It’s coming up to a year since we all moved to virtual events. Over that time I’ve attended innumerable webinars, training sessions, meetings and conferences. Some have been huge, with hundreds of attendees. Some have had just a handful. I’ve been involved as a participant, as part of the organising team and as a trainer. In this series of blogs, I’ll share some of the key things I’ve learnt, so you can ensure your events in this digital world are as engaging and productive as possible.
I’ll be covering setting up the tech, audience engagement and effective emceeing. Although relatively general, some tips will be more pertinent to larger-scale events. Likewise, many of the lessons are just as relevant to in-person events – I’ll highlight some of the similarities and differences. To begin, let’s focus on preparation – how the success of your virtual events is predicated on what happens before they start.
Having a comprehensive programme for an event generally applies to longer, larger events, with several sessions over the course of half a day or more. Pre-pandemic, I used to regularly attend conferences with packed agendas. Online, less is more. If I see a whole day virtual event, with back-to-back sessions, I get tired just thinking about it. I’d rather attend three really good, engaging sessions, than six where I couldn’t take it all in. [More about engagement in a forthcoming post.]
When compiling a programme, it’s good to get variety if possible. Some speakers may be doing keynotes, i.e. one person delivering a talk to an audience. I’ve also seen interviews between two people and panel discussions with three plus. You may also be able to have sessions with more audience participation – perhaps not always the audience speaking, but still being asked to undertaken activities.
Having said this, even short virtual events of an hour or two benefit from advanced thought being put into the agenda. Questions to ask yourself to achieve this:
- What time should your participants to arrive?
- How long will the main event go on for?
- How much time (if any) will you dedicate to Q&A?
- Do you need time at the end for thank yous, announcements, promoting future events?
Taking the first point, relevant to every event – if you state the start time as 10am, that’s probably the time people will turn up. It’s tempting to think everything is instant online, but that’s not always the case with connection problems, broken links and trying to admit a lot of people all at once. To actually start at 10am, it’s best to have a welcome window, opening the digital room 5-15 minutes before so attendees can trickle in.
Whatever its scale, your participants will appreciate a well-run event, which runs to time, thereby respecting theirs.
Give me a break
Breaks are a part of any major conference or event. Time between speakers allows participants to process what they’ve just heard, grab refreshments and re-energise. People cannot concentrate for overly long periods of time. If anything this is worse online and those breaks are vital.
When everyone is not in the same room and you cannot see them doing it, it’s tempting to forget about the power of breaks in encouraging networking and engagement. Networking is just as important online – something I’ll cover in a future article.
Breaks are for the benefit of the event organisers too. They allow hosts to set up for the next speaker. Again it’s easy to assume everything is instant online. Transitioning (properly) from one speaker to another still takes time.
Communication with your attendees
How you communicate about your event beforehand may be instrumental in how many people show up. This is nothing new – effective marketing has always been key to event success:
- Who are the speakers?
- Are they presenting on a topic that is helpful to me?
- Who else will be there for me to meet?
- In effect – what’s in it for me / what will I get from this event / why should I come?
Going digital has made a lot of events much more accessible. Cutting out travel, hotel and room hire fees makes them more effective in terms of time and cost. However in the age of zoom fatigue, you need to convince people why they want to spend another few hours staring at a screen. If your event is free, it’s even more important for engagement. It’s much easier for people to switch off or not turn up at all online. Pre-event communication tells your audience why they should attend and sets the scene for engagement during the event.
I’ve attended a couple of virtual events where the organisers sent me something through the post in advance. This enhanced my excitement about the events. It showed that the organisers were thinking about the participants and their experience. I’m not saying you need to post something, what you send digitally can work just as well. A thoughtful joining instructions e-mail can make all the difference. Just find a way to show the participants you care. This applies as much to corporate conferences, as industry events or those in voluntary organisations.
One of my biggest pointers from all of this: do not to forget what you know from in person events. Programme planning, breaks, communication. Then adapt to the online environment. For this, understanding the technology is important and will be the subject of the next article.