This week we helped a global automotive company virtually roll out an augmented reality platform to help remote technicians get under the hood of cars located miles away, hot on the heels of helping a high-profile foundation teach hundreds of arts leaders across a month of live studio webinars about how to pivot and publicize new forms of online programming. We knew our job was to help clients make money, but who suspected we as communicators would also be wielding our spotlight like theatrical impressarios?
Next time someone says, “Oh, let’s just do a Zoom” (or Hangout or Teams…), let’s remember there are so many creative ways to wield the powers of our palette and proscenium to tell real-time stories. Instead of keeping our audience adrift in withering watercooler clichés of unsuccessful muting, dimly lit faces and horrifying handoffs, let’s harness our role as producers with a sink-our-teeth-in-it approach. In my time outside of work, I love nothing more than executive producing theatrical shows and short films, and lots of what I’ve summoned in these crafts has become prescient in today’s environment of presenting to at-home viewers. These tips from showbusiness can show you mean business.
Embed a Storytelling Logline with Moments of Improv
Some meeting maestros forget the most basic outline and neglect flourishes to imbue a session with levers and levity that will keep them engaged and entertained. Make sure your session’s flow format draws people in and provides fabulous variety. Participants will enjoy changes of pace, pops of visual illustration and even moments to bask in the footlights with you as you Fosse-fy a generally mundane medium.
Provide a compelling run of show upfront so the audience will vibe with you about when key topics will be covered and understand when breaks will happen. Within that macro context, remember to surprise them from time to time as well! Set the stage by addressing potential questions at the top of the presentation such as: How can the audience ask questions? Does everybody need to mute themselves? Will I score a heart emoji for following along?
Plan to have a dynamic moderator who can emcee the meeting, introducing speakers and managing transitions. Our Mercedes-Benz client leveraged its charismatic head of communications as showrunner this week to wonderful effect. Having two facilitators is also a solid option, just like many awards shows or newscasts. Don’t spend excessive amounts of time introducing speakers or sections; in fact, you can do that with spot graphics like a “lower third” to remind viewers of someone’s title. To the extent possible, limit individual sessions to a maximum of 20 minutes. If a conference is longer than two hours, schedule “bio break” intermissions or else participants will create their own. Your most dynamic presenter – think of them as the leading man or leading lady – should present first, and then strategically space your supporting ensemble of speakers to optimize the tempo of sessions.
Consider theming the presentation to provide a common thread and a sense of drama. For example, mail a giveaway to audience members ahead of time with numbered packages they will open throughout the event (e.g. a worksheet, snack and illustrative tchotchke). Ask a provocative question at the start, and then use creative techniques to test the audience’s understanding via surveys or discussions. Activities to keep your viewers engaged include questions from the audience every ten minutes, presented to speakers and curated by the moderator, breakout sessions where smaller groups work together to answer a question posed by the presenter, digital “pop quizzes” at the end of key sections to test the audience’s attention or different content pieces to provide a “signature moment” for each presenter, such as videos, infographics or humorous memes.
Refine with Technical Rehearsal and Dress Rehearsal
It’s time to put your production in previews before the critics arrive. Run virtual backgrounds ahead of time to make sure they work as desired. Ensure backgrounds do not distract from the speaker and his or her message. Practice with presenters to make sure they know where to look when speaking; incorporate teleprompters to ensure speakers stay focused on the virtual audience. Use a “screen-in-screen” effect as appropriate so speakers don’t disappear while other content, such as a slide or an infographic, is being displayed. Minimize sharing of decks or other materials over your virtual meeting platform; instead, leverage highly visual elements such as custom infographics so you don’t lose viewers down a PowerPoint wormhole.
Set expectations upfront on technical issues and explain: Should audience members have their video screens “on?” Does it matter whether they’re using a laptop or smartphone? Also, limit use of video. Because you’re already “broadcasting,” it can sometimes be awkward to transition from live presenter mode to a video via a virtual meeting platform.
Strut Your Stuff and Sweat the Details
Make sure you meticulously manage all the elements you’ve assembled for the big presentation, as process is key. Always rehearse virtual presentations one or two days before the actual meeting to work out technical issues.
Give your speakers tips to ensure they look great and have room in their presenting fields for big, bold gestures and a space free of distraction. Have speakers stand if possible while talking to increase the energy of presentations and keep the attention of audience members.
As you set up procedures and protocols, ensure someone is managing the virtual meeting platform and understands how to mute and un-mute audience members (especially important when taking questions). You may want a trouble-shooter behind the scenes to ensure all runs smoothly, especially when breaking people into small groups.
Anticipate the concerns of your audience members as it relates to COVID-19. Should presenters be practicing social distancing? Also expect certain members of your audience to complain about technical problems that may be their issue, such as feed disruptions due to slow broadband speed. Come up with a process for diagnosing your own technical issues so one person’s difficulties don’t cause unnecessary commotion.
You’re ready for your big opening! Keep your audience immersed and inspired, and you’ll prove your communications mettle and business savvy.