When the medium changes, the psychology changes. The failure to grapple with that is what causes so many brands producing content to ring hollow: they make a great thing over here (say, an article), but then they simply copy and paste pieces or a link over there, and there, and there. The problem is the lack of customization to each unique delivery vehicle for the value, each unique channel. This lack of customization thus reveals a lack of empathy for the audience. Their experience is radically different in each place, so the content must be too.
Each delivery vehicle for value and learning at our disposal today comes with a set of audience expectations, as well as a unique set of techniques needed to “maximize the medium.” For instance, a podcast that uses sounds and music does a better job of maximizing the medium than a podcast that acts like an audio blog. Likewise, video is a “show” medium, where you don’t need to tell people as much. You can show it.
Event planners today are thinking more and more about virtual conferences, and rightfully so. But THE most important thing to think through when crafting virtual experiences is to identify the ways online events are different than offline events … for the audience.
What changes or gets lost when moving online compared to in-person? How do audience expectations change? What are they going through on their end — and how does that affect what you do on yours?
Nowhere is this more crucial than when vetting speakers. For a speaker delivering a virtual talk, the ability to create a discrete and unique virtual experience, not merely copy and paste offline talks online, can make or break everything. Virtual events are a different experience for attendees, so naturally, the talk must be a different experience for speakers to craft and deliver.
Just think: Attendees are at home or at an office. They can multitask in a way they can’t during offline talks. Whereas a keynote in a room offline comes with a set of social norms (like, don’t get up and get coffee, or take a bathroom break, mid-talk), an online event frees up the attendee to do anything that feels most pressing or most enjoyable. The talk must therefore feel like both: so important and timely at every single moment, and so enjoyable, that attendees don’t even consider the myriad distractions or alternate choices now at their disposal.
A great keynote offline causes you to put down your phone and stare, enthralled. A great keynote online should cause the same reaction, causing you to put down your phone AND ignore many more potential distractions. The thing is, in these two scenarios, it can’t be the same keynote.
This is a lesson hard-won in my own career, by hosting and producing 10+ original podcasts and docuseries. In all cases, production comes from a place of paranoia. The reason I make highly produced podcasts or even bare-bones webinars but with a few editing flourishes is because I am constantly worried the audience will turn away. It’s so easy! Far easier than offline, in-person events…
This means a speaker at a virtual event must create a virtual experience, a sort of show, and not a “webinar” — slides with a voiceover. This includes…
1. Knowing what happens when your physical movements and hand motions are gone.
Movement is among the more powerful tools of a speaker, but virtually, that must be replaced with audio/video production techniques, whether picture-in-picture to show your face and hands, or other clever uses of audio and video to re-introduce that sense of dynamism which, although natural to a great speaker on a stage, gets lost online. (For this reason, I suggest speakers record their virtual event speeches for playback later, but show up live online before, during, and after the talk is played for audience interaction, and to ensure a smooth delivery. Recordings give you infinitely more production options to enhance the experience than most virtual event tech platforms, which typically only allow for slides and your voice.)
2. Storytelling/verbal techniques and cues must be used to earn the next 30 seconds of their time.
This is so attendees never consider looking elsewhere because, again, it’s so easy when you’re sitting alone. Like a podcast, the golden rule of a virtual talk is “get them to the end.” Attendees aren’t physically “with” the speaker as a member of the audience. This means that the speaker needs to constantly raise anticipation for what’s coming, while not simply over-hyping their next moment or saying “coming up…” all the time. Instead, tactics like signposting and open loops can help, very similar to a podcast or video series episode one might produce. WHAT you say may resemble the offline talk, but WHEN and HOW you say it can compel people to stick and stay during a virtual speech.
Awhile ago, I wrote a piece about the differences in writing for audio, versus writing for a blog post. The nuances are subtle but crucial to grasp. In that article, I talked about this idea that we can’t just hand the audience the full plate of food and step back. That’s because we could lose them. They aren’t able to scan it (as they would if our talk was an article), nor are they able to follow your mouth as it speaks offline and in-person (surprisingly useful in following a fast talker and never losing them).
So instead of handing audiences the whole meal, virtual experiences are about doling out each spoonful, ensuring they get it, then moving on — not in a condescending way, mind you, but in a performative way. Did they swallow? Give them a moment. Maybe add a signpost, a reference back to the key point, or repeat the phrase a second time because it mattered a ton — just to be sure. Okay, it’s down. Great! Next bite…
3. Grappling with how humor changes.
Humor is a huge part of many keynote speakers’ work, including mine. In a virtual event, you can’t hear any reactions, like laughter. This means (A) you the speaker aren’t so sure if the jokes land, and (B) the attendees don’t have the social cues of others laughing, which then leads to them laughing and feeling great, too. This can all derail the speaker. It’s seriously jarring when you’re used to hearing certain reactions, only to receive silence in reply.
Given this reality, I wouldn’t advise a speaker to remove their humor, but instead, to tweak the approach. For instance, notch down any over-the-top delivery, if that’s your style, to then deliver the jokes in a warm tone more befitting of a small room than a huge hall full of hundreds or thousands of people. There’s no “playing to the back” in a virtual event.
Additionally, you need to act like your own audience during moments of humor. Laugh in an authentic way at your own jokes, or comment at how cheesy the Dad Jokes dotting your speech really are. (Just me? Okay, let’s move on…)
(Hey, that’s an example of doing it right there!)
(So was that!)
(Alright, let’s really move on…)
It sounds weird and almost egotistical to laugh at your own jokes, but in a virtual experience, the speaker must be the one to provide the right emotional plane and even a sort of “permission” to laugh which, offline, is typically provided by the group. An attendee sometimes needs an excuse to laugh, and always wants to feel that addicting emotion of a group laughing together. That stuff usually comes from other attendees. What happens when you’re alone and the other attendees aren’t there?
Along those lines…
4. You’re not talking to an audience anymore. You’re talking to one person.
This is a tricky nuance, too, but it’s another make-or-break idea. Speakers need to grasp that even though attendees know they’re part of a group or even see the names of others in the chat, the content still feels like it’s delivered just to them. It’s 1:1, speaker-to-attendee. (You might say 1:1:many.)
Like writing a newsletter or podcast, you’re showing up in a personal way, and they can opt out any time. They aren’t physically with others consuming the content, nor can they sense any energy beyond how they are feeling as an individual — or how the speaker makes them feel.
Thus, the speakers at a virtual event must make them feel at ease, feel welcome, and feel inspired, not by shouting to a group — because there really isn’t a group — but by speaking directly to one individual.
The bottom line: Virtual events are coming. It makes sense for health purposes now, and for environmental and technology reasons regardless. Virtual events are growing. If you plan them, ensure your speakers understand the differences between online and offline speeches so they can truly deliver. If you speak at virtual events, embrace that this is a discrete and different product. Never get caught copying and pasting your in-person talks.
Both event planners and keynote speakers should understand the psychology of virtual events as a delivery vehicle for value. Likewise, we need to have empathy for the audience’s experience.
It’s the only way we can provide a great one.
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