Up in the Air about Virtual Meetings

I know, I've been writing a lot lately about virtual events (both pros and cons). The topic seems timely and has captivated certainly the training world as well as the event world--so it makes sense that I keep coming across it on a day-to-day basis.

This weekend, I watched the recent blockbuster "Up in the Air", and I couldn't help but revisit the topic.

Putting all romantic and personal growth plot lines aside, at the heart of the movie is a company considering switching its face-to-face business into the virtual conferencing space. They're doing it for the reasons that I see a lot of companies eschewing in-person meetings for online conferences:

• It saves significant money on travel costs
• It saves time/energy on traveling
• It's new technology and therefore appealing
• It theoretically provides the information needed

BUT this company fires people--that's their product. George Clooney's character argues that this simply can't be done any way but face to face. By the end of the movie, the company has transitioned back to sending people on the road for in-person meetings instead of continuing to use the virtual solution.

Interesting to note here that this seems like a prime example of where virtual meetings would be most useful. All the numbers add up, the technology is there, etc. But at the heart of the movie we find that there are just some messages that have to be delivered face to face. People were insulted that they were told such life-changing news as a layoff, and there wasn't even the courtesy of having a person in the room with them. They were stuck staring at a video screen. How cold.

Companies utilizing virtual technology are, in some instances, doing so in reaction to economic hardship of some sorts. It's a cost-saving measure like anything else. But when they're not meeting in person, and are delivering OTHER economically sensitive news, what message is that sending to employees? That they don't care enough to look them in the eye and tell them that the annual yearly report isn't looking so great?

Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to be harsh. I understand perfectly the constraints of budget. However, one cannot ignore the human factor in the virtual world. And that, so far, is missing to me.

Virtual Events and The Popcorn Principle

Recently, we attended an event promoting virtual conferences and the technology surrounding virtual events. (Interestingly enough, we attended this event live and in-person instead of virtually. Hmm...)

The buzz in the event industry is, of course, that companies are either supplementing in-person events with some virtual meetings, or are replacing in-person events all together. At the very least, a lot of companies are exploring the virtual space and seeing how they can use it to cut costs or just to stay on the cutting edge of technology.

The event was incredibly educational and opened our minds to a lot of possibilities within virtual events; virtual interactions and networking, streaming media on-demand, even virtual spaces that were set up to look like "real" life.

Then, as we wandered from vendor spaces to streaming cafes to educational presentations, our senses were overwhelmed. There was...a scent. A delicious scent... Our mouths watered... Wait, it was.... Freshly-popped popcorn!

Where was it coming from?

We quickly sought out the source of enticement. One of the workshop providers had rented a popcorn machine and was handing out free snacks. As we took our tantalizing bags of buttery goodness, we wandered around their space, looking at their information and sitting down to watch their pitch. It was a great way to enhance our experience and draw us into their show.

But what is the virtual equivalent of popcorn?

The fact that it was a scent and food wasn't important. The point is this: a lot of elements go into an event. Some of these can be replicated in the virtual space, certainly; the PowerPoints/handouts, the speeches, even a bit of the networking.

Some of them are irreplaceable. Would you rather submit questions through a chat forum, or have the opportunity to network with your CEO/VP/Etc. firsthand? Would you rather video-conference about a new product, or get the chance to see it and touch it? Is a picture worth a thousand handshakes?

While we dive headlong into the world of virtual events, it's important to remember how valuable face-to-face contact and face-to-face events really can be. While the virtual world may save a bit (or a lot) of money, there's still a need for in-person events.

Too good not to share.

[At the Experient "Envision 2010" Event in Fort Worth, TX]

This is what an audience is *supposed* to look like at an event! Totally engaged and cheering (using a custom audience-response game show).
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Hybrid Events: The new crop of conferences.

We recently attended the Virtual Edge Summit, where the big buzz centered around "hybrid events". We have hybrid corn, hybrid pets, hybrid cars...in this modern day and age, it was only a matter of time before we got the hybrid event.

So what the heck is a hybrid event, anyway?

Simply put--a hybrid event is the blend of an in-person conference with a virtual component. This can be done several ways:
  • The event can be simultaneously broadcast--streaming from the live on-site event to the virtual event site online in real-time (in theory, both in-person and virtual attendees get the same content).
  • The live event can be re-played in the virtual space on a delay or with additional content.
  • The virtual event can supplement the live event--adding only additional content to the event, giving attendees a richer experience before or after the live event.
Wisely--though virtual events have become a solution to decreasing travel and production budgets--we haven't thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In-person events may be toned down or reduced in size, but they still have undeniable appeal and value, and are regarded correctly as necessary. Going to an entirely virtual solution is not a route that companies seem eager to travel. (And virtual events present their own unique set of challenges where audience engagement is concerned.)

The main fear of event producers with the advent of the virtual event and hosting a hybrid event is that the virtual component cannibalizes attendance at the live event. I can see where this would be a concern, but initial forays into event hybridization have shown that: A) People who weren't going to attend an elective conference in person still won't attend in person; B) People who really wanted to attend in person will still attend in person; but it adds another component C) People who weren't going to attend in person might check out a virtual event and people who wanted to attend but couldn't now have that option to them open as well; and D) Virtual events can create buzz for the in-person event, increasing attendance there, too.

While we see the promise in hybridizing events, there's a danger in thinking that a broadcast of a live event is an adequate virtual event. A death-by-Powerpoint situation in a live setting is not improved by moving it into the virtual space. In fact, it's more difficult to capture and retain the attention of your audience when they're in front of their computer--one of the biggest distraction-makers and multi-tasking tools out there.

So while the future of a hybrid event is bright and undeniable, this is a prime opportunity to rethink the presentation of content and to tailor it for a broader virtual space.

5 Years of Service: The Staying Power of an AniMate

AniMated characters are a powerful communication tool at a meeting.

Sure, a 15-foot-tall AniMated head (or person, or animal...) is bound to be memorable. It's a 15-foot-tall talking-in-real-time AniMated head. That's something you don't just easily forget.

But the thing is, AniMates do more than make a flash-in-the-pan impact at an event. Even aside from making the content more memorable; reinforcing points through humor and recaps, captivating the audiences' attention and making them receptive to the message--AniMates really *connect* with an audience in an absolutely amazing way.

The certificate that you see in this entry is signed by the VP of Sales and the President of the Division for Honeywell. This is the same certificate that all Honeywell employees get when they've had 5 years of service. This year, they presented it to Petey the Pirate.

Occasionally, clients will use an AniMate one year, and then decide that they have to "do something different" the next year. They're missing the point. AniMates not only become part of the audience--but they're something that the audience looks forward to seeing every year.

I was backstage at this year's Honeywell event. Petey doesn't come out right away, of course. First, the VP of Sales--the host of the meeting--greets the audience and welcomes them to the event, etc. The last line of the VP's opening message was, "But I get the feeling we're missing someone..."

The audience started to chant: "Petey...Petey....Petey....Petey!"

Because Petey the Pirate is no longer just an AniMate. He's not--and never was--just a cheap gimmick to be discarded for the next new event-production fad. He embodied the spirit of the audience. He was their cheerleader, their comrade and their voice onstage in the type of an event where an audience is typically expected to be seen and not heard. He has become part of the culture of that division.
Petey is a prime example of the staying power of an AniMate. Five years and the audience snaps to attention whenever he comes on the screen. Five years and he is able to deliver key messages; both uplifting and the hard truth--in a way in which the audience can relate.

Five years, and Petey the Pirate has received a service recognition.

And he's definitely planning on showing up next year.

Getting AniMated about Gender Roles

We've done a lot of AniMated characters for a LOT of companies in a lot of different situations. One of the most common AniMates is an audience advocate character--a human (most often), virtual representation of the audience's mindset. The audience advocate asks presenters the tough questions on everyone's mind, brings up the audience's point of view, and is essentially one of "them" on the stage.

Because they add humor and let audiences know that they are being represented and taken into account, audience advocate AniMates are extremely popular.

And these characters are most often male.*

Occasionally we're asked the question: what if we made the AniMate a female?

A good question--and very appropriate when the audience skews female. And yet, we usually advise against a female AniMate save for cases in which the audience is *overwhelmingly* female.

It's not that we don't want to do female characters, but the reasons are--perhaps--more indicative of gender roles in most corporate cultures than anything. Whereas a male AniMate can get off telling an executive that they have to prove themselves, and that they're skeptical about the new plan (before the executive gives a refined and credible argument that turns the AniMate around--along with the audience, of course), when a female brings up the shortcomings of an authority (male or female) she can come off as...well...whining.

They're the same words written by the same writer--the only difference is the face and the voice behind the argument--yet in the perception of the character there is a world of difference.

We're not saying it's fair or it's right--it's just how it is right now with most audiences that we deal with. It's interesting that while an AniMate in general is a mirror of an audience, that the bias for a male or a female AniMate is a mirror of society.

*It's interesting to note that the scripting for these AniMates is written by a female writer.

Happy Holidays from Live Spark

Happy Holidays from all of us at Live Spark.

It's been a challenging year, in some ways, for the event industry. By and large, companies scaled back on travel--and this included large, live events.

However, it didn't stop meetings altogether. With the recession, companies had more reason to get their people together; to boost morale, get everyone on the same page, realign the team, direct employees towards common goals, etc.

What ended up happening was that companies shifted their focus from the big and glamorous elements of a live event (lighting, fancy staging, bigname entertainment, etc.) and started focusing on what was really important: the message.

It was with this renewed focus on the effectiveness of a face-to-face event (no matter how large or small) that we were able to help new, current and past clients develop events that truly had an impact on their organization. We didn't just work harder--we worked smarter--and it was our clients who pushed us to new heights.

Thank you for continuing to challenge us to come up with new, creative and innovative solutions. Thank you for your feedback, support and business.

Most of all, thank you for being a part of the Live Spark family.

As we head into the new year--the busiest time of year--we look forward to what is ahead. To new creative developments, to new faces, to new solutions and new audiences.

Happy Holidays!

Your friends at Live Spark

An Internal Affair: The Problem With Internal Speakers

Internal speakers get a bad rap.

Not to say that it isn't largely deserved; for the most part, internal company speakers are what one talks about when they reference such phrases as, "Death by PowerPoint" or "Information Overload" or "Podium Ambien". (Okay, so I made that last one up.)

Professional speakers--again, only for the most part--manage to avoid such pitfalls. That's not to say there aren't exceptions to the rule: I've seen fabulous internal presenters and pretty lousy professional keynote speakers. It's just that when one makes their living doing something, they tend to do it fairly well. A company probably didn't hire a CFO to give an ace 50-minute presentation once a year at a sales meeting...they probably hired them to be really, really good at company finances. So presenting really *isn't* an internal speaker's main job--they already have a job to do, and one can hardly blame them for giving a comparatively small presentation the short shift when their main focus is on their daily responsibilities.

Recently I stumbled on a discussion of event industry professionals centered around poor presenters. The general consensus was that companies should hire professional presenters to escape from the trap of sub-par internal speakers.

Well, that might work for a keynote speech, of course, but I would say that not only is this financially prohibitive on a bigger scale, but it's also unrealistic, largely unnecessary and can take away a lot from the meeting--including critical information. After all--if you need someone to give the financial picture for the company moving forward, the best person to do it is someone internally who deals with that particular facet.

I'm not that quick to brush off internal speakers all together. There are definitely ways to coax a more engaging presentation out of a non-professional speaker:

Make it an Interview. A dialog can be much more captivating than a monologue. Have an emcee or dynamic colleague ask the presenter pointed, relevant questions. Keep the conversation focused and moving along.

If one is feeling like doing something different for an event, one could even stage the general session like a talk show--keeping the same emcee to transition between different subject matter experts.

Present as a Team. The head of a department can give a brief overview, and then hand off to members of their team to present--or presenters can take turns. Not only does this change who's on stage--adding novelty and re-engaging the audience every time the presenter changes--but it can also be a great opportunity to let a team share in the "glory" and let themselves be known to the audience.

Keep it High-Level. Internal speakers are often subject matter experts that spend all of their days doing their job in the area that they are speaking about. It's great that they're passionate and knowledgeable about their subject--but it's not often that the audience shares the same level of enthusiasm. For instance--a sales force doesn't want to (or need to) know *all* the little nuances of the marketing process and department and plan--they just need to know the parts that are relevant to them and will help them most in their job. Information overload can be prevented by keeping everything very high level--the presenter should think about what's important to the audience as opposed to what's important to them.

Add Variety and Multimedia and Novelty. There's nothing more compelling than a story--and internal speakers are full of them; they just don't know it. Stories, metaphors, pictures, video clips--all these tools can be incorporated into presentations to significantly boost the engagement factor. A story doesn't have to be a personal anecdote--sometimes a presentation *does* tell a story if framed correctly. Instead of clip-art pictures, use bold, big, colorful and memorable graphics. (And take out some of the PowerPoint text while you're at it.)

Case studies are also great. A presenter doesn't have to tell the audience how program X will benefit them--give a case study. Better yet, call the case study subject on stage to interject their story during the presentation. Variety, multimedia and novelty are all key in keeping the audience off the Blackberry and on the presenter.

Have a global, pre-defined and assigned set of outcomes. Having a set of clear outcomes for an event is huge. Define outcomes and give them to presenters. If they want to talk about something, it must somehow support one of the outcomes. If it doesn't, they either cut that information, or renegotiate. Every presentation should support the event--and having a cohesive set of outcomes both within the event and within each presentation will keep everyone on-message (and prevent speaker-speech-wander). Don't be afraid to cut time when it's not needed--just because you've always allotted 90 minutes for the marketing team, doesn't mean they have 90 minutes of relevant, outcome-based content THIS year.

Rehearse. It's torture to sit through an already-dry presentation only to be confronted with technical glitches, "What happened to my slide? Can you go back one?", and unprepared speakers. Internal speakers have regular jobs within the company, so they're not always given adequate time to rehearse. This isn't just an on-site task, by the way. Reviewing their presentation as they go along with a trusted peer, team-member or assistant (anyone with an honest, knowledgeable, critical eye) can keep it on-point and fresh.

Toss the PowerPoints. Look. I've heard it hundreds of times; "Well, [CEO, CFO, CMO, VP, Etc.] is just going to do his/her slides on the plane before the event...so there's not much *we* can do about it..." Not only does this tie in with not rehearsing, but if a presenter doesn't have time to prepare in advance--cut the slides! Not only do night-before slides have infinitely more mistakes, but they're also much more likely to contain the speech instead of being a speaking aid. Consider supplementing PowerPoints with handouts, or even a recording of the presentation (or presentation notes) on a website after the event.

Say it with a Song

One of the unique techniques that we use to enhance face-to-face communication: parody songs.

Maybe it seems silly to use a parody song at a corporate event or in a serious video--but using parody songs to communicate or review key messaging isn't just a one-note wonder (ehhem...). They're a smart, brain-based way to engage the audience with the content; at an event, in a video, online, or in person.

Think back to when we were kids; the most important building blocks in education were taught...through song. The "ABC's" and "1-2-Buckle my Shoe" were instrumental in getting toddlers reading and counting. Programs like School House Rock taught older children about everything from conjunctions to the process behind being a "bill on capital hill". Simply put, music and songs can help us learn--and that doesn't stop in childhood (nor does it need to stop outside the door of a corporate event).

Parody and learning songs are captivating. They:

  • Engage both the creative and pragmatic areas of the brain.
  • Promote a positive learning experience.
  • Manipulate an audience's emotional state (try frowning while listening to a Sousa march).
  • Are a novelty that captures attention.
  • Can stick in your head (talk about message reinforcement!).
  • Are just plain fun--to listen to AND to write.
Most of all, they promote learning in a unique way that interrupts the expectation of "learning as usual"--engaging an audience in a very powerful way.

For instance, be sure to turn up your volume and take a look (and listen!) at this video that we wrote and produced for Transamerica's SecurePath--designed to educate visitors to their website about applying for Social Security:

We used opera in this example because it was appropriate for the subject matter and the audience, but we've also done parodies of popular songs, classics, oldies, etc.

Now that's NOT just information about Social Security as usual.

The Key to your Keynote Speaker

We're not in the business of brokering keynote speakers, generally. But after attending hundreds of events that use keynote speakers, we know what works and what doesn't, and can give some good recommendations. (In the events business, you know you have a great keynote speaker when the AV crew pays attention.)

The keynote speaker can be a critical piece of your event--they're there to motivate your audience, to tell a story and to inspire action. They should fit into your event plan seamlessly and strategically--becoming a part of your overall message instead of just a novelty.

The things that make a great keynote speaker can vary, but the things that make a bad keynote speaker are pretty much the same across the board.

Here are some things you should watch out for when looking at a keynote speaker:

1. Lack of Customization. This is the number one failing of keynote speakers. We've all heard speeches that sound practically like recordings with a space left blank to "insert company name here". Your keynote speaker should take the time to get to know YOUR message, your company's unique challenges and attributes--and be willing to tailor their speech accordingly. In the case of keynote speakers, one size does not fit all.

2. An Amazing Story...But Not Much Else. There are keynote speakers who have done genuinely amazing, awe-inspiring things...but that doesn't mean that it translates into a keynote speech. Be wary of stories that don't have a deeper message and take-away. The goal for your attendees will not be to climb Mount Everest (usually), but, rather, to overcome THEIR obstacles.

3. An Amazing Speech...But Not and Amazing Speaker. Believe it or not, there are great keynote stories and messages that get lost, quite literally, on the floor of your event. We once saw a keynote speaker who had a great message, but only his lapel got to hear it--he was just cutting his teeth on the keynote circuit, and didn't quite have the whole, you know, *speaking* thing down yet. It's critical that the keynote speaker be able to connect with your audience.

4. It's All About Them. We've seen many good speeches that have been polluted by the litter of the speaker's own ego. When every point at the end of the story or anecdote is, "You'll find this in my book," it gets tiresome for the audience. Additionally, great keynote speakers are all about the people in the room--not necessarily their own achievements. Their story should be a frame for their speech--not the entirety of the message.

5. Basic Presentation Mistakes. Most keynote speakers rank pretty highly on the professional-looking presentation spectrum compared to most internal presenters. However, they can still occasionally fall prey to mistakes like having too much on their PowerPoint (using them as speaking notes instead of visual aids, or making them hard to read). A lot of the time, companies won't proof or spend much energy on the keynote speaker's presentation--they just plug it into the master slide deck and go. That's when basic mistakes happen; a clip fails to play, the formatting becomes messed up, etc. Having rehearsal helps mitigate this, but we find that the keynote speaker doesn't always come in for rehearsal beforehand--either because they're too busy, or the company doesn't have the budget for the extra time.
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