events are a team sport. If you have breakout rooms, you need a room administrator in each room. You need a host/emcee to welcome everyone, and you need a host/administrator to "personably" manage the technical aspects of the experience for the attendees (this is a combination of customer support and technical administration). And have an extra room administrator in case one of the primary folks lose internet connection; ditto if you have notetakers in the rooms. Have a few extra people!
8. Vary the Presentation Formats
Include slides, conversation, and chat. A meeting that is exclusively "Brady Bunch" view is great for conversation, but not for delivering actual content. Participants need someplace for their eyes to go. An event that is all presentation, on the other hand, provides no eye contact or ability to feel the humanity through the screen. So, do both.
7. Provide Interactivity
Use polls, annotating, whiteboarding, collaborating visually with tools like Mural or even an old-fashioned thumbs-up to the camera. And make sure you pause to involve your participants and get feedback along the way.
6. Be a Good Presenter
This sounds obvious, but the reality is you have a lot less forgiveness in a virtual format than in person. In person, you can guilt people into staying in your room listening to your boring presenter. Online, you have no such powers. People will just disappear. Practice on screen. Record your presenter and make them watch it. Practice again. Don't be monotone. Sound excited about your content! Persuade your audience that your topic is just as exciting to them as it is to you. Also, as the presenter, don't worry too much about the faces you are seeing. We are experienced multi-taskers. If you have a portion of your content where you are just presenting, people WILL check email or work on other things. Be confident in your content, pay attention to the folks who are engaged, and give only minor attention to re-engaging the ones who are lurkers. Pay enough attention to take the cues from your audience on how the engagement level is overall.
5. Entertain and Offer Icebreakers
Now more than ever, we are stuck at our computers staring at our screens without a break. Do anything to get us moving and laughing. Offer a stretch break with a yoga instructor for 5 minutes before a break. Bring in a magician for virtual happy hour. Do an in-home scavenger hunt and ask participants to grab their favorite kitchen utensil, or grab the nearest human and put them on screen! If you're doing polls or quizzes, throw in some old-school Jeopardy music to jazz up the dull moments while people are answering. It's the little touches that make people smile and remember the experience.
4. Use Breakout Rooms
Just like on-site events, people attend events to learn and network. Putting people in a keynote session for 8 hours doesn't work in a ballroom, and it sure as heck won't work in a virtual environment. Make sure some of your sessions are small enough to provide for actual interaction among participants. Fewer than 50 participants is ideal for interaction on tools like Zoom.
3. Make Room Management Easy
Create a checklist for room admins (welcome participants, introduce yourself, hit “record,” know where to upload screen shots and recordings for post-event), and create a back channel like Slack, WhatsApp, or another instant messaging tool that isn't in the virtual event platform's chat, just to avoid the accidental "message to everyone" mistake.
2. Require Speakers to Join Your Pre-conference Meeting
Your presenters need to be trained on the controls of the virtual event platform, even if it's as easy to use as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Do not let a presenter perform if they have not met with you to get trained. If they can't join your mandatory pre-con, ensure you send them a recording of it or have them meet with you individually. The number of virtual events I've joined recently where the presenter had to ask someone to help with something basic was painful.
1. Don't Overproduce It
Right now, authenticity is the name of the game. A good home setup or a nice home studio is amazing, and good lighting (even if just from a selfie ring light) is required. In our current economic time, using a fully-built studio may come across as wasteful spending, and in lock-down situations, it’s comforting to know that people are staying home. Take a cue from actor John Krasinski on YouTube and go lo-fi. Make no mistake, though—his video was NOT underproduced. The exact right amount of all of the above nine points were used in the creation of his video. The set design/lighting, the content, those guests, and that incredible script were craftily designed and executed. So yes, you still have to produce your content; just don’t overproduce it.
Liz Lathan, CMP is co-founder and CEO of Haute Dokimazo, a "spontaneous think tank” company that empowers participants to solve their business challenges. Haute Dokimazo is part of Haute Companies, a family of companies anchored in human connection, from events to media (podcasts, videos, and more) to direct mail to talent management to strategy session facilitation.