If I may make a prediction during what feels like the most unpredictable year, it's this:
virtual events are going to be with us long after the threat of coronavirus passes.
Nonprofit leaders are saying that they're experiencing 100% attendance at board meetings. I've noticed from the panels and webinars I've presented or facilitated over the past few months that registrations and attendance are much higher than usual. And personally, I've appreciated that I've been able to spend less time in the car going from meeting to meeting and more time getting things done.
There's certainly been a learning curve, though. Pre-pandemic, I had attended a handful of meetings via Zoom, usually small, informal groups. I was not well versed in the myriad features that virtual meeting platforms have to offer; how to manage large groups of people in a virtual setting; or how to make virtual events feel natural and welcoming.
I've learned some important lessons along the way. If virtual events are indeed here to stay, what can we do to make them more engaging and run smoothly? Here are some helpful tips for you:
1. It All Starts with the Script
Virtual events, especially large meetings or webinars, are media productions. There are lots of moving pieces: different speakers, presentation slides, audience needs, video, audio, recordings, polls, breakout rooms, Q&A, etc. Technical glitches, hemming and hawing, and figuring things out on the fly are amplified in this environment.
For that reason, I outline everything that needs to be said and done during the event. Who's welcoming the audience and introducing the speaker? What information do we need to share with our participants so they know what to expect and how to ask questions? When do we need to start sharing a screen? Who's responsible for making sure the event gets recorded? When do we need to launch our poll? Who's fielding questions behind the scenes to assist those with technical difficulties?
Documenting your entire event in a script format with production notes will ensure that your audience's experience is a favorable one.
2. Keep it Short
It can be more difficult to hold your audience's attention during a virtual event. There are many more distractions around them. They can't draw from the energy of other participants in the room. And there's just something about staring at screens for long periods of time that can wear people out. In turn, consider making your event shorter than you would if it were face-to-face. A 3-hour workshop in-person becomes 1.5 hours virtually. A 1.5 hour networking event in-person becomes 1 hour virtually. It's all about finding that sweet spot: just long enough to accomplish everything you need to; short enough to keep your participants' eyeballs and minds engaged.
3. Ask the Audience
One way to keep your audience engaged and gather live feedback is to check in with them periodically with polls. This is great for webinars, in particular, where your participants can see you, but you can't see them. Kickoff your presentation with a poll to gauge their prior knowledge. Try asking them about their top concerns and tailoring your presentation to their responses. Quiz them on their understanding to determine if there's a topic you need to explain in greater detail. If the purpose of your event is to reach a decision or identify a course of action, use polling to determine your participants' priorities.
4. Breakout the Breakouts
In Zoom, you can use the Breakout Rooms feature to quickly divide the main group into smaller groups of any size. If you want your participants to "turn to a partner" to discuss a prompt, for instance, you can automatically and randomly pair off your attendees with the click of a button. If you want your participants to engage in small group discussions, you can break them into virtual clusters of 4-6 people and then bring everyone back to the main group for reporting out. This can be a great way to keep your audience engaged and encourage them to reflect on key topics. It is also useful for inviting participation from audience members who are more reticent to share ideas in front of larger groups–even in a virtual setting!
5. Use the Buddy System
I mentioned above that there are a lot of moving pieces during a virtual event. It can be overwhelming for one person to manage. Allow yourself, or your guest speaker, to focus entirely on delivering content, moderating a discussion, or facilitating a meeting. Ask a savvy friend or colleague who's not easily flustered to take care of the rest: assisting audience members with technical difficulties, managing the influx of content-based questions from participants, launching polls, sorting the audience into breakout groups, and so on.
What other techniques have you used for keeping your virtual events smooth and engaging? I'd love to hear them! And if you have questions about running virtual events, I invite you to share those in the comments or get in touch.
And if you could really use a hand with planning or facilitating your next virtual meeting or webinar, let me know how I can help with my virtual event services.