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9 Tips for Designing Virtual Events

By Maria Lenhart

Designing a virtual event that keeps the audience from multitasking — or worse yet, logging off — takes careful forethought. In this article, experts share their top virtual event tips, such as avoiding static presentations and making attendees part of the action.

If there’s one phrase that has stood out during the pandemic, it could well be “Zoom fatigue.” With the proliferation of virtual events, many have come to dread the prospect of staring at a talking head on a screen with little sense of the interaction, spontaneity, and camaraderie that seem to happen naturally at live events.

It doesn’t have to be this way, insisted virtual event experts at the recent Experience Design Summit. As part of the event lineup, they shared strategies for keeping attendees engaged during online meetings. EventMB also spoke with John Chen, CEO of Geoteaming and author of Engaging Virtual Meetings (John Wiley& Sons), for added perspective.

If there was an overriding theme to the Experience Design Summit, it was that the dreaded “Zoom fatigue” sets in when there are no attempts to make the audience active participants in the meeting.

“Why do virtual events fail? They fail when one person just talks all the time. If you don’t interact with me, you are wasting my time. If I’m going to be there, I want to be part of it.” 

John Chen, author of Engaging Virtual Meetings 

 

3 Tips from Liz Lathan

Welcome People In

Lathan, co-founder and chief experience officer at Haute Dokimazo, kicked off her session with greetings to people in the online audience — saying hello, even asking about their pets.

“Invite people in. Whether it’s a webcast or a Zoom, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “If it’s a pure broadcast, you can come up with some other way where you don’t have to call out names, but make sure they feel welcome, that they feel they belong there.”

John Chen added that it’s important to maintain a welcoming atmosphere throughout the event. “It all starts with hospitality and some people have forgotten that we have to practice hospitality online,” he said. “Have a plan to engage and interact with every attendee. That’s the most important thing.”

In the case of a large audience where one speaker cannot acknowledge everyone, it’s helpful to have members of the event team serving as ambassadors. “They can reach out to people, ask them how their conference is going,” Chen said.

Entertain to Educate

Far from frivolous, the entertainment factor is essential for learning. “If you have content, you want to make sure you have something engaging and entertaining so that people will remember,” Lathan said. “Statistics show that you retain more when you feel entertained while being educated.”

Online events present opportunities for creating “virtual adventures” that both entertain and educate, she added.

“All it takes is a cell phone and a Zoom link and then you can take people all over the world,” she said. “Use this screen as a portal, not a boundary.”

Produce to the Level of Education You Want

Dazzling production features are not necessary, or even desirable, for all events. What’s important is that the level of production reflects the tenor and purpose of the event.

“If you intend to have conversation and networking, you do not need all the bells and whistles of videos and high-level production,” Lathan said. “You just need an environment that’s going to allow people to have conversation.”

The time to ramp up production is when you want people to connect to a story or presentation on an emotional level, perhaps through powerful video components. For meetings emphasizing training and education, the level of production needed falls somewhere in the middle.

 

3 Tips from Sourabth Kothari

Master the Art of Pacing

How long is the attention span of most members of the online audience? According to Sourabth Kothari, CEO of Mindcurrent, data shows it only takes about three minutes before people are likely to turn their full attention away from watching a presentation and start multitasking.

The solution is to keep things moving. If not, you run the risk of turning a video production into one that might just as well be heard on the radio.

“They’re just not going to watch a talking head,” Kothari said. ‘If you’re using slides, keep them moving every 60 to 90 seconds. If it’s just live streaming video, switch camera angles, but don’t keep the video static.”

While Chen agrees that it’s important to keep things moving, he cautions that it’s also important to not be in a rush. “Some people can’t retain things when the speaker goes too fast,” he said. “Keep it memorable by doing things that people don’t expect. Deliver the message in a varied way.”

In doing this, Chen sometimes breaks the rules. “With Zoom, you’re never supposed to have people unmute and talk at the same time,” he said. “I break that rule a lot. For instance, at the end of a keynote, I’ll have everyone unmute so they can thank the speaker all at once. It’s a cacophony, but the speaker and everyone else loves it.”

Ask, Don’t Tell

Should the speaker ask the audience questions? Not only should this happen, but it’s an essential part of keeping the session memorable and impactful, according to Kothari.

“Design your session so that your speaker can ask a question and your live audience floods your chat — or wherever they respond — with their responses,” he said. “When you do this, it frames the content. It makes it personal.”

When it comes to question-and-answer sessions, Chen said it’s better to have them at the beginning or middle of a presentation rather than at the end.

“Q&A is really kind of a low-energy way to end a program,” he said. “It’s better to end on a high note, especially if it’s a product demonstration. People will be more likely to buy the product.”

Them First, You Last

When starting a session, Kothari recommends leading off with a good story, incredible statistic, or important piece of advice. Don’t begin with housekeeping information, a thank-you to sponsors, or lengthy introductions to speakers.

“Don’t bore your audience with things they don’t need to get started,” he said. “They want to get to their session. Get to the point.”

 

3 Tips from Dahlia El Gazzar

Dahlia El Gazzar, founder of DAHLIA+Agency, spoke on the importance of focusing on the “event ethos — the culture and the emotions that you want to design and infuse within your event plan.” Accomplishing this requires utilizing the three “Es” of energy, empowerment, and empathy.

Energy

As you design the program, consider how much energy each component will bring to it, whether it’s the speakers, content, or networking sessions. “What you want to do is create and design that program according to the ebb and flow of energy,” El Gazzar said.

While it may seem like there’s limited opportunity to create a high energy level during virtual events, Chen believes they hold even more potential for generating excitement than live events. He saw this happen during a virtual summit where attendees were encouraged to jump in and present tips to the rest of the audience.

“Once it got going, people were excited and teaching things to everyone else, despite having been logged in for a long time,” he said. “In some ways it was more energized and exciting than a live event because we had people calling in from international locations, across different time zones. We got a much wider range of participation.”

Empowerment

It’s important to consider strategies for empowering every participant in each component of the event, whether it’s a speaker session, peer-to-peer roundtable discussion, or speed networking activity.

“When I think of empowerment, I think of community,” El Gazzar said. “I think of being part of a community or part of an event that will empower me, that will catapult me to being better than I am at the moment.”

Empathy

Empathy is key to planning events that evoke human emotions, a quality that El Gazaar believes is sorely needed.

“Everybody’s going through something — grief, loss, exhaustion — so how are you bringing in empathy? This is where you can do amazing virtual events just by showing empathy within your planning, within your event experience design, within your marketing. Bringing people together to fulfill those emotions and humanizing the events that you’re putting together.”

Chen saw how deeply human emotions can be touched during virtual events at a recent memorial service for a colleague, an event that brought 250 people together from around the world.

“It was humanized through the different speakers, who were family and friends, as well as with various breakouts that went on hours after the official program ended,” he said. “We had virtual rooms where people could drop in and share stories about various aspects of her life.”

 

IN CONCLUSION

Virtual events have the power to touch human emotions and keep audiences engaged, just as live events do. With digital events, however, planners need to be especially mindful of audience attention spans and avoid static presentations. Making attendees feel welcome and an important part of the event are also key. While remote participation may not always allow for face-to-face encounters, it’s important to remember that even virtual events are founded on human connections.

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about the author

Maria Lenhart
Maria Lenhart is an award-winning writer and editor specializing in travel and event industry topics.  A former senior editor at Meetings & Conventions and Meetings Today, her work has appeared in Skift, The Meeting Professional, BTN, Travel Market Report, AAA Traveler, Travel+Leisure and many other publications. 
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