We attend events for a variety of reasons – to learn something, to be entertained, to meet people.  Often it’s a combination of these things.  If you are bringing people together for anything other than a purely information conveying webinar, your participants are likely to want to be able to interact with the speakers and other attendees. How can you ensure that your virutal events are full of opportunities for audience engagement?

It is easier to get distracted from an online event than an in-person one.  In a room, I focus fully on the speaker on stage.  At digital events, I’m much more likely to “quickly just do something else” at the same time – on my phone, online, around the house.  The more opportunity for engagement and interaction at your event, the less likely it is your audience will get distracted. 

Reading the digital room

Audience engagement is fundamental to good public speaking.  This is achieved through asking questions (rhetorical or answers shouted out), asking participants to do something or evoking an emotional reaction.  Speakers like a live audience.  In person, the good ones at least read the room, playing off the reactions to what they say.  Speaking into the digital void is a somewhat different skill to master.  

Audience engagement is harder online, but not impossible.  As mentioned previously, for some virtual events I’ve received physical packs in advance.  These packs included templates speakers asked us to use or places to write things down.  In smaller events, being able to see the audience is encouraging.  I’d recommend having videos on for engagement whenever this is possible.  If participants do not have the ability to use videos, then being able to react to the speaker, via reaction buttons, comments and questions can be a much needed boost for the speaker.  It does bring it’s own challenges though.

Controlling the chat

The chat box in an online event is a tricky beast.  In person, it is considered rude for the audience to constantly whisper to each other.  Online, sitting at home alone, it is a way for them to engage and feel included.  Feeding back that the content is useful and appreciated can also make it worthwhile for the speaker and event organisers.  It is a fine balance. 

At some events there has been so much chat, I wondered if anyone was actually listening.  There have been comments in the chat that have bordered on rude – about the speakers or other participants.  That is not a whisper between two people but something for all to see.  In my experience, the more people you have together over a longer time increases the likelihood of chat box overload.  Having ground rules about how the chat should be used and will be monitored is necessary for large-scale events. 

How you filter out general chatter from questions for the speaker to address is also worth considering.  The speaker is probably going to be too busy presenting to look at the chat, therefore someone else needs to focus on this to ask the questions.  Some platforms have a means of sending questions direct to the host, which helps to keep it separate from the general chat.  Planning how to use the chat functionality and communicating this to your audience will encourage a positive engagement experience for all involved in the event.

New ways to network

Also outlined in that first article in this series: people like to network.  We’ve been isolated for the last year and are missing human interaction.  In the events that I have attended, I’ve seen one-to-one speed networking, breakout rooms, simulation of tables.  These type of networking facilities have been in high demand.  Or…if they haven’t existed, the feedback has been to have more of this.  Several organisations where I’m a member are increasing the number of pure networking events to satisfy this desire for connection.  The more you can design thoughtful, useful networking into your event, the happier and more engaged your attendees are likely to be.

There are different ways to achieve audience interaction and engagement.  The type of event, number of participants and platform are influential.  The more variety of interaction you can incorporate, the better.  Your MC is one of the best ways to engage your audience.  My next article will explain the value to your event of a good MC.

Photo by Domingo Alvarez E on Unsplash

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