As organizations around the world are canceling live events and pivoting to virtual spaces, many are mourning the loss of what have traditionally been in-person experiences. While conferences, trade shows, and other large-scale events are a familiar way to learn, network, and connect with industry colleagues, more businesses are warming up to the idea of digital alternatives.
However, most still see online as “less than.” It doesn’t have to be this way! Virtual events can be as effective, vibrant, and engaging as their in-person counterparts. Here are some expert tips to make virtual events more than a backup or stop-gap solution.
Mindset for Effective Virtual Connections
Creating relevant, thought-provoking, and engaging virtual experiences takes the same amount of effort as creating similar in-person events. Whether you’re organizing an event or participating as a speaker, the following suggestions will help you stay connected.
Think connection, not perfection. One major source of anxiety with virtual events are concerns about tech issues. And it’s true, things happen. No matter how much you prepare, screens freeze, audio gets clipped, backgrounds aren’t always slick. Have you noticed that on your favorite news channel things aren’t perfect these days? Today’s audiences are more tolerant of imperfections as technical glitches aren’t foreign to anyone anymore. We easily overlook these mishaps if the content is solid and the speaker is connected to her message and her audience.
Don’t make ‘em think. Commit to simple and clear messaging. Your goal should be to allow listeners to quickly grasp what you are saying. Yes, this is true whether you are speaking live in a grand ballroom or upstairs in your make-shift home office. Keep in mind, brilliance is measured by clarity NOT by how much information you can “cram” into a session.
Be open and receptive. Clear and concise messaging invites listeners to apply critical thinking skills, assessing the importance and relevance of arguments. Even in virtual settings, attendees have an opportunity to build on what has been presented, discuss how something applies to their business, or identify much-needed resources. All of this means, you must be prepared to thoughtfully respond to questions by staying in the moment.
How to Boost Audience Engagement
After you’ve shifted your mindset from making a live vs. virtual connection, you will want to consider ways to increase audience engagement. Here’s the challenge: If you’re used to reading the energy of a room in-person or building rapport with the audience before you get on stage, you may feel at a disadvantage here. Fortunately, you can honor the spirit of these in-person interactions to boost engagement with your virtual audience. Here’s how:
Encourage involvement from the start. Let’s face it, without the physical presence of others and with the ability to mute your audio or turn off your video, it’s easy to answer emails, converse with family members, or make a snack during virtual meetings. The question for speakers is: How do you flip halfhearted listeners into active participants?
As Nancy Duarte points out in “How to Make Your (Now Virtual) Event Shine,” audiences are conditioned to think of webinars and virtual events as passive experiences. However, “if you can get your audience to interact twice within the first five minutes, you reset their expectations.” Gaining involvement soon after someone “arrives” is key. This can be as simple as posting or asking a question upon arrival. Consider these examples, for a:
- Staff meeting: “How many of you think [fill in the blank]?” Or simply, “What topics do you want to add to the agenda?”
- Breakout or educational session: “Please share your first name and your location.”
- Plenary session: “What made you decide to attend this event?”
You get the idea. Think outside the box, but make sure that there is a purpose to the activity. Additional considerations to boost engagement include:
- Using polls to gather opinions.
- Asking participants to provide examples by unmuting themselves and speaking to the group or by popping their responses into the chat.
- Creating fun ways to get them physically involved. During one of my most popular webinars, “Don’t Make Me Think: Presentations that Achieve Results,” participants are encouraged to hit a “bullseye” by throwing a wad of paper at a target displayed on their computer monitors (and from the feedback I’ve received, they really do it!). The purpose of this fun exercise is to drive home the importance of being focused on what you want to accomplish as you craft your presentation.
Tip: After asking audience members to engage, silently count to 10 before expecting a response. It takes a few moments for your request to register and for listeners to take action.
Team Up. Another way to keep the audience engaged is to team up with a moderator, who can:
- Interact with the host as well as with the audience.
- Monitor questions or comments as they’re being submitted.
- Serve as a “plant” to get things going (e.g., ask a planned question to kick-off Q&A).
- Keep an eye on time.
In addition to involving a co-host or moderator, if your virtual event is a larger or high stakes event, you may want to consider adding a producer to the team. The producer has the know-how to solve technical problems and answer participant queries. She can also monitor chat windows for questions and comments, select which screens to share with attendees, launch polls, share links that speakers mention, move groups into breakout rooms, etc.
Teaming up in these ways allows you to keep your focus where it needs to be: connecting with your message and your audience.
Keep it Real
Finally, while having an effective virtual mindset and strong audience engagement will get you 80% of the way toward pulling off a memorable event, there are some logistical techniques that will take your event to the next level. Let’s look at which tools make the biggest impact.
Audio & Lighting Matters. If you want to make a strong impact on-screen, pay attention to lighting and audio. Yes, audiences are forgiving about technical issues. However, there’s a big difference between screens freezing up for a few seconds or a dog barking in the background and poor audio quality throughout an entire presentation. Investing in a standalone microphone or headset boosts quality. Being conscientious about headset placement and facing the mic helps assure optimal performance. Additionally, if the room has a lot of echo, consider hanging a blanket or towel behind your screen to help absorb excess sound.
While slightly less crucial than audio quality, poor lighting can also be a challenge. Fortunately, lighting can be easily addressed, according to Glenn Gautier, Founder and Executive Producer of 2PLUS Communications. Gautier gives the following advice: “Remember that you need to be in the spotlight. Nearby windows and overly bright lamps can make your image appear washed out or fuzzy. Consider investing in a ring light or other instrument on a tripod to light your face evenly and avoid shadows. The light should be placed behind your camera to softly illuminate you.”
Draw Your Audience In By Looking Straight Into the Camera. You already know that eye contact is crucial to connecting with your audience. Even in a virtual environment, the goal is 90% direct eye contact. But how?
First, ensure that the camera is at eye level, allowing you to look straight into the lens. One caution: it is easy to get mesmerized by the black hole of the camera lens and appear to be staring into space. You can avoid this by blinking at the end of each sentence. Remember, eye contact is all about inclusion. You want your remote listeners to feel included in the conversation.
In addition, communicating digitally means being even more disciplined about looking at the camera, rather than at the content on your screen or at your own image. This takes practice. However, mastering this technique will make each audience member feel as if he has the best seat in the house.
- Tip: Talk to the camera as if you are chatting with a good friend. Keep it conversational and simply be you. If you are the same person who people talk to on a call, see at a large event, or bump into at work, your authentic self will shine. You can even place a picture of a loved one or cherished pet in your sightline to give yourself an “audience.”
Smile. A real smile, as if you are greeting a friend, will go a long way. Smiles immediately build rapport with viewers and invite them into the conversation. Do whatever you can to make sure you have a pleasant facial expression when on camera.
- Tip: Watch a funny video or flip through some pictures of people who make you happy as you prepare for prime time. This will ensure that you’ve warmed up your smile muscles before you “go-live.”
If you are still convinced that virtual events can’t live up to the richness of in-person events, I encourage you to take a page from the playbook of companies like Salesforce, Google, Microsoft, and Adobe, all of which have moved their live events online in the past couple of months. With a little ingenuity, you too can curate engaging virtual events and make robust virtual connections.