“Always make the audience suffer as much as possible” – Alfred Hitchcock
This may have worked well for Alfred Hitchcock, but it certainly won’t work for your virtual events. In this day of COVID-19 health and related financial concerns, the last thing an audience wants to do is suffer. In fact, they won’t—at least not for long. At a live event, participants may feel obligated to stay for most of the event and may grudgingly tolerate off-target content and mediocre speakers. After all, they’ve already paid for the flight and hotel, not to mention attendee passes. In some cases, attendees stay because their cultures would consider it unacceptable—even rude—to leave. Yet virtual event attendees have a variety of other things to do, right at their fingertips. Your event is competing with the internet, email, Netflix, and perhaps dogs, kids, even laundry. So, you must instead delight your audiences using all means appropriate for your event.
In my previous blog “Virtual Events: Content is King,” I stressed the importance of making an immediate and memorable impact with your content. This presupposes that you know what your audience wants and needs, not just what you want to tell them. It also requires that you have arranged knowledgeable, dynamic speakers who are comfortable engaging with a virtual audience. Let’s explore each of these in turn.
Know your audience
True confession: The first time I spoke to a large group, 200+ people at a technology conference for California CPAs, I choked. This was not because I hadn’t done good research and put together a lot of valuable information. Instead, in my relative youth, I had made the mistake of not adequately knowing who the audience would be. I had prepared carefully, I naively thought, by inquiring of other speakers and sponsors at the event. As I started the presentation, I tried to confirm my assumptions with various questions and a show of hands—and you know what happens when we ASS-U-ME! I had targeted my content at participants who were familiar with my topic, assuming that they were seeking more advanced information. Wrong, wrong, wrong, as it turned out! If “speech belongs half to the speaker, half to the listener,” as said by Michel de Montaigne, philosopher, I had ignored my “better half.”
So how do you learn about your target audience? Gathering not just names, companies, and titles, but a variety of demographic data is easy. But it’s also important to do your research on what industry or line of business challenges exist, what your target participants do each day, and what you would want out of a virtual event were you in their shoes. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and it’s wise to look at successful events (virtual or live) that target similar audiences—and then do it better.
If you have done similar events, by all means survey past attendees and ask what topics would get them to this virtual event. While you’re at it, ask about their biggest challenges and try to generate ideas for other types of events. During your early promotion activities, give potential attendees a chance to influence the topics—perhaps even as part of a contest. If you know influencers, consultants, speakers, or bloggers who interact with your target audience, arrange conversations to pick their brains. Find out, if you can, what your potential audience is thinking, their concerns, and what they might hope to take away from the event that would impact their daily lives. After all, isn’t the goal to line up the best content, speakers, and experience to rock their world?
Presenting to an empty room
You cannot safely assume (there’s that word again!) that any accomplished speaker will easily adapt to a virtual audience. There is a knack to presenting to an empty room. With current social distancing and stay-at-home orders for COVID-19 prevention, stand-up comedians have encountered challenges. Not only did they have to do their own makeup and deal with technology issues, but they also had to adapt to having no live audience feedback. No laughter, except possibly from a laugh track—and most comedians count on laugher, groans, and applause as real-time indicators of whether a joke was a hit or a miss. So, it’s not easy.
That said, what are some things to look for in speakers for your virtual event? Let’s assume that subject matter expertise is a given.
1. Experience with virtual audiences tops the list. Some presenters actually prefer to present virtually even without COVID-19 social distancing requirements. Perhaps they like to present wearing sweatpants and bare feet, or they simply dislike travel. In any case, it’s likely these presenters have recorded examples of their virtual sessions and perhaps even have a social media following, so you can judge for yourself how they do overall and with many of the items below.
2. Vocal variety and tempo changes can help keep things interesting. It is hard for virtual attendees to get excited about presentation content if the presenter speaks in a monotone, reciting one point after another with little passion. This is true in live events, of course, but more so in virtual ones. I think back to the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the teacher who kept asking “Anyone? Anyone?” (If you haven’t seen it, here’s a brief clip.)
3. Ability to relate to virtual participants. See how the presenter establishes rapport with attendees. Perhaps it’s in the way the speaker responds to chat questions or uses a webcam throughout the session. I regularly attend virtual digital art classes, some of which are live, and I feel as if I know the instructor personally because of the way he uses a webcam, talks about his work, and answers audience questions with candor and a personal touch.
4. Technological literacy at some level is important. Ideally your speakers should have some familiarity with video conferencing, chat, social media, and webcams (even if not the exact software and hardware you use). If you identify a must-have speaker without these skills and you have a way to make it magically happen for them (e.g., video team, technology assistance, patience), this can work—but it’s safest with pre-recorded video.
5. Ability to be understood. While this is important for all speakers, your virtual events may attract audiences from different geographic areas who may not be native speakers of English (or whatever language is spoken at the event). Speakers who speak clearly and with a minimum of slang will be easier to understand than those who do not. Speakers should also be aware of local sensitivities and avoid jokes in favor of real-life anecdotes to avoid potential language difficulties.
6. Willingness to practice and then practice more. Even speakers who generally prepare their content well may not be eager to go through multiple practice run-throughs. Yet in live virtual events, this is critical. Not only can technology fail, but also the exact timing of each session is important. Running long cannot be allowed, and running short can create “dead air”—one of the worst things to happen in a virtual event. It’s too easy for participants to leave and not come back. So be sure to set expectations with your speakers in advance.
7. Willingness to provide follow-up. Virtual events don’t enable participants to catch speakers in the hallway for follow-up questions, unless you specifically schedule a time for open chat. So, find speakers who are open to responding to questions after the event has passed via social media or other means.
Regardless of the speakers you select, plan to communicate clearly what you expect and how they can help make this event successful. Understand their expectations, as well. And, whether you are paying them or not, be sure you can answer the “what’s in it for me?” questions a speaker should have. You want to establish a win-win-win for attendees, speakers, and your company.
Open communication with past and future audiences helps you target the content and speakers needed to make your event useful and memorable. Also doing your homework to select the right speakers for your virtual event, including clearly communicating your expectations, will help you delight your virtual audiences!
Aventi has a variety of services that can help you build a virtual event capability or expand your existing skills. Our events marketing support extends throughout the lifecycle of an event: strategy, planning, content, promotion, execution, and assessment. Learn more about our events marketing offerings in our Practice Brief. And, if you have any questions, or would like assistance with your own virtual event, please contact us here.