As the CEO of a startup focused on high-performance virtual networks and events, my team completed extensive research and experimentation in 2019 with a myriad of virtual platforms, formats and events. We constantly review and discuss our internal virtual event “Playbook” with experts, so I would like to share what we’ve learned over the last year working on the leading-edge of virtual collaboration.
Lesson 1: Design is critical
Whatever platform you are using, the key to a great virtual event or working session is designing the interaction carefully, minute-by-minute ideally. We typically plan for 8 hours of design, scripting and testing for every 1 hour of live connection time. I know this is not feasible or even needed for a simple meeting, but the ratio is about right for any event that has complex goals or will be working with complex content — e.g., analytical video evidence or product designs — or a meeting that will require a group decision or consensus to be reached.
Lesson 2: Running a great virtual event or meeting is (at least) a 2-person job
We developed our playbook with the help of a former national television news producer, and he taught us that any video collaboration platform should be approached much the same as a live television news or sports event. You can’t play the game and run the broadcast at the same time. Likewise, in complex virtual meetings you should have someone run the platform and another lead the discussion.
Lesson 3: Zoom, Bluejeans, etc. are television studios not conference rooms
Zoom and its peers are TV — at least to your brain — so approach your meetings like a TV director and not a physical meeting facilitator. Indeed, our in-house approach is based on a presidential debate format, which we found to be the best television format for business use. The key advice we got last year from another TV news pro when we showed him our platform was: “forget about making a business meeting fit a video format and find a video format that meets a business need.” Make his words your guiding principle.
Lesson 4: Exploit what makes virtual great
There are so many things you can do on the virtual platforms that for the most part go unused: video sharing, real-time polling, break-out groups, remote connections, etc. Don’t think of virtual as a “back up” since you can’t meet in person. Imagine that this is how you wanted to meet all along and design from that starting point.
Lesson 5: Virtual is video-based and your content should be the same
Whenever possible, replace documents and slide decks with video. We all carry around a sophisticated video production platform in our pockets. It’s time to put it to good use. If you find resistance to being “on camera,” understand that is a natural reaction. Overcome it by having participants do voice only while showing something else – basically, what we call the “voice-over first” approach. Soon enough, most people will be happy to move in front of the camera.
Lesson 6: Be a host first and facilitator second
The most important thing on your mind should be keeping your audience engaged with you. If that happens, the facilitation comes naturally. Your “director” should use the in-platform chat window to help the host remember what comes next in the script and how the audience is reacting to the meeting. Video conferencing can actually feel more engaging because everyone can see speaker up close and because it can present all speakers as visually equal. If you need a topic reminder, a simple outline viewable only by the host and director will keep most events on track.
Lesson 7: Design the time before and after the video sessions carefully
Maybe the least understood aspect of virtual collaboration is how to best use the time before and after each virtual event. Indeed, we spent most of our time on what happens before and after the any virtual session: scripting, content prep, participant prep, etc. Get the pre and post design right, and the virtual part is easy.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances that led you to virtual work, use this opportunity to experiment and to open up new possibilities. As we have found, approach virtual with great design and execution, and it can be more effective than in-person for many applications.
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