Author: Poppy Kearney

Make the connection: top tips for running a virtual event

We know that connecting people to the journey your business is on is more critical now than ever before. Millions of employees are suddenly working in ways that are disconnected from the life they know and are facing incredible uncertainty and worry that will affect their wellbeing and ability to perform. At times like this, people want to feel like they are contributing to a higher purpose and feel a shared sense of belief in it. People are craving the clarity of what the business journey means to them. 

Pre COVID-19, one way of creating this connection was through large group events for leaders, or in some cases, the whole organisation. We pride ourselves on designing and producing high-quality, inspiring events that become a defining moment in our client’s story. Yet it’s not just face-to-face events that we have become experts at delivering: creative, dynamic virtual events run on digital platforms have been part of our offer for years. Now that more and more people have been tasked with how to run such an intervention, now is the time that we can offer our expertise.

For those used to the power of a beautifully-run event, complete with music, staging, lights, great content, interactive breakouts and all of the bells and whistles that make it spine-tingling and utterly memorable, how do we capture the magic of these events and translate this experience digitally? How do we create a real impact in virtual spaces, where despite the proximity of our colleagues on screen, we feel disconnected?

This week we designed and produced our own Storytellers’ event – to connect our colleagues to the latest episode of our own story, in kitchens and offices from Aberdeen to Essex! Here are seven top tips that we’d like to share:

  1. Break the event into bitesize chunks: at a face-to-face ‘connection’ event one day often feels too short. However, this does not translate virtually, even if the content is the same. Sitting and staring at a bright screen can become exhausting and people can lose interest. Spacing the event into bitesize chunks across multiple days led to a greater, high-impact experience. We chose 60-75 minute daily sessions, and of course our narrative thread tied each session together into one meaningful experience. 
  2. Use the time efficiently by sharing pre-session content: we asked each session owner to make a short introductory film introducing their section of the story, shared across the business the day before it was to be presented. It ensured that people had a chance to absorb the content in advance, leading to the majority of the sessions being filled with meaningful conversations and reflections. Furthermore, because we had captured the key messages on film, we now have a suite of high-quality assets that we can reuse for induction and training.
  3. Don’t skip on the detail: it’s easy to think that a virtual event requires less planning than a physical one. Don’t be led into thinking we are simply recreating the Zoom quiz nights we’ve all be enjoying in isolation! The reality is quite the opposite.  At a physical event there is so much interaction that happens naturally, whether it’s the informal table conversations, the networking or breakout exercises. This all needs pre-planning and huge attention to detail if you want to re-create memorable shared moments, given the fact that both the audience and production team are working apart.
  4. Try different platforms and ways of communicating: Zoom, Teams, BlueJeans etc. all have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to large-scale interactions. We ended up using them all (on different days) and whilst this may not be practical for most companies, it did help to keep the sessions fresh and different. Each platform has its own communication tools, from breakout rooms and chats to whiteboards and shared documents. We supplemented these with word-clouds and instant polls to create a rich variety of interactions.
  5. Creative exercises worked really well: in the past we’ve enjoyed designing creative ways of engaging audiences in key aspects of their story and bringing in moments of skills-building – from ‘values wheels’ to ‘elevator stories’. We replicated a number of these at our event and found they provided some of the highlights of the week. Unlike a live event, there is nothing stopping attendees from putting themselves on mute, turning off their camera and making a cup of tea whilst you are delivering a business-critical message! The key is to keep the agenda interactive and fun.
  6. Make the magic happen: we know from the feedback of live events that the look and feel of the production plays a critical role in creating the WOW factor, and reinforces the message of the importance of the occasion. So don’t lose this when it comes to a virtual event. It needs to be seamless, dynamic and professional – a really memorable experience with rich content that needs to land and stick with real impact. Think about the look and feel of the slides, the exercise tools, the films and animations. This requires some ‘out-of-the-box thinking’ and dedicated design time, but the impact will be worth it. This also applies to the agenda. How can you make the event feel like an occasion and not just another virtual meeting? In our own session we brought in a surprise guest – a past client who spoke about the impact we had on her organisation. This became a real highlight of the event, and even caused a few colleagues to tear up! 
  7. Ensure you have the right support team: there may not be lights, sound and staging to deal with, but the complexity of producing a virtual event is, if anything, more challenging than a live one (especially given that the production team, like the audience, may well be spread across the country). Simultaneously facilitating, sharing slides, operating polls, reviewing chats, sending teams to breakout rooms, managing participants etc. all requires a competent and well-rehearsed production team. In many ways, as some of the team commented, it took them back to the days of producing live TV.

This is a time when clarity, focus, a sense of belonging and the need to energise and galvanise now-fragmented teams is needed more than ever. Now is not the time to cancel your meetings, but to lean into the virtual world that offers so many amazing technologies that can make a large-scale meeting a truly wonderful experience. Don’t be overwhelmed by the technology or push back any key milestones in your calendar for fear of losing impact. Make the connection with your team when they need it most. It really does work.

Guess where I went on the tube today?

I’m on the underground huddled up against London commuters on their way to work, blankly avoiding the gaze of my fellow passengers.  Unbeknown to those vacant faces, I’m in Michigan. Rustic cabins, scary stories around the fire, ice-cold lakes, pine forests, camp legends; I’m listening to my favourite podcast, This American Life, and I’m transported to a summer camp. In this episode, the host and narrator Ira Glass sheds light on the magic that is camp. It’s easy to be baffled by the obsessive fixation Americans have with camp – an obsession that acts as a barrier between ‘camp people’ and ‘non-camp people’. I must confess, although not a life long camper, having worked at a summer camp in Seattle I definitely identify more with the ‘camp people’! In this particular episode we experience the power of storytelling to capture the essence of camp, shedding light on personal experiences, transporting the listener to Michigan and bridging this gap.

Whilst the host draws the outline, it’s the first-person stories of the children (campers) and counsellors who add depth and colour to the picture.  Dave, a young man who worked his way up the ranks to become the much-anticipated counsellor and the main character in this story, takes the listener on a tour of camp.  Immediately my spirits are lifted: I find myself wanting to sing along with the camp songs, join in with the energetic games and smell the smoke from the campfire. Songs, inside jokes, sailing and sun: it’s enough to momentarily replace the stress of daily life, intensified by technology and social media. In the words of Dave, “all the best moments of my life have happened at camp”. And for a moment, as the listener, you are right there with him, sitting in his cabin hearing the hilarious camp dance de-brief from the 13-year-old boys, joining in with the laughter and banter around a shared first kiss!

A sudden jolt brings me back to London.  Victoria, only two stops left!  I’ve reached part 5 in the episode, the story of colour wars: a camp wide tradition where children compete between their assigned colours in different activities, ranging from canoe races to war-cry competitions. The story traces a group of teenage campers, following the raw emotions they feel in the weeks leading up to the highly anticipated announcement of the colour captain, the greatest honour you can receive at camp. The night has arrived. Through my headphones I hear the crackle of the bonfire, and the tension as the girls are put out their misery and the colour captains are revealed. The elation and pure joy of the girls who received the honour and despair of the girls whose long-lived camp dreams have been squashed; it’s palpable through my headphones.

Through these personal stories, the podcast captures the essence of camp: a place for children that stands still in time, holding onto traditions and rituals, despite the ever-changing word around them. A place where children form bonds and connections with friends that are like no other, and just for a moment, on my commute to work, I feel the rush of nostalgia for my summer spent around the crackling campfire.

Whether it’s understanding the American love affair with camp, a father describing the everyday reality of raising an autistic son, teenagers from the Bronx’s poorest public schools experiencing a day in the life of a private school kid, or the life of a Mexican mother deported from America and separated from her three children, podcasts have the power to tell beautiful, honest stories, exploring the lives of ordinary people through an incredibly intimate lens. Today, podcasting has gone mainstream. With the number of US podcast listeners doubling in 3 years and UK weekly download rates reaching 4.7 million, podcasts are quickly becoming the new accessible way to engage with mind-blowing ideas, incredible facts and extraordinary stories.

The rise in podcast listeners has been attributed to a variety of influences, ranging from the increased ease of access via smart phones to the flexibility podcasts have over radio. Although this is undoubtedly a factor, we cannot ignore the power and influence storytelling plays in the success of podcasts.

People love listening to stories, and not just any story, stories that connect to our lived experiences, stories that we can relate to, stories that increase our understanding and empathy and stories that create shared identities. By connecting to one’s own lived experience, podcasting – through story – provides the trigger to evoke emotive memories of our own. Through this connection a common ground is established between podcaster and the virtual community who share the same, or similar experiences.

These shared identities are powerful, as human beings are instinctively motivated to act in ways that protect or maintain their identity. This kind of ‘digital storytelling’ is increasingly being seen as a mechanism for galvanising political and social change.

Stories spark imagination, they help us find meaning and context, they emotionally engage us in something bigger than ourselves and they build empathy by encouraging us to draw on our own experiences to find common ground with others. So what’s the secret to the success of podcasting? Well it’s the power and influence of storytelling!

Poppy Kearney