So, when I plan a panel and networking event – like the one on editing your writing career we were to host at Edgar Allan a week ago – I’ll do it. I’ll even enjoy it when the time comes. But beforehand, I’d love nothing more than to feel the sweet relief of cancelling it.
I just about got my chance this time: the global COVID-19 pandemic has made every planned gathering come to a screeching halt, even the daily 12-person gathering of our company in our office. So, when it became obvious we couldn’t hold the event in person, it would have been easy to call it quits. I mean, pretty much everyone else was. But where’s the stress-inducing, flying off a cliff in a cloud of road dust like the Duke Brothers, fun in that?
The introvert in me lost: we decided not to cancel our event. And I’d recommend you all do the same – with your endangered girls’ nights and family birthdays, those happy hours teetering on the edge of oblivion, play dates and date nights in jeopardy. Life doesn’t have to be cancelled, because you can get creative instead.
Here’s what we did to make our event, I think, just as successful as if we’d held it in person:
Since you’ve gone all virtual anyway, having attendees link up on line before the event seems less weird. You probably wouldn’t ask people you’re about to clink real glasses with to instant message with each other hours or minutes before go-time, but if everyone’s already in the mindset, why not? We wanted to maximize the question-asking potential and amp up the group dynamic for when we were all in the virtual room together, so we spun up an invite-only Slack channel for ticket holders where our panelists would be available to prime the participants with questions and work the room a bit, drumming up conversation and making everyone feel welcome.
The Slack channel was one way for people to get to know one another, but we also wanted the event itself to have some component of cocktail-hour networking, because really...isn’t that 90% of why we go to these things? Thirty people talking at once on a Zoom call just doesn’t work though, so we decided that after welcoming everyone, we’d split the mass into four sub-groups – each one with a panelist as host. Zoom’s breakout rooms feature is perfect for this, and while you can pre-determine who will go to what room, we did it manually and randomly, just like it would have happened if we were all milling around together in person. People could jump rooms too, if they wanted to meet someone new. I stayed back in the main room as moderator to catch stragglers as they came in. (Pro tip: Never shuttle someone off to a breakout Zoom room without giving them a heads-up. They’ll just get confused and hang up on you. Sorry to the one dude I did that to.)
I might be an introvert, but I’m one of those introverts that never met a microphone, stage or podium they didn’t love. (It’s baffling, I know. That’s fodder for another article.) That however, came in pretty handy during our event. Hosting something virtually is interesting, in that you have to dial your enthusiasm up 30-40% over what feels comfortable to telegraph enthusiasm to your audience. Subtle shifts in energy (and micro-expressions and changes in voice tone and volume) just don’t translate well to the little screen. You also have to go out of your way to engage participants. Virtual interactions seem to give some people uncharacteristic boldness (people who’d never talk in person will speak up when the playing field is virtually leveled), but it puts a general damper on conversation. We used Zoom’s chat feature for participants to ask panelists questions, panelists answered there as well as verbally to keep momentum up, and I as moderator went as “extra” as my demeanor allows to keep the room hoppin’. It worked really well; after a few awkward minutes, the conversation became gyroscopic, feeding on itself and sparking new question after question. We captured the chat(though unfortunately forgot to hit record, which I’m still kicking myself over), and decided its momentum was just too good to be lost, even after the event was finished. So, we kept it going...
When you go to an in-person event, once the host says goodnight, unless you’ve grabbed someone’s card or did that thing where you can request everyone within 50 feet of you accept your LinkedIn request, the onus is very squarely on you to keep the connection going. I mean, it’s always on you, but when your event is virtual, and you already have a Slack channel set up for participants to chat in, the after-party can start milliseconds after everyone walks away from the room. We’re still asking holdover questions in the Slack channel. Still meeting and chatting. And still answering questions we didn’t get to online that night, as well as re-hashing ones we did for people who couldn’t make the event. It’s probably the best thing to come out of the whole experience; 50-some, perfectly vetted new connections ready to talk about content, storytelling, and doing business in the creative industry. Imagine getting that out of a random networking event? The potential is amazing.
In pre COVID-19 “real life” in-person events were easy to come by. They will be again. But I think once people with something to say find out how easy, democratizing and extendable virtual events are, they’re going to hold many more of them, even if their participants could reasonably get together face to face. I’m pretty confident we are. Choice is so fantastic, isn’t it?