Virtual Events - Our New Normal
Our blog today is from one of our eaea members, Whitney Scheurer. Whit has been with us from the beginning and recently put on a 400 + person virtual event. We asked Whit to give us a debrief over at eaea, so we could learn from her as to how to put on a solid virtual event. Thank you, Whitney, for writing this blog and walking us through your event process from start to finish!
When Your In-Person Event Goes Virtual
For most Executive Assistants event planning is a big part of the role. At the beginning of the year, no one could have imagined that we would no longer be in person for all meetings and events and virtual meetings would be the “new normal”. Hopefully, my experience and lessons learned about turning a large in-person meeting into a virtual format will give you some insight into how to adapt, plan, and execute a successful virtual event of your own.
My name is Whitney Scheurer and I am an Executive Assistant at Autodesk. I support the VP of Americas Territory Sales, and we host a mid-year meeting every year for our whole team (around 400 people). We just completed our 3rd event in August and this one was completely virtual. Each year these meetings teach me something new, but this year was the biggest learning opportunity.
In March we were at our annual sales kick off in Las Vegas when the coronavirus reached the U.S. Oregon was experiencing the first wave and news about the case on the New York subway was spreading (pun fully intended here). People were getting nervous about being away from their homes and families. I remember flying from Las Vegas back to Denver and so many people had left early that the plane was only 50% full. I went into to office that next week for one day when our company decided that we would be working from home until further notice.
No one knew how long this was going to last and my executive and I had a decision to make about our mid-year meeting. Do we take the chance that this will be over in August in time for our in-person meeting or do we move this meeting to a virtual format? There were a few large factors to consider at the time. The safety of the team and how this pandemic was going to evolve over the coming months. Due to the uncertainty, we decided to go for a virtual event and began planning.
Virtual Versus In-Person
With both an in-person or a virtual event the beginning steps are always the same. Get clear on who your stakeholders are and form your teams; core team and extended team. With a virtual event, the extended team will be a little bigger. Traditional roles of host and co-host are still in play, but we now see the need for a producer or two (these are the behind the tech people), and some additional people in the back end of things which I will explain in a bit. With the addition of a larger team, it is helpful to document these new roles and their responsibilities within each of the extended teams, so the roles don’t overlap.
Once the teams are formed the core team should connect with the stakeholders to solidify the theme, session suggestions, and anything else that they would like to see come out of the event. With a virtual event, instead of deciding the location at this point, you will decide the virtual location. We chose Zoom (details below), but there are many more that can be found with a quick Google search. Make sure to do your research with these platforms for price and ease of use info. Theme and other instructions can then be passed down to the extended team along with the digital assets (PowerPoint template) that you would like to use for the whole event. A best practice is to have one place where the event team can store the decks and digital assets like OneDrive or Dropbox. Don’t forget to set the cadence of the meetings with the extended team, core team, and a report up to the stakeholders. Let the teams loose to start creating! One lesson learned here is to have the producers act as an admin for each of the session teams (it is helpful to use actual admins in this position, but others can lead how to admin as well). This keeps people on track and accountable for deadlines!
Virtual Presentation Skills
Presenting in-person is a skill that most presenters have experienced and that comes with its own set of rules. Presenting virtually is a whole new landscape for us. You are no longer standing in front of a large audience and that causes a few issues. Here is what I suggest presenting virtually. Set up a small practice session and/or send an email with the following tips!
To help posture, sit on the edge of your chair
Look into the camera, not at your screen
Put the notes on the screen with the camera
Practice to minimize your filler words (Um, uh, like)
Check your lighting and camera angle
People want to see your hands, but don’t talk with your hands
Have one person clicking through the deck NOT THE PRODUCER (use transition words or phrases)
Limit builds and video clips (it gets confusing for the person driving the deck)
Have someone for questions and chat
Have a producer to manage the camera, microphones, and any other tech issues.
Avoid the words "next slide"
Where Virtual is Different
For a virtual event, it is easy to assume that deadlines can be more relaxed for the teams who are delivering the sessions, but as I learned that is not the case. It is very important to leave more time between the go-live date and the deadlines for the decks. We are used to getting on-site in a physical event and the AV team that is in the hotel will run a tech walk thru and the team can usually do rehearsals within a relatively short period. With a virtual event, you are the AV team!
A best practice here is to schedule a tech rehearsal 2 weeks before the event where the core team meets with the extended team and runs through the deck. This meeting should be at least as long as the session on the go love date. Here are the things to look for in this session:
Are all the slides in the template that you provided?
Is the messaging consistent?
Are the slides compelling (there are not too many words on each slide)?
Are there builds or videos (this is confusing for the person driving the deck)?
If there are things that need to be changed – now is the time to do that!
Next, schedule a full dry run for the week before the go-live event and record this session. The set-up of this meeting is very important. You should set it for the total time of the actual go-live session plus time for feedback. You should also use the actual software and link that you will use on the go-live date. This will allow people to access the right meeting, perform in a safe space, and watch the recording so they can practice their delivery. This is also a great way for the producers to catch any issues that might happen on the actual event date and fix them before they become an issue. Pay attention to the following.
Are the presenters presenting, or reading?
How is the lighting and camera angle for the presenters?
Are people leaving their microphones open, or unmuted?
Have someone who has never heard the presentation attend this session to help give constructive feedback to the presenters.
Now it is time to go live and deliver your event! The biggest lesson learned here is to block out your whole week. Put your out of office message on and devote your full attention to the event as you would do with an in-person event. Make sure the core team knows how to get ahold of you if there is an emergency, yes, these still happen virtually as well! Here are some of the fun things that I experienced with technology and how to prepare for those situations.
Internet Issues – each morning of the event test the internet speed by Google searching “speed test”. If the speed is low, unplug your router, wait one full minute, and plug it back in. You can skip the first step and just go straight to unplugging your router every day.
Wrong link! – hopefully this should be worked out by hosting the dry run call, but some of the attendees might have issues accessing the link. Assign someone from the core team as a tech liaison for the actual event.
Back-Up Plans – always have a person ready to present a backup deck or fill in for a presenter. With everyone at home the internet bandwidth it, not the greatest. If you have a backup plan, murphy will hopefully bypass you with his law.
General advice for the session
Panel = No Deck – if you have a panel that is talking and fielding questions, ditch the PowerPoint presentation. This allows the screens of the presenter to be larger and the audience can focus on the panel. If you have the deck up, even with a title slide the presenter's screens are small and people can tune out.
Session length is important – in this new virtual world, people are Zoomed out. Make the sessions short and take a lot of breaks. In our event, we did 45-minute sessions with at least an hour break in between. This helps people do their day job and attend the event.
The Two Faces of Zoom
Zoom meeting and Zoom Webinar are two different platforms where you can host virtual events. There are a few things you should be aware of while using these platforms. Zoom Meeting is for interaction and break out rooms. This is the default platform that most users have and should host up to 300 people for the pro account. Zoom Webinar is for a presentation where you want the audience to be on mute and you only want to see the presenters on the screen. The thing that will guide your usage here is the number of people in the meeting. If you want a small interactive group meeting, then Zoom Meeting is your product. If you want to have a large number of people and it is more of a report out, then Zoom Webinar is for you. The lesson learned here is to use Zoom Webinar with any group 100 or above. Zoom is a great option for virtual events but has some quirks, but that is a post on its own!
Some Other Things to Try for Your Virtual Event
People love networking and doing something fun. There have been companies that have sprung up overnight to help with engagement in virtual meetings. Google search these and use these companies or use their ideas. For our virtual meeting, we are big into charity, so we did a photo scavenger hunt for points that resulted in us donating money to the winning charities. Another group in our company has live music on one of the breaks, and another did a coffee tasting! There are so many possibilities that can connect the teams while we are all in our own home offices.
Make sure all of the information is in one place and there is an email address for issues. With our event we had a registration website, an app, a Slack channel, OneDrive, and more! The lesson here is to simplify this for people. Have one landing page or website that details everything that the attendees will need to know. Along those same lines, put up a shared “anonymous” mailbox that everyone on the core team has access to for troubleshooting. As the event organizer, you should not be the one to answer all of the questions. You are more reachable now that they know that you are sitting in front of the computer and they will ask questions. Equip everyone with an FAQ so they can answer questions. Create an email signature in that inbox that says, "Core Team", so people are encouraged to reach out there and not to an individual. This has the added benefit of capturing things that could be done better for the next event!
People love food and gifts! Host a lunch hour or get some snacks for the event. This can be done through GrubHub or by purchasing codes for DoorDash. Unfortunately, this will only work for attendees based in the US, so make sure you know where all of your attendees are joining. You can also send the attendees something that connects them all to the event. Logo merchandise is popular and makes everyone feel like a part of the team.
Wrap It Up
I will leave you with a few thoughts. If you think that you have done enough planning, then plan more. Prepare for things to go wrong and have a backup plan for that. Have a bigger team on the back end, you can’t be in multiple places at once and everyone should have their own role. Communicate, communicate, and communicate again. People are stressed out right now and will miss things. Stay firm on your deadlines so you can give enough time to practice. Breathe! Things will go well if you prepare. Don’t forget your lessons learned meetings with the core team and extended team.