Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital tools like Zoom have allowed staff and stakeholders to meet “face-to-face” virtually while still observing the critical need for social distancing. While these virtual events may not capture all of the elements of in-person interactions, they can often still yield the same or similar results. In fact, they have the potential to be even more effective because of the added benefits their flexibility allows.

Virtual events allow organizations to meet with individuals without disrupting or burdening their schedules with travel and expenses. This makes these events more accessible to people who want to attend but may not normally be able to because of distance or personal and professional obligations.

So what exactly does this mean? Simply that the ease-of-access of virtual events means that you have the potential to reach a much larger audience than you might for an in-person event.

COVID-19 will one day come to an end, but it’s impossible to predict when exactly that will be – in the meantime, how can you and your organization leverage the virtual environment to increase engagement with your staff and stakeholders – and the wider audience you now have access to?

Tips and tricks for a successful virtual event
The key elements of a successful virtual event are simpler than you think. However, there’s one vital difference – a virtual environment makes it more difficult to capture and retain the attention of your viewers. Here’s a breakdown of what do keep in mind:

1) Ensure impactful speakers. Speakers play a huge role in any event, but they are especially key to engaging your audience during your virtual event. Keep these tips in mind when working with your speaker to prepare:

  • Speak clearly and with purpose. Whether their stage is a kitchen table or a podium, they must speak clearly and with purpose.
  • Use the camera. We can’t see each other in person, so using the camera is the next best thing! Have your speakers turn on their cameras to create a more personable environment and encourage discussion.
  • Avoid distractions. Connect with your speaker ahead of time and make sure they have a quiet place to retreat to when it’s time for them to present, especially if they are working remotely. Noise, a busy background or poor lighting is distracting and will diminish the impact of their presentation.
  • Connect and share stories. Storytelling is more important than ever to engaging a virtual audience. Encourage your speaker to keep things interesting and relatable with a personal story – or to throw in some light-hearted banter or questions for the audience to break the ice and get things moving.

2) Develop eye-catching and interesting presentations. You will likely turn to slideshow presentations like PowerPoint during your event to help reinforce key takeaways, but keep in mind: not all audiences are honed in on what those takeaways are. How you reinforce these points will play a major role in whether or not your viewers retain actionable information.

  • Text and visuals. Text-filled slides are your enemy in an in-person presentation, but especially so in a virtual one. Instead, engage with the viewer through strong photos, graphics and animations.
  • Interactive elements. Interactive elements are a great way to keep viewers engaged and encourage them to participate in discussions. Here are a couple ideas of elements to consider including:

• Zoom’s “annotate” function to allow presenters to highlight certain material during the presentation.
• Zoom’s “chat” function to allow viewers to comment on or ask questions during the presentation.
• Zoom “breakout rooms” for small group discussions and roundtables (hint: consider utilizing this option to create “charity tables”, replicating what a viewer would experience at an in-person event!).
• In-browser bingo games for viewers to track presentation buzzwords and topics.
• Polls asking viewers what they would like to learn more about.

  • Presentation length. Presenters can better gauge the interest of their audience at in-person events than virtual ones. For this reason, it’s critical that presenters aim to be concise. When determining length, consider: Is this one presentation of many under the same topic, or is it a standalone?

Those that are part of a series will likely have a pre-stated timeframe, in which case you should factor in time to handle any technical issues and questions, in addition to your presentation itself.

Standalone presentations may not have a time cap, but a good rule of thumb is 30-45 minutes – this is short enough to keep the audience engaged while also providing breathing room for technical issues, and audience questions.

3) Mix things up by holding different types of events. Interactivity isn’t just limited to your slideshows – we encourage you to work it in wherever you can. Interactive elements preserve a vital aspect of in-person campaigns by allowing event participants to network and discuss the topics at-hand. Here are a couple ideas:

  • Charity fairs. Through a “charity fair,” presenters can use materials and objects that would be on display at an event and use the opportunity to speak with a larger and broader audience about their organization and the work they do.
  • Mock Ted Talks. Holding 5- to 7- minute mock “Ted Talks” are a great way to highlight an individual’s organization and discuss their work in greater detail.
  • Roundtable discussions. Select 3-5 presenters, or panelists, to speak with one another about issues from their organization’s perspective is a great way to disseminate information in a different, often easier to digest format.
  • Lunch & Learn and coffee/tea/snack breaks. Virtual events can be overwhelming when there are no allocated breaks. Planning a Lunch & Learn and coffee/tea/snack breaks can allow for networking and conversation space, keeping your audience engaged around the topics and issues they are learning about, and providing decompression space between presentations.
  • Online scavenger hunts. Ask participants to find a relevant article, image or topic to discuss, and use the previously mentioned interactive elements to guide an open discussion or transition between presentations.
  • Zoom background competitions. To introduce some humor and creativity into your event, consider a Zoom background competition amongst presenters or participants. The backgrounds can be humorous or relevant to a forthcoming presentation, and provide an interesting segue into the next topic.

Other items to consider: Mitigating technology issues
Another major item to keep in mind when planning a successful virtual event is the potential for technological failure.

You will most likely encounter an unforeseen or unplanned technology issue and you should just expect it. However, how you react and respond to these issues is what matters most. We encourage you to consider possible roadblocks ahead of time so you know what to do if something happens.

Predict (and prevent) roadblocks.

  • Disconnection. Double check that your technology, like your laptop or phone, is charged and that you have a charger ready and an outlet nearby. If you have poor internet connection, find a location with a stronger one or utilize your phone as a hotspot.
  • Video playback errors. If featuring a video, you may encounter playback errors, buffering or choppy footage. Minimize the risk of this happening by only using videos that are under two minutes long and download the video to your computer beforehand if possible. Also include a link to the video in the chat in case there are errors when playing.
  • Slideshow hiccups. It’s not uncommon to accidentally skip slides, quit the slideshow, leave the meeting or end screen sharing. If you do any of these, calmly return to the correct slide or reenter the presentation. Also ensure that no sensitive information is open on the computer, all chat boxes are closed, and that your desktop background and displayed files are appropriate in the case your presentation quits.

Have a backup plan.

  • Delegate a backup person for each presentation just in case a glitch or human error forces you out of the meeting, or to help keep track of the chat box. This person will be able to explain to the audience what happened, as well as ensure that no audience questions are missed.

If your video fails to play, be prepared to move on without it by explaining the video and moving on to your next talking point.

Communicate and carry on.

  • Whether you’re able to recover from a technical glitch quickly or not, be sure to communicate what happened with your audience, apologize, and, when possible, carry on. If a glitch prevents you from finishing your presentation, reschedule the event or send viewers the presentation and an overview of the topics you were covering so they still walk away with useful information and know that you value their time.

For more ideas and strategies around planning your own virtual event, read about one in action in our blog post, Pivoting to virtual CFC events – and 5 tips for you to do the same.

For more information about how your organization can plan effective and engaging presentations and events, please contact us at [email protected] and visit our Virtual Employee Giving Hub.