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Virtual events and meetings: three ways to truly engage

(Image credit: Image Credit: RawPixel / Pexels)

In mid-February, we began to see the cancellation of large-scale industry events such as Mobile World Congress, Facebook's F8 conference, Google I/O, and IBM's Think.

Smaller industry events followed suit closely, and now that much of the world’s workforce has transitioned to remote and home working, every meeting has become a virtual event.

As the Corona/Covid-19 virus is spreading globally, we have implemented a global work-from-home policy and it’s clear to see that investments in the digitalisation of our company helped us to shift to remote working smoothly.

Ten years ago, businesses might not have been able to cope quite so easily, but today, the operational transition has come naturally for many because of the technology now available to run meetings, seminars and events virtually. I greatly admire the way that businesses, and specifically customers, are helping to keep society running.

However, what’s already becoming evident in remote working is that regardless of whether a virtual event is a larger scale conference or a group weekly meeting, attendees can sometimes leave feeling disengaged. Yet it doesn’t have be this way. There are ways to prevent virtual events and meetings from becoming passive ‘show and tell’ sessions.

We just need to consider how humans want to engage, how we can creatively address solutions to replace face to face contact, and how we can use technology to support groups with a more interactive approach.

Quick fixes leave attendees disengaged

What we’ve seen to date is that quick fixes have been deployed to ensure that events actually happen. Delegates and speakers are all logging into meeting apps and using audio and video capabilities, and one by one, each speaker addresses the other delegates and speaks to attendees or meeting participants.

It solves the immediate requirement, but it introduces other complexities in that virtual events and meetings become a series of show and tell sessions, and attendees miss out on opportunities to spontaneously communicate, debate and brainstorm. Effectively, those who are not speaking risk becoming passive participants left to consume information, often missing out on opportunities to put forward their questions. It’s not surprising that attendees may become disengaged and inattentive.

Running a truly engaging and well-received virtual event may seem a daunting task, but the truth is, the companies that have been holding webinars for some years have probably learned many lessons from them. And what has worked well for a good webinar won’t necessarily work well for every virtual event. Here are a few lessons from the frontlines.

1. Co-create virtual meeting styles

If we want virtual events and meetings to really engage, consistency is important. Whether we’re delivering large scale virtual conferences, webinars with sizeable audiences, or weekly team calls, having a consistent virtual style can really help.

Having speakers in well-lit rooms with minimal background noise is essential. For large scale events, consider the costs you have saved in terms of venue space and facilities, and whether any of these can be allocated to better technology to support a more professional looking outcome.

Keeping presentations to a consistent length is also a great way to keep attendees engaged and for virtual events, shorter is always better. Remember the ‘standing’ meeting theme of years ago, where companies claimed that by not using chairs, they were able to drastically shorten meeting times? Consider whether are able to apply time reducing measures to your virtual meeting, and you may find that people are better engaged.

2. Move beyond PowerPoint

There’s one thing that many of the best TED and TEDx talks have in common: they don’t use slides. It’s understandable that not all of us have honed our presentation skills to TED worthy levels, but we can learn a lot from watching some of these engaging speakers. Even those who do use slides tend to use very few, and the slides are consistently uncomplicated.

Regardless of whether a meeting is in-person or virtual, be careful of PowerPoint overload. Consider keeping PowerPoint to a minimum and get people’s faces on video when running presentations.

There’s also opportunity here to do product demonstrations, to host virtual remote panels, and use technology to support features such as video chat for questions. Technology can also support a truly active event environment, with the right software to support networking and breakouts, and even features such as chat boxes, hand raising, emoticons, question polls, whiteboards and note-taking.

3. Plan the agenda carefully and share it in advance

Many of us are in uncharted territory when it comes to running virtual events, but it helps to think of them in similar terms to in-person scenarios. You wouldn’t plan a conference without an agenda, and most of us have agendas in place for weekly calls.

However, with virtual meetings, this agenda may need more context. The purpose and theme of the call may need to be more defined, and re-iterated throughout to keep attendees engaged and on track. If there are multiple speakers, it’s important to ensure that they are keeping with this purpose and theme.

As you plan out the agenda, it’s also important to test your technology to make sure the meeting will run as planned. For larger scale events, this may involve doing a complete rehearsal.

A last point on administration. It’s worth sending a meeting round-up or notes to all attendees, with actions custom designed to them.

Consider a long-term virtual event strategy

Worldwide, businesses are doing their best to maintain business continuity and all businesses hope to re-open offices as soon as they can safely do so. However, as we use technology to bridge the challenges we’re currently faced with, most of us have come to the same conclusion: that many of the new technology workarounds deserve a permanent place in our ‘business as usual’ lives.

We are likely to see more virtual events being held in the future, long after the necessity to work remotely is complete. While we may be navigating the challenges of holding engaging virtual events for the time being, it’s likely that most business will become much better at producing compelling events in the future.

So, set yourself a challenge. If you are a vendor, how can you use virtual events to engage with your customers in a better, more streamlined way? How can use virtual technology to relay product and service information? If you are a service provider, how can you use technology to drive better client communication so that your clients feel engaged, taken care of and inspired?

When it comes to virtual events, there’s still a lot of untapped opportunity, and as we maintain business continuity, we’re set to see them become a permanent fixture completely capable of fuelling business growth.

Matt Crook, Managing Director, Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting UK