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Viewpoint: You don’t have to fear or dread virtual events

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Matt Sullivan

On March 17, The New York Times published its most prescient headline of the year: “We Live in Zoom Now.”

That Brady-Bunch-style Zoom box is where we work, where we learn, where we socialize … and we hate it. I know we hate it, because every time a client comes to us with an idea for a virtual event, the conversation starts the same way: “We don’t want it to be a Zoom.”

Short Order never expected to become a resource for virtual events, but we pivoted along with everyone else last year. Since then, we’ve gone virtual with clients at annual dinners, fundraising events, global team meetings, and one gubernatorial inauguration. And maybe we’ve learned some things. I’m not sure I’d call these “best practices” – truly, there’s no single playbook for every event – but here are five things to keep in mind when you plan to go virtual:

  1. You don’t have to do anything the way you’ve always done it. In fact, if you simply go through the motions of a live event with cameras rolling, your event will be clunky at best and deadly dull at the worst. Think of it like adapting a story from page to screen. You want to maximize the exciting parts, move speedily from one scene to another, but remain true to the heart of the story. That’s the real work of taking an event virtual.
  2. Match the energy of your audience. When you’re communicating to 500 people in a room, you need to go big. At a virtual event, your audience is 18 inches away from their screen … and wearing pajama pants. Keep the energy, bring down the intensity, and make it conversational. And no podiums.
  3. Mixing live and pre-recorded elements keeps the audience engaged. And it also allows you to use both to their full advantage. Live Q&As and intros create that “flying without a net” energy that you can’t capture any other way, but a pre-recorded keynote address lets you add slides, photos – maybe even musical cues – so no one is left staring at a talking head for 15-20 minutes at a time. Pre-recording is also best for panel discussions, musical performances and “opening credits.”
  4. Find ways to involve your audience – before the event even starts. Attempts to be “interactive” in the moment fall flat on their face if the audience doesn’t jump in – and there’s no social pressure to participate at a virtual event. We try to gather interactive content from the audience before the event begins. In one case, we asked attendees to name their favorite songs during registration, and then had a DJ call them out by name and play their “requests” during breaks at the event. Another time, we asked attendees to submit 10-second selfie video on Day One of a meeting, then used their recordings to create a two-minute hype video to close out Day Two. Attendees saw themselves inside the event while amplifying the main message of the meeting – a win for all.
  5. Change scenes, change scenery. Don’t have everything happen inside the same “white void” that’s probably a beige wall. Find ways to signal where you are in the program by controlling what the scene looks like – all intros filmed in one setting, all speeches in another. And no Zoom backgrounds. They instantly make your event look cheap. Dirty laundry in the background might not be ideal, but at least it would feel authentic.

One last note: Vaccines are here, but virtual is here to stay. One nonprofit client was surprised and delighted to nearly match the money raised from last year’s gala dinner with this year’s virtual fundraiser – far above expectations. Given the success, they’re now contemplating whether all future dinner should be hybrid in-person/virtual events. Best practices for that will be different, but I’m eager to see what’s possible.


Matt Sullivan serves as chief operations officer for Short Order Production House in Wilmington.

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