I am sure everyone in the events industry is reflecting on the past year and perhaps still feeling quite uncertain about 2021. As online events will undoubtedly be with us for some months (years?) to come, I wanted to share the lessons I’ve learned this year and, after all, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger! I organised my first event in 2000 and would never have thought that, 20 years later, I’d be living through a pandemic and shifting my whole way of working onto a computer screen. Did I even have a computer in 2000? Yes, I did, but also dial up internet!
I wonder how many of us have held our breath this year as the first presenter or the chairperson switches on their camera and microphone, an action that takes a few seconds but feels like an hour? How many times have we held our heads in our hands when someone freezes on screen because their internet connection has a momentary blip? And don’t get me started on dodgy microphones and hazy cameras!
Together with my team of helpers, I have facilitated several online conferences and smaller events over the last 9 months, which has meant assisting and preparing nearly 300 presenters, helping them to get ready for their moment in the virtual spotlight. Some have been quite lost when they first arrived inside the webinar software but, after my warm welcome and jokes about virtual coffee and biscuits, they all left feeling comfortable in the space and confident they were ready to deliver their talk when the day comes.
What have I learned?
- Preparation is key, of course! Pre-event technical tests are essential, as is a very detailed timetable for the event, and running through everything in advance, probably more than once.
- Work with presenters to optimise their pre-recorded presentation (if it is going to be pre-recorded), with tips such as: keep the same distance away from the microphone; use a good microphone and not just the laptop mic if possible; put a light behind the computer so you are well lit; record in a room with soft furnishings and not hard surfaces; don’t use too many slides!
- Keep recorded presentations short, and allow more time for live discussion. In my experience, people are fed up with watching videos on a screen and what they actually want is to see a person talking passionately about their subject. Where possible, intersperse short presentations with longer discussion time.
- What would have made a great 3-day in person conference, may now need to be broken down into more manageable chunks. We worked with one client to spread their usual annual conference over 4 smaller half day events over a few weeks, with some additional presentations and podcasts for people to watch and listen to in their own time. Be creative about what an ‘online event’ looks like; maybe it doesn’t all need to take place in a webinar setting.
- Make the event as interactive as possible. Many people go to conferences for the networking element and want time to discuss their topic with others. This can be achieved via our webinar software. Every online programme should include time for: networking on arrival and at the end of the session; the ability for the audience member to ‘have their say’ during the conference, either by typing their questions or comments or, even better, by raising their hand and being made temporarily visible to the audience; time for discussion in small groups and noting the key points on whiteboards; and opportunities for delegates to share their screen with other delegates to show them what they are working on!
- When taking part in the live event, the presenter should have a stable internet connection, ethernet is preferable to wifi, and wifi is better than mobile data! This is not always possible, of course. If the presenter’s internet is likely to be patchy then this is one occasion when a recorded presentation could well be the better option.
- If your presenter is in a country that blocks certain webinar systems, help them to set up a VPN as a work around.
- Repeat yourself a lot and constantly remind presenters when they should have their camera and mic on and when they shouldn’t, with the end result being a professional, slick experience for the audience.
- In the last month or so, I’ve found that people have got so used to working from home and meeting on Teams and Zoom that they have stopped thinking about their professional image. This is understandable and acceptable in day to day situations, but I encourage presenters to think of their time in the live webinar as if it is time on a live stage and that they could consider: what they’re wearing; what their background looks like (within reason); try to look directly into the camera (rather than at a second screen which gives a sideways view of their face); arrange good lighting and, where possible, use a headset or microphone so they can be clearly seen and heard.
- Coach the Chair: don’t panic if a presenter doesn’t turn up at the right time, or if they freeze on screen. Everyone is very forgiving. Talk through the worst case scenarios so everyone feels prepared! Have a back up Chair, and even a back up of the back up.
I have tried to take the positives from a very hard year and will continue to use the lessons I’ve learned well into the future, I’m sure. Good luck to everyone working in the virtual events world at the moment and, if you need help or just want to chat about your experiences, then do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Is it too soon to say Merry Christmas? I wish everyone a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2021!