Pat Miller of The Idea Collective: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event
It’s a show, not a meeting — My fundamental premise for online events comes from my time in radio. We are not creating online “webinars’’ or “meetings.” We are creating “shows.” It’s a subtle mindset shift. It means that when the recording light goes on, you perform each show like you’re on TV.
As 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 Pat Miller.
Pat Miller has been helping small businesses grow for over 20 years. First through his roles in local radio and now through The Idea Collective — his international membership community of 1200 small business owners that spans four countries.
He has boots-on-the-street knowledge of what works (and doesn’t) when helping small businesses grow. And is extremely passionate about helping entrepreneurs lean into their passions — professionally and personally.
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”?
As a kid, we moved around a lot because my dad worked for a large company. We moved three times before I was even out of middle school. In retrospect, it probably led to my obsession with helping people find belonging and companionship. It can be quite lonely for a while when you’re the new kid in eighth grade.
While in high school, after moving to Peoria, IL, I played golf, played in the jazz band, and competed on the speech team. During my time on the speech team, I developed an interest in radio broadcasting.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
I was a radio programmer and host for 22 years after attending college for broadcasting. I loved the industry because your only job was to strategically create engaging and entertaining content for your target audience. As a programmer, that meant building a better mousetrap than the competitor. As a host, it was about having fun every day and helping listeners get what they needed when they needed it.
As my career wore on, I was growing tired of the necessary cuts and compromises we needed to make to accommodate the decline in station revenue. As our budgets began to shrink we had to lay off live air talents and do more with less. While constraints are great for creativity, there comes a point where it’s just not as much fun as it once was.
In addition to the budget pressures, I was getting older. In my mid-40s I began to think about what I wanted to do with my life. It was then that I realized that I was using my time and talent to build someone else’s dream. And, as a senior employee, I could easily be replaced with a more affordable solution. Essentially, I was at risk of losing my job.
I left the radio industry four years ago to consult with small businesses. I am so glad I made the decision to do so.
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?
I worked in a small market during the early days of my radio career. When you work in a smaller market you don’t get the immediate attention of music label representatives. Sometimes, we would wait a week or more to get the latest songs from artists.
The station I was programming at the time played a ton of Sheryl Crow (it was 2002), and she had just released a new song that would become a big hit. But, we didn’t have the song and couldn’t afford to wait for our competitor to play it first. This was in the era of online music piracy so I downloaded the song from Napster or LimeWire, I forget which one.
The song, “Soak up the Sun,” was bright, catchy and a little repetitive. The poppy chorus seemed to play a lot, making it unlike any song I had heard. We banged that song about 50 times in the first week it was on the air; our listeners loved it.
It turns out that the file I downloaded was an expertly crafted edit of the chorus over and over for 2:30 minutes! When the real version came in, I quietly swapped the file and hoped no one noticed. In fairness, that song is very repetitive.
The lesson: Don’t steal music, kids!
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?
“Who not How” by Dan Sullivan has been the most impactful book I’ve read recently. In a small business, you’re responsible for everything. As a result, you try to take care of everything. Every time you see a new opportunity or encounter a problem you wonder: “How can I accomplish this?” The book teaches that you shouldn’t ask “how.” You should ask “Who will get this done?” This simple shift in thinking opens up possibilities and keeps you focused on your area of genius. It also empowers you to bring in specialists to help. With this mindset, I’ve expanded my team and moved faster in 2022
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do your best.” Every day as a kid my dad simply reminded me to “do my best.” It might not be the most profound quote, but it’s one that is baked into my personal operating system. With this in mind, I have an internal double-check for everything that comes my way. It has been so powerful to me that I’ve made sure to quietly remind my children of it every day and in every activity.
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?
Creating and hosting events is critical for radio stations. Often, a station event or experience can turn a casual listener into a raving fan. They are also crucial for generating additional revenue. During my time in radio, I dreamed up and organized fundraisers, concerts, golf outings, celebrity “meet and greets,” car giveaways, charity stunts, festivals and more. These events were organized with one goal: to get a big crowd and sell profitable sponsorships.
I’ve been trained through experience to create events that are reverse engineered for success. If we want to make $X profit, what will we need to do in terms of drawing a crowd and entertaining them? As a result, I have earned invaluable experience in building sponsorship value, attracting guests to attend, and entertaining them while on site.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
Virtual events are about making people feel seen, included, and engaged in the content you’re providing. With that in mind, I guess I’ve hosted thousands of hours of virtual events as a radio host. When you’re hosting a radio show you’re NOT broadcasting. In fact, if you ever hear a radio host say: “everyone out there,” they’re not doing it right. Radio (and podcasting) are one-to-one mediums. I always talked to a single person, bringing them in-studio and “behind the scenes” with our morning show, rock star guest, live broadcast, in-studio concert, or whatever was going on.
That experience of personal communication and inclusion translates easily to the live, virtual events we now host for The Idea Collective which was started in March of 2020 as an immediate replacement for in-person networking. During those early events our guests were simply asked to share what they saw and felt, while my job as the host was to ask good questions and make them feel like they weren’t alone.
To me that is the secret of virtual events — make people feel like they’re on the inside and “behind the scenes.” The more personal and vulnerable you can be, the closer they will feel to the action.
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?
I draw inspiration from large media events, which help me think creatively about the virtual events I produce. I’m always impressed by the media’s coverage of presidential elections and the NFL draft. The thing that they get right is the breadth of coverage and information provided; when news breaks, they’ll have a reporter on scene to interview candidates or team executives with ease.
How in the world does that inspire me for online events? It expands my thinking to wonder how my online events can instantly deliver interesting people or information from all around the world to the laptops and earbuds of my guests.
Creating a great virtual event is not recreating an in-person event online. Great virtual events can bring together guests from around the world to share unlimited videos, slide decks, interviews, camera views and more. Don’t think about your events like keynotes with a camera. Think about your events as a chance to bring the world to your guests.
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?
Virtual events are not in-person events that are streamed. Many people are trying to make “hybrid” events work, and I don’t particularly enjoy them. When you perform a “hybrid” event what are you saying? It’s either that the in-person people have to accommodate the virtual guests or that the virtual guests need to adjust to the in-person crowd.
Either way, someone’s experience is compromised. You’re hearing hosts switch from talking to the in-person group to letting the online attendees know about technical difficulties or they simply forget to look into the camera at all or they’ll say something like: “wish everyone could be in the room with you,” or some other cringy adjustments. Not to mention microphone, slide deck, camera and lighting failures.
As an in-person retreat organizer, I can absolutely relate to the idea of offering a hybrid option to “reach more people” and sell tickets. But the event experience will probably be worse for one of your audiences. I’d rather super-serve those that attended in-person or create a purely virtual event than balance the interests of each audience through one.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
I’ve tried a few platforms and I keep coming back to Zoom. While some “speed networking” platforms can be useful and fun, I like Zoom’s ease of use for a mass audience. I have plenty of bones to pick with it, but my feeling on the platform is that first and foremost you need to have something that works and is understood by the majority of your guests. The best platforms become invisible as quickly as possible.
In addition, there is a whole level of Zoom available to those of us who want to experiment by mixing locally on our computers through vMix or OBS to deliver an incredibly powerful virtual event that looks like network TV. I’ve done that for one of my events. I haven’t made the time to recreate it for other events yet. It’s in the “parking lot” for now, but it will take my events to the next level once I do.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
Your software can act like a staff member — get it right, and you’ll be much more efficient. I’m fortunate to have Cultivating Sales Pro, a CRM that includes my sales pages, Stripe checkout integration, mailing lists, texting and more. Instead of stitching together four or five pieces of software, I have everything from surveys to email lists to web pages in one. I love it!
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. It’s a show, not a meeting — My fundamental premise for online events comes from my time in radio. We are not creating online “webinars’’ or “meetings.” We are creating “shows.” It’s a subtle mindset shift. It means that when the recording light goes on, you perform each show like you’re on TV.
When that happens, you’re not trying to wrangle everyone’s attention or getting underway while guests stream in. You’re setting a clear starting point and entertaining from the first moment the show begins. This allows you to create events that can be enjoyed later by guests who didn’t attend them live. If your event isn’t a show think about how you can up the entertainment value and viewer benefit so they would want to see it again.
2. Make a big group a small group — One of my favorite books on community building, “The Art of Gathering” by Priya Parker, shares how people crave small-group connection inside of a large group. Therefore, to make sure that our guests feel instant personal connections with one another, we start almost every show with “The Idea Collective 3.”
We take our main room and break it down into groups of 3 guests for 3 minutes where they answer 3 questions that reflect our community values. Those questions are: What are you grateful for? What is a recent win? How can we help you?
When in a small group of three where everyone gets a speaking part, and you hear about others’ gratitude and success, you start to embrace the mindset of community and engagement. That’s when you’re ready for an Idea Collective event.
3. Make them feel heard — Some event organizers frown on guests using their platform’s chat feature because it “distracts from the speaker.” WRONG. The chat is the note-passing and joke-making thread that is often more memorable than the speaker. I always get a laugh when I encourage people to use the chat for “questions, comments or sarcastic remarks.”
At an Idea Collective event the chat is always fun, informative, curiosity-filled, and important to add context or examples. Encourage your guests to use the chat — it’s their chance to be engaged!
4. Cameras ON — Nothing kills the vibe of an online event faster than people not being on camera. Visual connection and body language are key indicators of engagement. When guests turn off their cameras it says they value their physical appearance, ability to ignore the speaker, or privacy more than engagement with the group. I think it also says a lot about the trust and authenticity of your group.
I want our members to feel safe and comfortable to come as they are rather than feeling they must “put on their faces” or otherwise be camera ready to be a member of the group. When you encourage cameras, there is a direct correlation to the uptick in engagement.
5. Small talk and spotlight members — The last thing I’ll share is the magic of small talk and spotlighting. In our events, one of my favorite things to do is make sure I call out or message every single attendee during the event. How amazing does it feel when you meet up with your friends and they stop the conversation they’re having to stand and hug you? I try to replicate that in every meeting.
Before we start the “show” or “IC3,” I try to greet and thank every member that comes with something meaningful to them. “Hey, Christine, great to see you; how did the pitch go?” This reminds them that I’m aware of what they’re doing and grateful that they attended. I’ll also welcome each member via chat if they join us while we’re in progress or private message them during presentations to give them a virtual hug and say thank you.
When you’re the host of the virtual event, you’re on stage as the group’s leader. You must walk the walk if you want the group to feel friendly and inclusive.
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?
Pull together five people you think should attend the event you want to create. Share the vision with them and get their reaction. If it’s lukewarm you might struggle to sell tickets or sponsorships. If they’re excited and brimming with ideas to make it great you have the chance to build a winner.
The other thing I would recommend is to get very clear on what success looks like and build accordingly. If you want to host an online convention that draws 1,000 people, realize that you will program it differently than a small group of 10 guests. Back to my radio station example, you can reverse engineer the event once you know the success metrics. Guest selection, pricing, sponsorship, format, timing, and promotion can all be adjusted to fit your goals. Don’t skip this step!
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. I believe that solopreneurs and small business owners need a group around them to reach the heights of their dreams. This “movement” is about showing up to help people while they grow their businesses so they can make an impact for their families and customers.
By supporting one another, within The Idea Collective, we are hopefully showing that you can make a big impact by freely sharing your knowledge, being a good partner for others, and offering an alternative to the mindless networking that small business owners have traditionally faced. As we say in the group, “It’s your dream, don’t grow it alone.”
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.
This is where I should throw out my business heroes of Naval Ravikant or Jack Butcher. While they are huge influences on me, it’s David Field, the CEO of Audacy Media, that I’d like to meet with one-on-one.
David is a longtime leader in the broadcast space and his moves into podcasting and digital delivery offer an opportunity for a content creator like me to impact even more people at scale. My ultimate dream is to bring The Pat Miller Show to entrepreneurs coast to coast — and I know broadcasting is looking for ways to engage its advertisers and listeners in the same manner. I have a vision for how my show will generate revenue for stations, engage listeners AND change the lives of entrepreneurs around the country. Getting a chance to reconnect with him would be a huge opportunity.
David — when can I buy you lunch? If you’re curious about the show, you can hear it in podcast form at patmillershow.com
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.