3 principles for engaging your audience virtually

Virtual summits and conferences are here to stay for several reasons: reducing CO2 emissions, travel costs and perhaps most importantly: the unwavering rise of remote and flexible work.

How we go about work has left the standardized 9-5 office space in the dust, and the question isn’t if you prefer working virtually, but how you are going to do it.

At Workz, we help organizations engage and involve participants at their virtual events. We do so because we see engagement as a key factor for realising the purpose of our clients’ summits or conferences, whether it be catalysing organisational change, learning, or networking.

Here, we share 3 tips on designing virtual events based on principles that has engaged our clients’ audiences:

1. Break it down. Way down. 

Lengthy, lecture-style presentations cannot hold our attention for long. First off, people are simply used to watching well-produced, engaging content from their computers. Secondly, distractions loom large in the virtual world, from Outlook to the Teams chat, and you should design your event with this competition in mind. To accommodate the needs of our picky and busy audience think of your event as a TV-show: keep the segments short and change up the content style. An example of this could be breaking down a 20-minute CEO address into three parts:

  • State of the nation: CEO presentation (6 min. monolog)
  • Interview with CEO (8 min. dialog)
  • Live Q&A with remote audience (10 min.)

The point is breaking down your programme into bite sized and interactive segments. How often you involve the audience depends on your agenda, but a good rule of thumb is every 7 minutes. This keeps them engaged, increase their understanding of your content, and help them recall your main messages.

2. Make room for spontaneity

This might seem counter-intuitive: virtual events require meticulous planning and scripting to run smoothly. In the preparation phase you might get lured into planning so rigidly that the event loses its live feel. Unfortunately, from a participant perspective it doesn’t add much value if a live event doesn’t feel live.

So, how do you know if you’re on the wrong path? Well, if you’re looking at your agenda and find yourself thinking that all the content might as well have been pre-recorded, chances are you should change your design. There are numerous ways to amplify the live feel by making room for spontaneity:

  • Prepare your hosts to go live 

Thorough preparation based on topics and key talking points rather than exact wording will give the hosts the bandwidth to improvise. Professional hosts and journalist got this down, but if you are casting hosts internally in the organisation set them up for success by preparing subjects – not sentences –, welcoming curiosity, and leaving out the teleprompter. 

  • Use and include your audience 

Audience input is a godsend in terms of engagement. Some organisers might find this risky, but audience comments and questions are a great resource for improvisation and a sure way to hold people’s attention. You might even tap into tacit knowledge or get into a topic you didn’t know was intriguing or concerning to your audience.

  • Dare to go off script

Don’t be afraid of unscripted questions. A myth that is alive and well in many organizations is that unscripted questions will disrupt the flow of an event. Experience from summits and research speak to the contrary, and unscripted questions are great ways to emphasize the live-feel of the event. They will only foster genuine conversation which lands well with any audience.

3. create ownership outside HQ

Virtual events can have incredible reach and give participants located across geographical areas a voice from the ‘main stage’. However, virtual summits often become HQ-centric and tend to focus on information flowing mainly one-way from the physical site to remote locations.

While including your colleagues in other geographical locations often require onboarding and perhaps management across time zones, the pay-off in terms of engagement and ownership is massive.

When designing the agenda, you can consider:

  • Making the agenda multi-centred

 allow various parts of the organisation to take the stage and include fresh insights from different locations (and with that; different markets, cultures, organisational levels, brands). This could be through live call-ins or pre-recorded video material. Sharing the spotlight is a great way to acknowledge your peers.

  • Using the summit as an arena to celebrate diversity in your organization.

This could be small activities that recognize the cultural diversity that makes up your organization: from having people teaching each other to say ‘good morning’ in different languages in a warm-up exercise to the CEO acknowledging local, seasonal happenings. Needless to say, diversity goes beyond culture, but for globally distributed events an appreciative nod across borders is a great place to start.

  • Involving relevant locations in the design phase.

By inviting satellites into the design of the summit, you make them co-creators and co-authors of the overall storyline. This spurs engagement around the summit even before the event and helps you plan and produce content.

Curious to read more on how we work with summits?