Last November, the BC Federation of Labour held its first-ever online convention. The response from our hundreds of delegates was overwhelmingly positive, and we learned plenty.

I always keep my eyes peeled for things that make online speeches and presentations work well, and this convention was a chance to see them in action from behind the scenes. This issue shares the most important lessons that I took from it all, both for event convenors and for speakers.

But the most important thing I (re-)learned was this: Put the people before the technology. Every nifty-cool feature of every platform is just a means to an end: connecting human beings. option, or what our website’s fancy animated background looked like. (Trick question. We didn’t have one.) But they’ll remember the voices they heard, the people they connected with, the policies they helped to pass — and the feeling of satisfaction at the work they did together.

Here’s what I learned about…

Planning and strategy

Make every decision through the lens of your audience and the experience you want them to have.

We tried to put ourselves in delegates’ shoes (or comfy work-from-home slippers). What will serve them? What’s going to keep them engaged? What environment are they likely to be in: a purpose-built work-from-home space, or the dining room table? And at a macro level, what did they want from each stage of convention: entertainment? information? connection? inspiration and motivation? and in what proportions?

Lesson for speakers: With an online event, it’s more important than ever to get to know your audience and understand what they’re looking for from you. Otherwise it’s easy to lose them to multitasking or just stepping away from the screen.

Keep it simple, simple, simple.

When it comes to online events, a lot of us (and a lot of your audience) are still getting our sea legs. Make things simple and straightforward, from your on-screen layout and design choices to the activities you invite participants to join.

Lesson for speakers: Simplicity works for you too. Keep your background uncluttered, so you’re not competing with it for attention. If you have slides, keep them very simple. Just a few words on the screen. Charts that make a single clear point. Simple, striking visuals. Strip away everything that can distract from you and your message.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

Few things have reminded me more of the old saying that “you don’t know what you don’t know” than preparing for this convention. We anticipated a whole raft of potential issues coming up; rehearsal showed us how many more could arise. A full technical run-through is a must, and consider having more than one.

Lesson for speakers: Offline, rehearsal is a must — and it’s even more important for online presentations. Practice your presentation — and if you’re delivering it live, practice it using the event platform, whether that’s Zoom or some other service. Know where the buttons are for taking questions, running polls, bringing your slides up or hiding them. When your side of things runs smoothly, your audience stays engaged… and the event organizers love you for it.

Have a plan B, for when (not if) things go sideways.

Think in terms of contingencies and scenarios. What if you lose power just as you’re getting under way? (It happened to us!) What if a speaker drops out at the last minute? What if the slides don’t play, the clip is corrupted, a participant tries to take over the chat..? Know how you’ll handle each of these contingencies, and you won’t be scrambling if they arise.

Lesson for speakers: You have some scenarios to think about, too. What if your Internet connection fails? Will you be able to use your phone and mobile data as a fallback? How about if your computer crashes — is your presentation loaded and ready to go on a backup computer? Or if your kids start arguing loudly outside your door while your partner is indisposed? Think about some likely scenarios, and either figure out how you’ll handle them… or take steps to make sure they don’t come up.

Ask for help early and often.

We talked to other unions that had held online conventions, consulted with our own networks and generally relied on the kindness of friends. And we checked in constantly with our tech partners to confirm the decisions we were making would make the best use of their platform.

Lesson for speakers: Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel… or the Zoom presentation. Talk to other folks who’ve already done them. What worked? What do they wish they’d done differently? Talk to the event organizers about any aspect of the event or the presentation platform you’re unsure of. And if you’re shaky on the audio or video side of things, consider hiring an AV pro to help walk you through.

Be ready to change direction when opportunities arise.

Virtual events have a built-in flexibility to them; instead of reprinting schedules or hauling tables and chairs between rooms, you can respond to opportunities for more meaningful engagement with a few quick edits. Just balance that flexibility with a healthy respect for your participants’ expectations — and your organization’s process for amending agendas.

Lesson for speakers: Let organizers know if something they’re considering changing will affect your presentation, but roll with changes as well as you can — and if you end up building off those changes to do something unexpected and delightful in your presentation, so much the better!

Technology

Think in terms of many screen sizes.

Audiences may be joining you on many different kinds of screen, from big 4K desktop monitors to laptops and tablets to mobile phones. As you’re choosing your event platform, and then planning content for the event, aim to give people an experience that will be tasty on the bigger screens but still work well on, say, an older smartphone. Try not to require them to have multiple windows open and tiled at the same time; let them focus.

Lesson for speakers: Think of what’s going to happen to that detailed graph if it’s shrunk down to fit an inset over a video of you speaking, and if all of that is going to be on the screen of someone’s phone or a relatively small tablet. (Or if they’re using a laptop, but they have to keep another window open and they’ve reduced yours to a quarter of their screen.) Double down on visual simplicity.

Throw out the manual.

Well, maybe not throw it out. But don’t feel wedded to it. The platform we used, Chime Live, included a fun little feature that let participants snap and share selfies. Delegates quickly started using the selfie feature to visually express their support for candidates in the Federation’s elections. And then on the last day of convention, we repurposed it for an electrifying visual show of solidarity with Indigenous peoples.

Lesson for speakers: Look at the technology with fresh eyes. Are there unexpected ways to use the platform’s features — or video presentation generally — to engage your audience? (Just be sure to check in with event organizers that what you have in mind won’t run afoul of their plans.)

Build a rock-solid backchannel.

Say a video file’s corrupted and the tech team needs the host to vamp for five minutes. Or attendees are complaining that the audio’s out of sync. Event organizers, tech staff, organizational staff, hosts and speakers all need to be able to communicate quickly if the unexpected happens (or if the expected fails to happen).

That’s when you need a backchannel: a way to communicate behind the scenes without disrupting the event for participants. At face-to-face events, that’s often walkie-talkies; for virtual events, your backchannel can be as simple as a group text chat, a Slack channel or a conference call. But you want it to be live, very reliable and constantly monitored.

Lesson for speakers: You need that backchannel too, and you need a way of monitoring it. It’ll be how the organizers let you know that, say, your video connection is breaking up, or they’ve had a scheduling issue come up and you need to wrap early. It can also be how they alert you to comments and questions popping up from attendees. Figure out what will work for you and the organizers. Your backchannel should probably be to just one person, so you aren’t distracted by a flurry of messages while you’re presenting.

Do whatever it takes to have great sound.

Video gets all the attention when it comes to virtual events, but it’s amazing how much easier it is to tolerate less-than-cinematic visuals than it is to endure distorted, low-quality audio. Check in with your presenters, and make sure all of them are going to use a good external mic — and not just whatever’s built into their computer, tablet or phone. And for speakers who may not be all that tech-savvy, consider shipping them a decent USB microphone, either on loan or as a gift.

Lesson for speakers: Enough futzing with your backdrop — it’s time to get serious about how you sound. Invest in a USB microphone, or a plug-in clip-on mic (this gem from Røde really gets the job done, and there’s an adapter if you aren’t using it in a smartphone’s combo jack).

Train and guide your audience.

Some of your attendees may have been to more than a handful of virtual events, but chances are the vast majority are still new to this. And even if they’ve done their share of Zoom calls, your virtual event platform is probably going to be terra incognita. The BCFED convention always features an introductory session for first-time delegates, but this time we encouraged everyone to attend and walked them through how to work with the online platform. And since nobody remembers everything you throw at them in an orientation session, we built in reminders and prompts throughout the event.

Lesson for speakers: You’re part of the solution here too. If you’re using the platform for participant engagement, remind them how to use it — especially the first time around. If you’re asking them to do something a little elaborate, build in some time for walking them through the process. And be sure to train yourself. Every platform has its own little quirks, and there’s very little standardization.

Embrace the screwups… and move on.

They’re going to happen. Sound might be out of sync with video; a third-party service outage may mean some features on your platform aren’t working; a phone-in connection may be distorted and incomprehensible. Your participants expect you to fix them — but they’re also going to cut you a lot of slack, because glitches are just part of online communication. (And anyone who’s had trouble getting their laptop to talk to a conference projector, or had their mic cut out on them mid-talk, can tell you it isn’t just online events that are prone to misfires!)

So be gracious, acknowledge the issue with good humour and let people know you’re working on it. Then move things along, adapting as necessary. If you have to suspend things for a few minutes, having a video clip ready for just such an eventuality can be a life-saver.

Lesson for speakers: Your graciousness and sense of humour will serve you well; how you respond affects how the audience responds. If you start showing frustration (or, worse, making digs at the organizers or tech staff), you’ll turn the glitch into the main event instead of a sideshow — and make yourself a lot less sympathetic. Instead, acknowledge the issue, trust the organizers to fix it however they can, and focus on delivering your presentation as well as possible: You’ll be a hero all around.

Content

Organizers and speakers alike need to think carefully about content, and how to adjust their approach from offline presentations. What worked well in the past for face-to-face audiences may not connect once you’re on the the other side of a camera and a screen. And the online world offers its own unique opportunities. (The lessons here for speakers and organizers are similar enough that I haven’t broken them out in this section.)

Take every opportunity for interaction.

The appetite our audience had for interactivity caught me completely by surprise: Every single activity we offered, our audience jumped in with both feet. Even our joke poll at the beginning to get people used to how to vote — it was over whether to ban pineapple on pizza — prompted a lively tongue-in-cheek debate that spilled over onto Twitter. That may partly be because people are used to being able to post, like and comment online; they’re primed for engagement. So make the most of that by giving them every opportunity for interaction.

Keep it short.

As we thought through our agenda, 40-minute keynote slots shrank to 20 minutes, then 10. It was partly to give delegates the most report- and resolution-debating time possible, but it was also a recognition that 40 minutes is a long time on video. (It’s too long for most in-person speeches, too, but that’s a topic for another time.) It’s not that it can’t be done, but if you want a long presentation, make sure it’s chunked out with change-ups and surprises every five to 10 minutes. (I talk about how and why to do that in this episode of the Leadership Communications Podcast.)

Consider ditching the slides.

I approach PowerPoint with a little skepticism at the best of times. Offline, slides can compete with you for your audience’s attention. Online, their attention is already divided: between what’s going on around them at home and what’s happening on the screen; between the event website and everything else they can do on their devices; between your presentation and the other features of the event platform. Why slice up whatever share you still have of their attention even further?

It’s not that slides don’t add anything. But you have to weigh whatever value they bring to your presentation against their cost in distraction (and visual clutter).

Use video for more than just speakers.

A showcase of videos made by our affiliate unions aired during breaks (both planned and, ahem, otherwise), and went over beautifully — they were a welcome change of pace. And a closing video with a performance of Solidarity Forever was a lovely coda to the whole event. Consider how you can use video clips to switch up the energy of your event. And speakers, consider incorporating video clips within your presentation as one of your changeups.

Make your audience co-creators of the conversation.

One kind of interaction is creating content. Selfies, short video clips, text comments, memes: There’s something very powerful about inviting your audience to contribute content, and then sharing it in real time.

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