At our last PYM LIVE Event, Plan Your Meetings experimented with hybrid technology for the first time. Because our educator, Joan Eisenstodt, is an industry thought-leader, we figured her session would be a perfect test case.
We partnered with Telenect and Active Production and Design to create a live webcast of her session and broadcast it from the Georgia Aquarium’s Oceans Ballroom to our online audience. We promoted the virtual aspectto our core group of PYM Planners as well as our Twitter and Facebook fans. The result was a virtual audience that was nearly equal in size to the one in the room, for a total of roughly 200 people.
My role was a small but an increasingly pivotal one for speakers: virtual host. Because this was the first hybrid event we produced, our PYM team had to define a lot of new procedures. And I learned many things on the fly. Because I know several of you may be incorporating elements of hybrid or virtual technology into your live events, I thought I’d share some of what I learned.
Lesson No. 1: Planning and practice doesn’t make “perfect,” but it helps!
In addition to our event timeline, our in-house planner, Marketing Director Lisa Kraus, also had to create a filming timeline, which included tech arrival and testing times for everyone on the production staff — audio operators, cameraman, virtual moderator and speaker. It was a lot more complicated that setting up a laptop and Skyping someone into a conference, which is what I’m used to doing when I present virtually to live audiences.
Because we had to stream content over the Internet, we had two audio feeds — one so the people in the room with could hear and one that connected directly to the camera for our virtual audience. Our production team was hybrid as well: In addition to the speaker, virtual moderator and A/V team we had in Atlanta, our fabulous Telenect contact Steve McAllister was monitoring the event live from Vancouver, Wash. And I didn’t have to be present. I could just as easily have performed my job as virtual host from my office in Sandy Springs, which is what I’ll do for future PYM events if I can’t travel with the team.
Originally, Steve suggested I sit next to the videographer during Joan’s presentation. When we got to the ballroom, however, it made more sense to seat me at the same table as the audio/visual techs from Active Production and Design along the side of the room. That way, I could share their hardwire Internet feed and power, and use one of their fixed mics to communicate with Joan.
This meant that I wasn’t able to convey messages from Steve to our cameraman John, who was positioned by the back wall. To compensate, Steve had two phone lines open: One for me and one for John. Had I been seated next to John, our communication would have been streamlined and I could have directed him to zoom or pan in on things we needed to show the virtual audience.
Which leads me to the next big thing I learned.
Lesson No. 2: It isn’t all about the speaker
Before the event, Steve had uploaded Joan’s slidedeck into the Telenect platform. I could then advance the slides during her speech by using my moderator’s dashboard, letting those watching on computers see what everyone else in the room was seeing. We told John to focus in on Joan during the presentation.
What I didn’t think about is what normally happens before our sessions and whether anyone else would have slides the virtual audience would need to see. Sure enough, the sponsor who addressed our audience at the start of the session had a presentation to which she frequently referred. The people in the room could see it, but our online viewers only saw her — gesturing to things they couldn’t see. Because I wasn’t with the cameraman directing him to pan, those visuals weren’t archived with the rest of our webcast.
Had I thought about this before the event, we could have gotten the sponsor’s slides to Steve, who could have added them to the beginning of Joan’s presentation. Or we could have told the cameraman to pan and zoom as he felt necessary, rather than asking him for a still shot of the room.
As a result, the virtual audience couldn’t see the people asking questions. Or the whirligigs that spontaneously started flying around the ballroom while Joan stressed the importance of play and creativity. I was able to take video and post it to Twitter, sending online attendees a link via Telenect’s chat function, but it wasn’t the same.
Lesson No. 3: It’s not multitasking, it’s omnitaxing
In addition to advancing the slides for the virtual audience, I also was in charge of monitoring the online discussion. To do this I had to toggle between different tabs on my moderator’s dashboard. And, because I’m an overachiever I also had a Tweetchat window open so I could share our conversation with a larger audience.
Doing all of this would have kept me busy enough. But I also was text messaging with Steve about things that popped up during the session. For example, during our tech test run, we only went over the slide and the question tabs. But Joan’s first action was to ask the virtual attendees where they were watching from and how many people were with them in the room. Because their answers weren’t technically questions, Steve started moving all of their responses to the chat tab from the questions window that I had open. For a few panicked moments, I didn’t know where their comments were going. All I saw were responses I knew Joan was going to ask about disappearing from my questions window before I could record them. Thankfully, Steve clued me in on where to find them before Joan asked, and then I operated mainly from the chat tab. But those are the kind of things you have to be flexible about in the moment.
I also had to prepare fillers for the virtual audience in case our live session started late or had moments of inactivity that would appear dead to online viewers. Luckily, Joan had provided handouts for the online attendees so they had something to do during group activity breaks. But until the very last moment, it was up in the air whether I’d have to go on camera and interview Joan to fill time. Fifteen minutes before we went live, it was obvious we could start on time, so I was downgraded from virtual host to moderator status. But if there had been gaps, I had to be ready to step in at a moment’s notice.
Lesson No. 4: Never forget the viewers who aren’t in the room
When Joan asked the virtual audience where they were tuning in from, it was a brilliant gesture. That set the tone for their engagement, and by the end of the 90-minute presentation, the online chat room was just as lively as the conversation happening in the ballroom. Before they signed off, the viewers also shared their enthusiasm for the session and how the efforts to engage them — Joan making eye contact with the camera to talk directly to them, my sharing their comments and conversations with the in-room audience, the questions they were asked — made this the best virtual experience they’d had.
The conversational tone we decided to take when sharing online comments also helped bridge the gtap between our two audiences. Joan would check in with me frequently to see if I had new things to share. I would read the comments verbatim, rather than paraphrasing for the most part, and also shared some of the jokes and sideline conversations happening online. One face-to-face attendee, for example, made a comment about colors, referencing a college sports team and disparaging its rivals. In response, one viewer typed “Boo,” followed by “Go Gators!” Sharing that little bit of commentary amused and engaged both groups, and reminded them that they could interact in real time.
One of my favorite features of the archived webcast is that viewers can see the chat unfurl as it did during Joan’s presentation. So if you watch it today or next month, you will still feel like you’re part of a live conversation.
What lessons have you learned as you’ve incorporated virtual or hybrid elements into your live events? What are some things that you would do differently next time?