It is important for the business events industry to show the way when it comes to creating association conferences. MEA had the opportunity to show the way when their annual conference had to be “renovated” due to the COVID lockdown.
A truncated version of the conference was produced this week – how did it go?
First up – full marks to the committee for “pivoting” in these “unprecedented times”. This event was pulled together in a very short time with a mixture of speakers who were scheduled to appear at the Hunter Valley conference along with a few pulled in to reflect the situation we find ourselves in as an industry today AND in a city currently in lockdown.
The one day format was perfect for people to put aside that day.
When you think about it, conference managers are now live content producers, so it is appropriate to compare current conferences to live TV production.
The virtual experience
No matter how much it is promoted by tech companies; the virtual experience will never replace the camaraderie of getting together for a physical conference.
Yes there were technical issues – the feed from all three sessions dropped out for about five minutes, but there were enough tech people watching who got the message back to the support desk and the issue was resolved before the next sessions were due to start. And sensibly, all sessions are now available online.
Getting a decent white balance on the cameras and screens must have been a challenge as it resulted in a very nice sepia look for a couple of the presenters.
And then there was the “Zoom effect” with the remote feeds – including bad camera angles, bad lighting, audio not muted when not speaking, and the classic Zoom issue – bad audio. The latter being the most important because if your audience cannot hear properly, they will not engage.
Unfortunately this crap quality has become broadly acceptable because the TV stations are allowing it to happen on far too many panel discussion shows.
It is not hard to fix! And if TV stations and conference organisers want to look professional the main thing they have to do is a) send an instruction sheet to all participants in advance (see below) and b) do a technical check (particularly for the audio) 15 mins before the remote participant is due to go live.
One of my favourite radio presenters is Philip Adams – who refers to his listener. Not listeners. This then makes each and every listener feel that the program is just for them. You also get this experience from successful YouTubers who talk via the camera to just one viewer. Online conferences have the same opportunity and the first speakers/presenters to realise this will go gangbusters.
In one of the panel sessions there was discussion about the difference between “presenting” and “connecting” and which engages the audience the best.
I saw both options in this conference. By the far the most engaging were the Zoom panels (despite the issues) because the participants were looking at the camera and thus making “virtual” eye contact with the audience members – each and every one of us. The MC also connected, because he looked into the camera (OK, he is a professional).
The least engaging was the “presenter” who basically read a script to an imaginary audience and made no contact with the camera/viewer. This was unfortunate because his content was incredibly useful.
The hybrid experience
If this particular presenter had an audience of say 20 people (physically distanced) that he could play to, and a second camera was doing audience cutaways, we would now have a hybrid event and this speaker would have engaged much better.
The best example of a successful hybrid experience I can offer is the current format of the ABC’s Q and A program. A small live audience, a presenter and a couple of panellists in the studio and other panellists remote.
The laughter, groans and applause from the audience enhance the atmosphere and the live twitter feed provides feedback.
There was a lot of discussion in various sessions about hybrid events, but what would they look like?
First up is atmosphere. Think about all those TED Talks you have watched – they work because they have been recorded in front of a live audience – from hundreds to thousands.
I commented previously on the MEA awards – which despite the technical wizardry, just felt flat, despite the best efforts of a bubbly MC. To my mind the way to fix that is to have an audience – the venue for the awards was big enough to have around 20 people (sponsors, staff, etc) suitably spaced – prime them up with some food and drink and get them to create some atmosphere.
At a regular conference, online polling or Q&A is available via various apps. There is an opportunity to take this much further for at-home participants who will be engaging on a larger screen than their phone.
Congratulations to EventsAir for providing the platform. With such a technical production, produced under difficult circumstances, glitches will happen and they dealt with them quickly.
These days people watching at home will often have multiple screens setup, so I suggest you allow us to move the video feed to a different screen so we can more easily see (and engage with) the comments section.
A new environment for speakers
I know that many people are uncomfortable talking to a camera and even more uncomfortable reading from an autocue (I know because I’ve done it) so let me make a suggestion to the speaker agencies – your speakers are going to be asked to appear at more of these type of events, so give them camera and Zoom training.
Let me make this clear. None of this is meant as criticism of the MEA awards or this conference – just some suggestions for anyone else out there charged with producing events for your clients. And it comes from over 40 years of experience in theatre and events.
I don’t know how, but the sponsors needed to be included more. The virtual expo lounge didn’t really work for me as nothing can replace the physical expo and engagement with exhibitors. Maybe 30 sec promos for everyone shown between each session.
So Virtual or Hybrid? I think it depends. Virtual is fine for corporate meetings. For awards I would definitely go hybrid. Conferences will require the most effort and preparation in order to be successful.
I’d love you to share your thoughts via the Comments section below.
And the tips for looking and sounding good on Zoom.
- Get a decent webcam – most cameras built into laptops are pretty ordinary.
- Have your camera at eye level so you are looking straight at it (the up nose look has to go).
- Position the camera and yourself so there are no distractions behind you.
- Check your lighting – look into a window for example – don’t rely on the light from your laptop screen (I saw a person being interviewed on The Drum last night who looked like an escapee from Avatar).
- Audio – most people just use their laptop mic and speakers, which results in the echoing Zoom effect. You need headphones and a proper microphone (around $150 each for decent quality). However this can be achieved inexpensively with a headset from Officeworks for around $60. These units just plug into a USB port and include earpieces and a boom microphone and will improve your audio out of sight.
- Finally – get off the wi-fi and plug into ethernet.