I was quick to register for a pair of free online conferences that featured four nights of very impressive people talking about very important issues.
But I never logged on.
Instead, I binge-watched Homeland with my wife and channeled my inner 80-year-old by working on a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
I’m Zoomed out. My attention span is shot. And the novelty of filling my pandemic days and nights with professional development webinars, workshops, talks, courses, summits and conferences is wearing off.
So how can you win over audiences like me when speaking and running virtual events for employees, customers and the general public?
David Meerman Scott and Michelle Manafy have some suggestions.
“The best virtual events reimagine what is possible rather than recreate what is familiar,” say the authors of Standout Virtual Events. You can’t simply move your in-person town hall or conference online. Hanging out in virtual lobbies and sitting through 45-minute keynotes will be a tough sell for Zoom-weary audiences.
“Virtual events are more like television than theatre. In a theatrical performance, the audience is present. Their feedback is immediate and palpable. You know right away whether your performance is resonating. You are on the big stage and have to play big and bold to connect with those in the back row.”
At a virtual event, every attendee has a front row seat. We want intimate conversations rather than performances. So look into the camera so you’re looking into our eyes.
“Speakers who are skilled at in-person events may not be skilled virtual speakers,” say Meerman Scott and Manafy. “If speakers play to an audience as they are used to doing in-person, rather than playing to the camera, they will not be as successful in delivering their messages and the entire event can suffer.”
We’ll also log off if you do nothing but talk at us. Passive experiences don’t work with virtual events. We expect to interact with you and each other.
Meerman Scott and Manafy recommend breaking your talk into a series of five to seven-minute segments interspersed with real-time polls, trivia contests, Q&A sessions, interviews with surprise guests, video clips and small group discussions in breakout rooms.
“If a speaker can do all of those things in 45 minutes, the talk will be quite different from an in-person talk but it is dynamic and engaging in a way that is ideal for a screen.”
If you’re organizing a virtual event, take the money you’ve saved on renting a venue and feeding and watering the audience and invest it in a skilled production team and host. Don’t saddle an intern or overworked executive assistant with the responsibility of running your virtual event.
A skilled host will bring out the best in camera-shy speakers and guide conversations that’ll hold our attention. “Journalists make terrific interviewers and many have experience in front of a camera,” say Meerman Scott and Manafy. “It will be critical to ensure that a panel moderator or interviewer for a fireside chat is highly comfortable with the subject matter, the medium and confident enough to lead the discussion if it lulls or heads off track.”
Meerman Scott and Manafy predict that we’ll be attending hybrid town halls, summits and conferences post-pandemic. Some of us will pay for the in-person experience while many others will opt to save time and money by logging in from work and home. The upside is that you’ll be reaching even bigger audiences.
So don’t keep postponing events until we can meet again in person. Start moving events online now and heed Meerman Scott and Manafy’s expert advice.
“The best virtual events are more than televised keynotes. They must go beyond the charismatic talking head. The best virtual events create a compelling and engaging digital experience. The key is that we need to use the power of the online medium rather than trying to recreate an offline experience.”
Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton, has reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and never finished the 1,000 piece puzzle.