Alfred Poor of ‘Health Tech Insider’: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event

Tyler Gallagher
Jan 10 · 17 min read
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People want to be “seen.” — At a live event, you can visibly participate. When the speaker polls the audience by a show of hands, you have the opportunity to be counted. When the mic gets passed around for the Q&A, you have a chance to speak up.

Meeting planners — and presenters — have to work much harder at audience engagement for an online event. Too many events have a little Q&A text box where you type in a question or comment, and it’s never seen again. Group chats can be effective, but they also can distract the audience into side discussions and miss out on the presentation. You need to design the engagement elements based on the specific event and its goals.

a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alfred Poor.

Alfred Poor is a technology speaker and writer with a focus on health tech. He has produced his own online events for years, as well as for clients. In addition to presenting at international online conferences, he also is the producer of Techfluence, a series of online trade shows for the technology press and YouTube influencers. A graduate of Harvard College, he is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books and he is the Editor of Health Tech Insider, a website and industry newsletter that provides curated news and original analysis about wearable and mobile technology for health and medical applications. His superpower is his ability to explain complex concepts to a wide range of audiences in a way that they can put the practical information into immediate use.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

he first live presentation I can remember was in third grade when I had to present a (very short) talk about James Watt who invented the steam engine. I was dressed in a period costume and I had prepared a detailed diagram of his invention. My teacher told me that I did not have time to explain it, but that I could hold it up while I recited my lines. As I remember the day, I managed to deliver my talk without a problem, but I completely forgot to unfold the diagram that I was holding tightly behind my back. It was the first time — but not the last — that I encountered media mishaps on stage.

From that early lesson, I learned that things will go wrong when you are on stage and you must be prepared to roll with it. I did some acting in high school (where I was on stage with a young William Hurt whose enormous talent was obvious even then) and after college taught middle school science. All this was great experience for getting up in front of a group of people to deliver a message effectively.

I became a freelance technology writer, covering personal computers and related topics for PC Magazine (and other major publications) which led to many speaking opportunities at industry events. Eventually, I added professional speaking as part of my business model. I now speak on topics related to health technology for businesses, associations, and other groups.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

I can’t claim that I planned this career in advance. There were no personal computers when I graduated from college, so there was no way to foresee that I would become so intimately involved in that growing industry. Instead, I set out to make the most of my personal “superpower”; I’m good at explaining complex concepts to a wide range of audiences so that they can put the information to practical use. It started in the classroom, which led to writing for publication, and then to professional speaking.

As a result, my career path developed as opportunities presented themselves. I was simply fortunate to be smart enough to recognize when such an opening appeared. I also was a natural networker, making connections between people and resources in ways that would benefit them. (I actually wrote my doctoral dissertation on using “social networks” as a strategy to make the most of scare resources in a community.) I have always looked for ways to have a positive impact, and leave a place better than how I found it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Before there were webinars, people would attend seminars in hotel meeting rooms. When I started consulting with school districts about using personal computers in education, I bought a huge television that I hooked up to an Apple II computer. Instead of using overhead transparencies or slides (which I knew how to make), I thought that it would be better to use the computer tools that I was advocating that schools adopt.

For my first seminar, I booked a meeting room and sent out mailings to all the school districts in the state. I hauled all my equipment to the hotel and set it up. And I had three people show up. I probably did not put enough effort into marketing the event.

So there I was with three other people in suits, huddled around this big TV screen as I went through my presentation. It was not an auspicious start.

But I learned that you need to go through with your plans as best you can. Even when things don’t go as planned, you can learn from it and do better the next time. And in the end, the attendees were impressed (and one went on to be a major client for years to come).

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

“Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered” by E. F. Schumacher. The key premise of the book is that you should use “appropriate technology.” You don’t need a 400 horsepower four-wheel-drive tractor with a GPS navigation system to tend a backyard vegetable plot. The point is that bigger is not always better, and you can be led astray by always trying to solve problems with the newest and shiniest solutions.

This has a direct bearing on the issue of live virtual events. The fact is that there is no single “right answer” for all online events. You must understand the context thoroughly so that you can choose the most appropriate technology.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” H. L. Mencken

I’m sure that many others share my tendency to jump to a conclusion. If there’s a problem to be solved, you want to get to the answer quickly and move on. One problem with this is that you tend to find an answer based on what you know, without taking into consideration what you don’t know.

For example, there are more than 150 different virtual event platforms on the market today. Most people are familiar with one or two and might know a bit more about a handful more. But the simple answer is to pick from one of those few and try to make it work. And that’s probably a mistake. You don’t need to wait until you find the optimal choice, but you do need to do a bit of homework and look under the hood before you make a commitment.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?

In college, I organized events for our dorm complex. From catering and entertainment to publicity and marketing, I learned a lot about the logistics of big events. I have participated in conferences attended by tens of thousands of people; I have spoken at the consumer electronics CES show in Las Vegas for the past six years. And I’ve been a part of countless association and organization conferences and meetings.

This has given me a broad perspective on the process of big events. I understand the moving parts that go on behind the stage. I appreciate the need to meet the different expectations of the various stakeholders in a major event, including sponsors, audience, and presenters. And I have a healthy respect for Murphy, whose Law is always ready to surprise you with the unexpected. (I agree with those who say that Murphy was an optimist.)

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

I’ve organized everything from a one-hour webinar to a three-day summit with six different speakers. I have built a series of online trade shows from the ground up. And throughout, I have always looked to improve the quality of the production.

Perhaps the most interesting online event I have organized recently was an interview with Wilbur Wright of the Wright brothers, on his birthday. This was actually an event scheduled by the First Flight Society in North Carolina. Wilbur was portrayed by a historical reenactor who normally delivers his presentation in person at schools throughout the state. Due to the virus pandemic, he was not able to give his talks in person so the Society sought my help in creating a virtual event.

We both dressed in period clothing and spoke with the Wright Brothers Memorial in the virtual background. I interviewed him in his workshop while my background was an image from the park. We had a great time, but the best part was the engagement with the audience that was watching the live stream. We had teachers and their students from classes all over the state and the country! We had participation from California to Pennsylvania. This meant that Wilbur was able to talk to many more children than he would have under normal circumstances, and everyone had a front row seat.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

At risk of blowing my own horn, I will point to the Techfluence online trade shows for the technology media and YouTube influencers. Many trade show producers have tried convert their existing onsite shows to virtual events with varying degrees of success. The feedback that we’ve received from our events shows that both the participants and the exhibitors were impressed by what we created. Here is some of the feedback in their own words.

One member of the media said “It was the first of these virtualized things where I felt like it approximated the feel of a trade show. I was able to pop-in on a “group”, listen to the existing pitch in progress, then circle back to the beginning… I was able to say hello to old friends, make some new ones. It really was *personal*, and that was fantastic.”

And one of the exhibitors said “Techfluence was great. Our virtual booth was packed from start to finish. We were able to engage with attendees in a very personal way via the group chat and video chat features. The other tools they provided allowed us to automatically collect information about the attendees that visited our booth — this actually made our follow up process more efficient and effective than after a live event.”

How did we achieve this? The key point was that we started with a blank sheet and focused first on what it is that our stakeholders wanted to get from the event. This includes the participants, the presenters, the exhibitors, and the sponsors. Only once we had a handle on what “success” would look like to these different audiences were we able to start our search for the right platform and other services.

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The biggest mistake I’ve seen has been planners who simply try to replicate their onsite events in a virtual setting. It may look the same on paper, but the ways to get engagement from the different stakeholders in an online event are very different from what happens in an onsite setting.

I’ve also seen too many people try to take a “lowest bidder” approach to online events. We’ve all been in Zoom meetings that cut off after 40 minutes because the host was too cheap to spend the $10 a month required for a paid account. Just because a platform is free or low-cost does not mean that you will be able to deliver a successful experience for all involved, which can cost you much more in the long run.

People also try to shoehorn one type of event into a platform that does not have the features needed for the event. For example, I’ve been at events that had breakout rooms after presentation sessions, but attendees were assigned at random to different “rooms” that focused on different topics. I did not have a chance to choose the topic that interested me. Or there was another event that that offered “networking,” which meant that you were paired with another participant at random, one on one, for just three minutes. There was no way to identify people with common interests, and the time was too short to make a meaningful connection.

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

None of them.

There are many excellent platforms available, but not of them are right for all events. I use ON24 for large, complex events where I also want to give key stockholders valuable, granular data about participant behavior. I use Zoom for quick, informal group discussions. I use Streamyard to broadcast live and interactive video over social media channels. And I have other platforms in my toolkit that I use for other applications.

The key is that you have to know what you’re trying to accomplish before you reach for a tool. If you grab a hammer when you need to drill a hole, you may not get the results that you intend no matter how convenient that solution might be.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

An onsite event organizer must prepare each room with stage dressing, sound, lighting, organized seating, and much more. Preparation for an online event is even more complicated. Each presenter will be providing their own sound, camera, lighting, stage dressing, and other factors, so the meeting planner has to be confident that every one of those presentations will be up to the desired standard and expectations of the participants. One essential tool is a dress rehearsal for everyone involved so that everyone understands how to connect with the platform and how to deliver an outstanding experience.

This means that the event organizer must be familiar with lighting, camera, and mic solutions (or have access to someone who can advise the presenters). You can up your game by using advanced tools such as OBS Studio software for virtual backgrounds, lower thirds, and much more. The virtual background functions provided by platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams can have distracting artifacts, and you might be better not using those features at all if you can’t get a quality image.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. An in-person event can have a certain electric energy. How do you create an engaging and memorable event when everyone is separated and in their own homes? What are the “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. People want to be “seen.”
At a live event, you can visibly participate. When the speaker polls the audience by a show of hands, you have the opportunity to be counted. When the mic gets passed around for the Q&A, you have a chance to speak up.

Meeting planners — and presenters — have to work much harder at audience engagement for an online event. Too many events have a little Q&A text box where you type in a question or comment, and it’s never seen again. Group chats can be effective, but they also can distract the audience into side discussions and miss out on the presentation. You need to design the engagement elements based on the specific event and its goals.

For example, breakout sessions are great when you are trying to get an audience to discuss issues and come back with feedback. In-session surveys with live results are an excellent way to get the audience engaged (and give the presenter some information about who is in the audience). And some events will invite an audience “up on stage” to interact with the speaker; this provides an “everyman” opportunity that many in the audience will identify with.

2. You must have at least one tech rehearsal.
How many times have you been to an onsite event where the speaker gets up on stage and fumbles with the remote control, unable to figure out how to advance the presentation slides? What was your reaction? I’m guessing that you were not impressed by the professionalism of that segment.

The chances for things to go sideways is even greater for online events. One major source of problems is that presenters may not be familiar with the particular platform you are using for your event. A simple tech rehearsal can make sure that everyone is on the same page, and that the presenter knows how to access the platform and present their content.

One of the first major online events where I was a presenter used a new platform that was still in beta testing, so nobody really knew it inside and out. We did not have a tech rehearsal. When it came time to present my material, my slides were mirrored in the “backstage” view. The organizers panicked when they saw this, and I scrambled to figure out how to flip everything quickly. Someone thought to check the “stage” view and discovered that the slides were not mirrored there. It was just a problem with the backstage preview. While it only created a brief disruption, it was enough to mar the quality of my presentation.

3. “Live” does not mean “live.”
I was the co-host of a weekly technology radio in New York City for more than eight years. About half of every show was used for live call-in questions and comments from listeners. To give us some small control over what went out over the airwaves, we used a seven-second delay so that the engineer could hit a kill switch if a caller had some inappropriate content (such as profanity). This caused one major problem; listeners who had their radio on when they called would hear the delayed echo of their call which would confuse them. That’s why you often hear radio hosts ask their callers to “turn your radio down.”

What does this have to do with online events? The delay between when a person says something and when it reaches the people listening is known as “latency” and it varies with platform. For example, Zoom has a latency of about a second or so. Some platforms that broadcast content — such as webinars — can have latency of 10 to 20 seconds. If a presenter is monitoring the “stage” view of their presentation, it can throw them off. At the very least, you should make sure your presenters are aware of the latency for your platform. Ideally, you should cover this during the tech rehearsal. (See #2.)

4. Don’t just replicate an onsite program structure.
We’re conditioned by television when it comes to viewing content on a screen. You rarely find a broadcast program that has a single speaker talking for 45 minutes to an hour in one stretch, yet this is standard for most onsite conference agendas.

For an online event, you need to change up the pacing in order to keep the audience engaged. There’s a reason that TED talks are 18 minutes or less. Some are as short as three minutes. This is certainly more work for the organizers, but it helps the content compete with the other distractions such as checking email or playing one more game of Solitaire.

It is certainly possible to have a 45- to 60-minute segment that works, but be sure to have ways to break it up to keep the audience’s attention.

5. Get help if you need it.
Many individuals and companies have a professional handle their taxes. When planning an onsite event, meeting planners often turn to others to help with services such as sound systems, stage dressing, equipment rentals, and catering. Yet many planners think that they have to do everything themselves when producing an online event.

There are many moving parts to an online event, including marketing, sales, registration, audience engagement to maximize attendance, participant tracking and other metrics, and stakeholder feedback (participants, presenters, sponsors, host association, and exhibitors). And this does not include the selection and configuration of the event platform, creating the required graphics, and organizing all the content that will be required to make it a successful production.

In many cases, the people tasked with organizing an event also have other responsibilities within their organization. It’s essential to farm out some of the tasks if the individual does not have sufficient skill, knowledge, and time to handle it all alone. If an event is worth doing, it’s worth budgeting a bit more money for outside services to help make it an excellent experience.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

First and foremost, identify the stakeholders in the event. Who is going to care whether or not it is a succcess?

Once you have these groups identified, such as participants, presenters, sponsors, host association, and exhibitors, then ask “What does a successful event look like?” for each one of those groups. Ideally, you should interview several people in each group. For example, you might ask participants what it would take to get them to register for an event, and what might prevent them from registering. Then ask what it would take to get them to show up; it’s not uncommon for half of the registrants to not attend the event. Finally, find out what outcomes they would expect to have in order to feel that this was an exceptional experience that was worth their time.

Only then can you start to investigate the different platforms. Do they have all the features you need to meet the expectations of all the stakeholders? If a platform is missing a feature, is it possible to “bolt on” a third-party service? For example, our Techfluence media trade shows require a way for the participants to interact with representatives of the different exhibiting companies. Unfortunately, the platform we wanted to use does not include a video chat feature. Fortunately, we are able to link to Zoom meetings within the exhibit booths to add that feature.

When you find a platform that meets your needs and the costs are within your budget, then you can start planning how to structure and implement your program.

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and discovered that this new technology could be used to help people or to harm them. Most technology is a similarly double-edged sword.

The Internet and digital communications have demonstrated an enormous capacity for giving people around the world rapid access to information. While much of this is used for good, we have seen how false information can do enormous damage to the real lives of real people.

If I could inspire a movement, it would be to use this access to information to improve the education of everyone of all ages on the planet. Many of our schools make a valiant effort through the efforts of dedicated teachers and others, but they are clearly failing at preparing people with the knowledge and skills required for the 21st Century. We need to allocate resources not just to the process of learning, but to setting expectations that motivate individuals to take advantage of the knowledge that is so readily available.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

There are so many excellent people that I’d like to meet, but in the context of the previous question, I’d like to have a conversation with Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube. With 500 hours of content being uploaded to the site every day, YouTube controls access to an enormous portion of the most desirable content available for free on the Internet. Furthermore, the parent company Google clearly understands how to reach people on the Internet and how they respond to different types of stimuli. Taken as a whole, YouTube is a unique position to encourage learning and to combat the disinformation and lies that are causing so much damage in societies around the world.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Tyler Gallagher

Written by

CEO and Founder of Regal Assets

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Tyler Gallagher

Written by

CEO and Founder of Regal Assets

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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