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Virtual Events / Conferences – some lessons learned

Due to the Coronavirus situation at the moment, we had a special exercise in flexibility today: An event which we had planned for some 40 attendees couldn’t happen physically in the same room since travel restrictions are in place.

So we saw two options: Cancel the event or use the opportunity to leverage all of the fancy collaboration tools we have in place to make it a virtual event as good as possible.

We know a physical event can’t be fully replaced by a virtual meeting, but we wanted to see to what extent we can stretch it, so we saw this as chance to collect first experiences with virtual conferencing with multiple companies.

In this blog, I will share some lessons learned about virtual conferences in the hope it can help you as reader if you are setting up your own virtual conference. (I don’t know at which point we talk about an event or a conference – but as stated above, our audience is some 40 attendees big from 20 different companies).

Preparation

In our case, preparation might have been a little special since we already had finished the invitation process for the planned physical event: We had a little of attendees who committed they are available on the specific day and willing to join on-site. We worked with this list, so I won’t cover the invitation process here.

Some recommendations (also for myself for the next time we do such an event 🙂 ):

  • Ask your network, leverage their experiences
    • Do you have someone in your business network who has already organized a virtual events? Ask them for guidance! I for example have been lucky to see a LinkedIn Post from Lennart Keil that he was in the same situation to convert a physical conference to a virtual one. And I have been lucky that he was so kind to take some time and share his experiences. That was super helpful for me !
  • Choose the right tool.
    • Might be a luxury situation, but we have several options when selecting the collaboration tool of choice for our conference. After some discussions we decided to go for the tool that has the broadest adoption which in our case is MS Teams. We decided that the adoption and therefore easy access was more important for us in this case like special feature we could have had with Zoom , e.g. breakout rooms etc. since we didn’t need it . If we plan to have a bigger audience and need more sophisticated setup, we might have a look at Zoom again.
  • Think about the Meeting Invites to be setup
    • For our physical event, we just had one Calendar Item for the whole day. The agenda was inside this Meeting Request for everyone to see, but since everyone was in the meeting room anyhow. For the virtual version now, we did send out Meeting Requests for Blocks in our agenda since we wanted to give attendees the option to attend specific slots only.
    • For the first block, the Meeting Room was open 10 minutes prior to the actual agenda start. Like that, we had some time to fix the usual headset connectivity issues and chat with some participants.
  • Shorten the agenda
    • Since it is more likely that attendees get distracted when sitting hidden behind their computers and it takes more energy to listen to a voice out of a computer than to a real person, try to set some more specific focus in your agenda.
  • Brief your content contributors
    • A virtual event differs from a physical one in several aspects. Since speakers might not be in the meeting all day but just dial in for their session, it’s helpful to have a briefing call before the meeting to explain the ideas about the agenda and timing so everyone knows when to dial in. Also, if you have people from several teams in your organization in the meeting, explain specifically what the target audience looks like, what they might be interested in, so the presentation can be targeted perfectly. I know it might be more convenient via Mail / chat, but a quick briefing call will be very helpful here!
    • If a presentation is technical or has a product focus, try to get 2 people in: One can give the presentation, the other can answer questions in the chat ( see below under “what went well”)
  • Recommend “house-rules”:
    • To ensure a high quality of the meeting, it helps to recommend some house rules. We took these ones for example:
      • Please don’t dial in while being on the bus, in a car, in a Starbucks coffee etc. Choose an environment where you don’t have to feel bad to unmute yourself and ask questions to the audience.
      • Try to use your webcam if possible. It brings the meeting experience to a new level! If you haven’t used it yet, try it out before the event, either with a colleague or call Nico 😊(If you are working on a monitor, it might be more convenient to place a webcam on top of it instead of using the one built-in to your notebook)
      • Try to dial in 1-2 minutes before the meeting actually starts. We all know that headset connectivity issues haven’t stopped in 2020, so let’s try get them fixed before the meeting starts.

(my setup as host of the event, see the use of Personify with the speaker in-screen)

What went well:

  • MS Teams performed well as a platform! I don’t know if that’s something specific for our setup, but we had a good audio + video experience with Microsoft Teams while having 40 attendees of several companies/organizations. So that went well.
  • We had a good ratio of people attending the virtual meeting although having signed up for a physical one. Some declined because they didn’t see enough value in a virtual meeting, but most attended.
  • In the Product-related sessions, we had two people in the meeting: One was giving the presentation, the other one was answering questions in the chat. I think it is a valuable model since questions don’t interrupt the presentation and can nevertheless be answered.
  • One speaker used Personfiy which gives a transparent view of the speaker in front of his presentation. This really makes the presentation more “live”, I think it gives a little boost to the experience.

Some of the challenges we had and don’t have a good idea yet:

  • The level of interactivity is a lot lower in comparison to an event where the audience sits in the same room. The usual “are there any questions?” at the end of the presentation usually leads to an uncomfortable silence.
  • As a speaker, there is nearly no possibility to feel if the audience is still following the presentation. If you are standing in front of them, you see if they take a look out of the window, on their mobile or just look at you with empty eyes and you can literally see the big question mark on their forehead. In a virtual meeting, you talk to your webcam and a mic.

Some questions came to my head where I would love to hear some feedback from you:

  • We recorded the session. Do you think it hinders attendees to raise questions, interact in the meeting?
  • We are wondering whether breakouts can help to foster interaction since the group to interact with is smaller. Do you think / know if that is working?
  • Do you have some tips what can be helpful to trigger interaction from the audience in the meeting?
13 Comments
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  • My personal guess is that the recording of the sessions and the ‘uncomfortable silence’ during Q&A is related. Recorded sessions will be there forever and everybody will be very careful what to ask and what to share.

  • Thanks for the neat write-up, Nicolas!

    Regarding “We recorded the session. Do you think it hinders attendees to raise questions, interact in the meeting?”

    How about only recording the presentation part of a session and switch it off prior to starting the Q&A session? And obviously, let attendees know beforehand about this arrangement. Questions and answers could still be collected via chat and or separate notes to share in a separate document after the session.

    Cheers

    Bärbel

    • thanks for the feedback and the helpful advise, Bärbel! I understand more and more how important communication is, seems for a virtual event even more than for a physical one. The split of recording and Q&A is a great idea, but we would need to pause the recording after the presentation and cut out questions during the presentation, wouldn’t we?

      • Well, I prefer to do presentations in one go with everybody else on mute (when I talk climate, don’t do other virtual presentations that often yet) and then take questions afterward. I however suggest that people jot down their questions in chat during the presentation. With an arrangement like that, you’d just end the presentation and announce that the recording has now stopped and open the lines so that participants can start asking questions or you go through the written questions in chat.

  • Hi Nicolas Bost Thanks for sharing your experience with a virtual meeting. I think it’s very helpful these times and I am also now in the position to change an internal physical meeting into a virtual one. So your recommendations and lessons learnt are extremely helpful! And I think with tools like MS teams and ZOOM we are all quite well prepared. In regards to the Q&A I prefer ZOOM because their Q&A functionality is great. It’s easy to post the question there and it can either be answered live or also written.

    Cheers, Svea

  • Having someone else besides the speaker answer questions in the chat is a good idea, but you might also leave the more complex of those questions until Q&A, have the extra person read the question and the speaker answer.  That way you can avoid some of the silence.

    -Dell

  • I can confirm that breakouts help to boost interactions in a group. We did it successfully in a virtual meeting with breakouts for groups of 10-12 participants.

    • It’s important that all tools that are used for registration , the event as such and maybe also the archive where you can have access to recordings later on are GDPR compliant. You need to make sure to get the right consent of your attendees.