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Meetings: How design thinking can transform virtual events

by Roy Sheppard.

‘Zoom Fatigue’ is now afflicting hundreds of millions of workers. The truth is most online meetings are really bad. They ramble, lack relevance. And I’m not just talking about internal meetings, ‘professionally’ run virtual conferences can be the worst offenders.

The world is crying out for people to organise and design more interesting meetings. This represents a massive opportunity for anyone who wants to add value (and a lot more interest to their working lives). These new skills will become highly valued in the next few years as more meetings go virtual, regardless of how quickly the world returns to normality.

Meeting design

I’m going to share some tips and techniques for anyone who schedules online meetings or has ever been given the ‘opportunity’ to organise their company conference. These ideas are based on what I’ve learned as a BBC TV presenter and conference host.

Put simply, most meetings are organised by professionals who are brilliant at the hugely complex administrative and logistical aspects of a meeting. Yet the problem with flawless execution of a complex task is that it usually goes unnoticed!

In my experience, pre-COVID, more attention used to be given to choosing a menu, than organising the content of the meeting. And it’s this lack of meeting design knowledge that results in dull meetings and conferences. Fix that, and your meetings will improve instantly.

Virtual meetings are not about the technology anymore. You need to get more involved in the meeting design, content, meeting objectives and how to help contributors look and sound more professional – and more relevant to your audiences. Do this and you’ll stand out as someone who adds real value to your meetings.

Event technology platforms

You can’t completely ignore the technology though. So, a few words about current event technology platforms; for internal meetings Zoom, MS teams, WebEx or GoToMeeting have become the go-to platforms. The world now knows how to use them. For larger conferences I suggest you avoid the likes of Zoom and Teams. They are great platforms but have shortcomings for larger meetings. Professional virtual conference organisers have access to a wide range of robust platforms with sophisticated functionality which you may or may not need.

Within the past year, Hopin has already become the most widely used global virtual conference platform. It works. And it’s reliable. Because it emulates physical conferences, users get the hang of it quite quickly. But hard on their heels is a very interesting, simpler, and less expensive alternative – AirMeet. Professional organisers are already raving about it. I have no connection with either company.

Because virtual meetings are much quicker and simpler to set up; no hotels to book, group travel to arrange etc., you can concentrate more on the meeting format and deliverables. Of course, you’ll still need to deal with speakers and attendees who don’t read even simple instructions you send them!

It’s worth stepping back for a moment to ask how many virtual meetings and conferences could be more effective if they were planned and delivered as professional live TV shows, rather than imitation conferences?

Think “Live TV Show”

As someone who used to work on live network BBC TV in the UK for many years, the way you design a TV programme is VERY different to the design of a conference. The next generation of virtual conferences can learn a great deal from the TV world.

A professional TV show is always planned meticulously by a producer who knows how to structure and format an engaging show in order to keep the audience ‘hooked’ and interested. That usually means lots of shorter sessions. They are no longer than 4-5 minutes on TV.  You could probably get away with 12-15 minutes – but no more. One-hour lectures simply don’t work on-screen – especially if the speaker is a ‘knowledge expert’, not a professional performer.

Everything must start with ‘relevance to the audience’. The content is therefore always agreed ahead of time. Everything is then timed to the second. This is why there is always a script and a technical running order. Interviews are researched, set up, questions are written, guests are given a detailed briefing and where necessary they are coached to give the best possible performance. Professional presenters also play an important role as scriptwriters, editors and interviewers, keeping things on-track and on-time. On-air talent is well lit, and the sound is perfect. Nothing is ever left to chance. Even what appears spontaneous, is usually carefully worked out ahead of time.

Have a production mindset

Live conferences are very rarely created using the precision of TV production. In 2021 and beyond, they absolutely need to be – or people will simply switch-off.

So, the next time you’re invited to organise an event, create some simple documents for the event ‘owner’ as well as contributors.

Capturing thoughts and issues

Some of my clients share a Google doc with those involved which captures all thoughts and issues around the following:

  • What is the primary reason for holding this meeting?
  • As precisely as possible, what do you want this meeting to achieve?
  • What do you want to present/discuss? And why?
  • How can this content be made as relevant as possible to the needs of the audience? Don’t guess this – ask members of the audience ahead of time, what their concerns are, what do they want or need to know?
  • List the names of suggested internal and external speakers and contributors.
  • What 3 key points do you want each speaker to cover – and why this will help your audience members?
  • How important is it for audience members to ask questions and network with other attendees?
  • How long would each segment need to cover each topic or sub-topic? (Encouraging contributors to be as brief as possible will help clarify their thinking and the focus of their presentations) And that’s great for your audience members too.

When you’ve received answers to all these questions (and more), everyone will have a clearer understanding of what is trying to be achieved.

  • Create the “Show”

Create a rough running order with precise timings (which will change and evolve)

Make sure something new happens every 8-10 minutes, NOT a conveyor belt of speakers using PowerPoint.  A speaker, a video insert, a quiz, a panel discussion, a poll, some gamification, some audience discussion.  Get clearer on these elements before you choose your technology solution.

If the meeting is more about broadcasting or sharing information, online interactive TV is probably the better option. If you want lots of workshops and breakout sessions, with virtual networking, choose a virtual conference platform.

For live or pre-recorded online TV shows, the established platforms are StreamYard, eCamm Live, vMix and OBS Studio. (Stop Press: as I am writing this article, it has been announced that Hopin just bought StreamYard. It now looks certain that virtual conferences will look more and more like TV shows in the future after all!)

Clearly communicate with each contributor exactly what is expected of them.

What are their 3 key points? Why does the audience need to know them?

Schedule mandatory rehearsals

Only amateurs believe they don’t need to rehearse. They are essential for performers as well as technicians.

Have a host

You almost certainly need someone to chair or host. A word of warning – just because someone talks confidently, does not make them a professional presenter. Don’t use someone who likes the sound of their own voice either! I’ve seen countless examples of over-confident presenters take seven minutes to introduce a guest. The CEO or any other senior executive are usually the worst people to host – they must be contributors, not hosts. The role of the host is to keep the meeting on time and on-track – ruthlessly if necessary!

Conclusion 

2020 was a year of trial and error as meetings were forced online. Audiences have become more demanding. The production mindset I’ve outlined here will hopefully elevate the professionalism and effectiveness of all your future meetings.

Meetings Resources:

www.Hopin.com

www.AirMeet.com

www.StreamYard.com

www.eCamm.com (livestreaming platform – for Mac only)

Two of the most common livestreaming platforms used by production agencies:

www.vMix.com

https://obsproject.com/

Roy talks about online meeting etiquette:

https://www.linkedin.com/posts/roysheppard_eventprofs-meeting-onlinemeetings-activity-6648601930283180033-72sy/

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