Virtual meetings and events. Yes…., but….

Virtual meetings, or digital, or online – same thing. People meet on their screens to have a business dialogue. They use Teams, Zoom, Google Meet or other similar platforms. I think that we have all tried it at least once since the corona out-break and the subsequent lockdowns. For many of us, online meetings have been the only way to meet with colleagues, customers, and other business contacts for months now.

And yes, Corona has taught us that it can be done. Not surprisingly, the more experienced we get, the better are the meetings. People have learned to lift the laptop (on a stack of books or similar) to get a better camera angle of the face, to have a well-lit face, and not to have bright sunshine through a window in the background. In general, the simpler the background is, the less distracting it is to the other attendees.

We have also learned that there are limits to how well online meetings work. They are best for smaller groups of 2-10 people who know each other beforehand, and if there is one (or more) concrete issue to discuss. Examples are colleagues working on a project and a board meeting with a fixed agenda.

When it comes to getting to know people whom you meet for the first time, being in a creative process, forming (or strengthening) relations, developing strategy, and the like, online meetings become awkward and ineffective. It is much more difficult (impossible) to read the emotions of the other attendees, you cannot see the body-language, and it is hard to detect whether he/she is being funny, using sarcasm or is for real. It is very difficult to catch the wry smile of another person and to see the little up-and-down or from side-to-side facial expressions of other people. The reality is that spotting all the emotions and bodily expressions as well as being innovative and impulsive in a fast-paced creative process is much more feasible and effective in an in-person meeting.

Nevertheless, online meetings are here to stay. We need, however, to be more disciplined, learn a few new but important techniques, and to have a strong meeting leader. And once we return to a world where we can freely move around, we need to decide whether the objective and the content of a particular meeting is better suited for online or in-person.

Most webinars are….. (yawn) Over the past months, we have all been offered loads of webinars via LinkedIn and Facebook. And thank you for these initiatives from companies and individuals. I have to say, however, that many webinars that I have watched have been terribly boring. A person sits in front of a camera talking about a particular subject – after five minutes it becomes so mind-numbing that I start thinking of other issues, checking my mobile, or whatever. I may still have the webinar on my screen, but I am not really listening. I am not comprehending and processing what is being said. Webinars need to be short, dynamic, interactive, and entertaining to keep the attention and interest of the viewers. In order to be a success, a webinar much be carefully planned and rehearsed.

Hybrid may be an option, however, be careful Many meeting planners advocate hybrid meetings where some of the participants meet physically, while other participants attend the meeting online. Typically, the people attending physically are from a larger office (the headquarter) of the company and the ones attending digitally are working in offices located in other parts of the country/the world. Hybrid meetings are practical, less time consuming, and less costly (no travel).

I believe we will see more hybrid meetings. Companies will introduce meeting policies which will enforce hybrid meetings. The way I see it, there are two issues to be very careful about. One, since one or more of the participants are online, the hybrid meeting has the same limitations as the 100% online meeting (see above). It is difficult to be creative, to be innovative, to create relations, and to “read” the emotions of the online participants. Two, the online participants may feel crippled and secondary to the physical attendees.

They cannot see the faces of the physical attendees up closely; they do not feel or see the emotions among the physical attendees, they are not part of the informal discussion during breaks – they may very easily feel they are observers rather than participants. It requires a very strong meeting leader to make the online attendees feel that they are participating on an equal level with the physical attendees.

Virtual conferences and bigger meetings – like a tv show Companies that want to host a bigger virtual meeting or a conference need to approach this in a completely different way than in-person meetings.

Being an attendee at an in-person conference you feel part of a small community. There is human interaction, you small talk with the people around you, when the speaker makes a joke, you laugh together with everyone else, and should your mind start wandering, it will (usually) come back rather quickly because of the relevance of the subject and the speaker’s enthusiasm which radiates into the audience.

In the case of a virtual conference (or other type of meeting), there is no community feeling, no human interaction, no communal laughing – each participant sits alone by him/herself in front of a screen. It is actually very much like watching television, and I do not think you have ever watched a tv show where one person speaks for 30-40 minutes, and the only thing you see on the screen is that person.

Television is much more lively, more pulsating, more entertaining and so must your virtual conference be if you want to keep the interest of your viewers. If you do not want them to zap away for real – or mentally.

Even though the subject(s) may be serious, you need to make the viewing easily consumable engaging, dynamic, and entertaining. Think of a morning show on your favorite tv station. There are 3-4 different settings in the studio, maybe a sofa where one of the two (or three) professional hosts can interview a guest, a high table with 3-4 chairs where another host may lead a conversation between 2-3 experts, a small kitchen where a chef prepares a dish, and a host comes by and asks how it is going, and maybe a stage where a band plays a song a few times during the show. Hosts (and cameras) move from setting to setting, getting the experts to talk about the issues of the day, and no feature is longer than 10-12 minutes (sometimes shorter). Relevant graphics are shown on the screen, and once in a while a pre-produced interview from an outside the studio location is shown.

Your virtual conference should be conducted in a similar way, and of course the design and branding of the studio should reflect the overall issue of the conference and/or your brand/company. One very important and engaging facility which the various meeting platforms offer (and television does not) is interactivity with the attendees. Participants may comment or ask questions during the show, and organizers may ask the participants of their opinions in polls.

To achieve a successful virtual conference or other type of bigger meeting will require detailed preparation by professionals – meeting and event experts, tv-production people, hosts, and others. A detailed script must be developed (and of course approved by the conference owner), and rehearsals carried out so that everyone is comfortable with his/her contribution to the live show.

There will be more virtual conferences in the future. They will be relevant to some companies and in some situations. I am convinced, however, that in-person meetings and conferences will be back in big numbers. Not necessarily “just like they used to be” but rather with an even more dynamic and engaging twist. The benefits of human interaction will always prevail.

Meeting and event companies are ready to create and execute your next success, whether it be virtual or in-person.

If you would like to discuss and/or get advice on virtual vs in-person or any other matter regarding corporate meetings and events, please contact me on LinkedIn or mb@tcc.world.

Michael Bramsnas is the owner of TCC (The Competence Company). Michael is extremely experienced within creation and execution of corporate meetings and events, having worked worldwide with these matters since 1990.