Michael Friedman, Managing Partner - February 01, 2021
THE FOUR KEYS TO A SUCCESSFUL VIRTUAL EVENT
Have you ever been on a Zoom call with a large group of friends or colleagues and the only item on the agenda was to simply to “get together and talk”? Maybe this Zoom reunion happened over the holidays and replaced your usual family get-together, or maybe it stood in for a regular in-person professional meeting.
How did that go?
I’m guessing it wasn’t great. When you put 10+ people on one screen without a leader and without planned prompts for participation from guests, oftentimes participants end up awkwardly looking at one another, talking over each other, and generally not having a very good time.
Sometimes you get one or two talkers who dominate , taking everyone else’s collective silence as permission to continue. In real life, if this conversation was happening at the dinner table, a few of those silent bystanders would politely break off into the side conversations that just aren’t possible in the virtual realm.
Chaotic virtual meetings like this make everyone wish they hadn’t used cousin Jane’s professional Zoom account, because the abrupt ending at the 40-minute time limit that comes with a non-professional account would have been sweet relief from this ill-conceived encounter.
Sorry, did that get too personal?
The truth is, any virtual event can fall prey to these same pitfalls. But fear not – there are ways to avoid them. It starts with a solid plan.
HAVE A DESIGNATED HOST & PLANNED ACTIVITY
Every virtual event needs a leader — someone to begin the conversation and prompt everyone else to engage. This person’s goal isn’t to monopolize the stage, but rather to encourage participation. The virtual event host needs to understand the goal of the event, and then act as a shepherd, guiding guests from start to finish with a gentle nudge.
A virtual event also needs an organized activity, and that activity should encourage as much participation as possible. Each guest must be engaged every three to five minutes beyond just watching or listening, or you risk losing their attention.
Do the math – that means you should be asking your audience to participate in your event 12-20 times per hour.
That’s easy to accomplish with fun and interesting activities. Your guests are constantly engaged when playing a trivia game or during a wine tasting, for example. But a passive activity requires more consideration. A keynote speaker should be polling, asking live questions, and otherwise engaging their audience regularly throughout a talk, not just at the end.
In the virtual world, even entertainment requires participation. During a live event, the entertainers are on a stage, separate from the event guests, and that’s just fine. Guests can choose when to be fully immersed in the entertainment and when it will serve as background noise to the rest of their whims.
In the virtual world, entertainment can feel like a passive activity, and your guests won’t be content watching a 30-minute set without being invited to participate. Think through your entertainment and find ways to engage the audience throughout the show. That could mean inviting questions from the audience or taking requests.
Guests want to know that their presence at an event has had an impact on the event itself.
PLAN FOR AWKWARD SILENCE
Virtual Event Awkwardness (VEA for short) is a real thing. We’ve all experienced it, and it can completely derail an event. That awkward silence is a cringey moment during which your guests are unsettled and wondering, “What’s supposed to be happening right now?” Knowing that VEA could happen and planning for when it does is the only way to combat it.
VEA can happen in two key moments of any event:
1. A transition (the beginning, the end, and any transition from one activity to another).
2. When participation has been requested.
The event host is your key defense against VEA. This person can help navigate transitions by filling silence with reassuring information on what’s about to happen. Before an event starts, a host should be welcoming guests and letting them know what they could be doing to prepare for the event to begin. The host could prompt early arrivers with future participation opportunities, getting their gears turning and increasing the chances they might participate later in the event.
When an event’s planned programming has concluded, it’s important to inform your guests. Even if the virtual event room will remain open for a less formal chat, the host must announce the end of the formal programming to avoid confusion.
Designing participation for a virtual event is imperative to engaging with your audience and keeping their attention. But if done wrong, it can lead to some serious VEA!
Think of the last time you attended a virtual event where a host asked a question and no one answered.
Five seconds go by.
Maybe someone’s trying to answer but they’re on mute?
This is VEA.
Audience members are asking themselves “If no one else cares about this, why should I?”
You have to ask your audience to participate, but you also have to prepare for what happens if they don’t.
Start your event by asking your guests to put questions and comments in a chat box and then call on them later. Remind them at various points throughout the event.
Ask someone specific to answer a question instead of asking the whole audience.
Plant questions in your audience before the event starts.
Have a plan for VEA!
KEEP IT MOVING
Virtual attention spans are shorter than live attention spans. That’s just a fact. It’s why we ask people to participate so much in virtual events, but even that has its limits. Virtual events should be short and to the point.
The longest any individual topic should be discussed or activity should be performed without some significant change is 45 minutes.
If you have a lot of ground to cover, be sure to incorporate breaks at least every 90 minutes. Those breaks should allow your guests to get up, use the bathroom, grab a snack, and look at something besides a computer. But sometimes those breaks could just be five minutes of guided breathing or chair yoga. Show your guests that you are considerate of their needs
And to reiterate, ask audience members to participate in some way at least every five minutes!
FFS, DO IT LIVE!
This is my biggest pet peeve in the virtual event world. Yes, if you pre-record segments of your virtual event, you eliminate some risk of technical issues or mental malfunctions. What you also do is completely eliminate any opportunity to engage with your audience or ask for their participation. You jeopardize guests’ feeling that their presence matters.
A virtual event should include as many live elements as possible. Small technical issues and even a little VEA will be forgiven if guests leave feeling considered and heard.
What do you think? Do you have other ideas for how to produce a successful virtual event? We’d love to hear them! And if you found this content informative, please share it with your network!