What We Have Learned From Virtual Events

The Resolution Project and the Mastercard Foundation have just partnered on the fifth annual Baobab Summit Social Venture Challenge (see here for a recap video). Eighty participants pitched ideas to improve their communities across Africa and the Middle East to a panel of Resolution judges. After a rigorous three-day process, 25 young leaders were awarded a Resolution Fellowship, which provides the winners with seed-funding, mentorship, and access to resources. This was the largest virtual event Resolution has ever undertaken and capped off a summer of virtual competitions and events so there was a lot of learnings along the way. 

Here are eight lessons to keep in mind when producing a large-scale virtual event:

Virtual Events Skew Formal

People tend to revert to formalities and canned responses in video conversations more than they would in face-to-face conversations. In order to get more natural responses from people, intentional guidance is needed. In an interview, for instance, icebreaker questions can be a good replacement for the small talk that usually occurs at the beginning and end of formal discussions. In a competition, you might ask competitors specifically not to screen share or use slides so they can have a more natural conversation.

You Need More Time

Everything takes a little longer because it needs to be more directed. It is hard to just “wing” a virtual event. If you have additional staff members available to help, try and focus their attention on a single task and provide clear instructions in the week prior. This will make a clean-run much more likely. In addition, place more emphasis on production as a functional aid as its importance increases tenfold. 

Tech Will Fail; Fallbacks are Essential

This is an obvious one, but it is still often overlooked and relegated to an afterthought. “Hope for the best; plan for the worst” holds true. Make sure you have a backup plan if your speaker’s microphone isn’t working, for example, or your stream is choppy and unwatchable. It will happen so make sure you are prepared with a Plan A, B, and C! Flexibility and openness to adapt are also key elements in overcoming these challenges.

Interpersonal Dynamics Are Hard to Read 

When two or more people are collaborating virtually, it can be hard to assess the interpersonal dynamics between them. With the inevitable time-lag on video chats and the increased difficulty in reading body language (and all the other signs and signals we use to communicate), it is important to try and avoid scenarios online that rely heavily on collaboration. If real-time collaboration has to happen on a video call (as it did during our competition when teams of two or more were pitching), try to be a little more lenient with the participants and acknowledge the increased difficulty of the situation. You might ask them to describe how they work together and how they divide roles and responsibilities.

Structure and Planning are Even More Important

Providing your participants with a clear structure and schedule before the event helps everyone to stay engaged and participate (and reduces questions). Building in additional time for conversations that aren’t completed (especially in the case of technical difficulties) can help keep to plan AND allow for the need to be adaptable in the moment. Furthermore, pre-established channels of communication are key to maintaining a streamlined and robust event. 

Enthusiasm and Energy are Hard to Replicate

There is no way to replace the vibrant energy of a crowded event room in an online environment. However, there are various ways to replicate some of the enthusiasm if you are looking to celebrate an achievement or trying to add additional pizzaz to your virtual session. We realized that celebrating the competition winners and welcoming them to our community was going to be harder in a virtual space so we added multiple touchpoints and mediums (WhatsApp Call, Kudo Board, Facebook Live Announcement, Welcome Call with small groups led by members of our community, upbeat background music) to help to recreate some of those special moments.  

Livestream > pre-recorded material

Where possible, live-streaming your online event is always preferable to pre-recorded material. People are eager for real-time interaction, and while a pre-recorded segment may be safer and have less margin for error, sometimes, it’s the small gaffes and glitches that are endearing to audiences and are more likely to keep them engaged. Of course, if you have the production capabilities to include both live and pre-recorded video in your event, and toggle seamlessly between the two, that is even better! 

Stay True to the Process, but not the Details

Staying true to the process – a competition with three rounds of judging, public acknowledgment of the winners, and an onboarding phase – kept us grounded to our mission and helped us maintain an equitable path for our participants. However, re-examining the details and their underlying assumptions was critical to adapting to a new environment.