In the last few months, our world has changed at a rate we could never have predicted. As we all get to grips with working from home and embracing new technology, what does the future hold? We asked our virtual meeting experts Kathrin Provini and Bethan Johnson from the Audience production team about what’s now and what’s next.
“Agility has been a key word for many of our clients over the last few years. It’s a working practice we’ve always embraced – even before we knew to call it that. While none of us could have predicted just how agile we’d need to be in 2020, we’re both pleased and proud of the way we’ve embraced this unprecedented change in our working lives. The Audience team – who I call ‘The Force’ – has been instrumental in making the great leap forward in virtual our clients needed.” Those are the words of Audience CEO Tim Ferguson as he reflects on the incredible reshaping of our world and our first tentative steps into the ‘new normal’.
So what exactly did we do when lockdown came?
The new normal
So what exactly did we do when lockdown came? The interesting thing about having a base in four countries across three continents is that that we had some experience to draw on as COVID-19 spread westwards. We noticed very rapidly that our clients’ new agile behaviour saw them immediately go into focus mode and start working out the changes they would need to make to the face-to-face meetings they had already planned.
Attendance at tradeshows and congresses, external launches and internal employee engagement was all reviewed. As this was happening, the Audience team was pulling together and pooling all our know-how in live remote meetings to ensure our clients could feel confident in hosting the events they knew had to happen.
While we’ve all become familiar with new technology – Teams, Zoom, Google Meet amongst others – over the last few months, there’s a big difference in using the technology for groups of people to meet and using the technology as a tool to help engage audiences, and create the important ‘moments’ that change the way people think, feel and do things.
From stage to screen
“Producing a live face-to-face event is like putting on a theatre production,” says Basel-based producer Kathrin Provini. “Producing a live remote event is like producing a live TV show. Anything can happen with the technology, but we still approach each project with the aim of making sure we provide an optimal engaging experience for attendees, whether the meeting lasts 30 minutes or two days across multiple sessions.”
Kathrin is passionate about being a producer and is usually seen on-site with a clipboard and a microphone making production magic happen. The virtual world doesn’t change her focus or what she’s listening for during an initial call with a client to bring a remote event to life. “While our Creative and Strategic colleagues are listening for objectives, developing potential themes and concepts, I’m already calculating timelines. I start in reverse to make sure we can deliver what the client needs, but also to make sure we’re able to manage expectations. How many speakers are there? What time zone are they in? Where are they? How experienced are they as speakers? Will they need support from a Presenter Coach? It’s also important for us to understand the bigger picture in terms of virtual experience.
It’s an important point. As the first wave of live remote meetings finishes, the second one begins. Those now preparing for their annual or bi-annual events are being faced with the reality of having to go virtual, where they may have assumed their meetings could go ahead as originally planned. We’re now hearing the same initial questions and uncertainties as we received in March and April. The great news is that we’re able to give concrete examples of what works well and where we could do things differently. That makes a big difference when a client is unsure or simply can’t imagine how to bring their event to life. And experience counts for a huge amount when it comes to production.
Timing is everything in the virtual world
“Producing a virtual event takes much longer than a live face-to-face event,” agrees Bethan, Creative Content Manager at Audience in Basel. “We’ve definitely got used to needing twice as long for tech rehearsals and general rehearsals. It takes so long because the responsibility is split between the AV company and the presenter. With speakers now having to also understand the technology and play an active role in managing it, things have really changed. In an in-person situation, presenters and speakers usually only need to know how to advance their slides. When we’re working in a virtual situation, they also hold the key to a smooth audience experience. In a face-to-face meeting, it’s unlikely anyone would ever stand up and leave the room in the middle of a presentation. In a virtual meeting, no-one would ever know. The option to be disengaged is much easier so we all have to take the responsibility seriously. If that means sending someone a new headset, shipping them a green screen or a booster to up their bandwidth, we’ll do it.”
The difference between the Audience production team and the AV and logistics partners we often work with is one of the biggest questions that arises.
What’s the difference in what we do? Does a client really need both to make their meeting a success?
Kathrin explains “The best way I can describe it is that the tech team manages the tools to deliver the content. As a producer, I have the full overview of the content, the speakers, what happens first and next. I follow the content development in detail and brief the tech team on the flow so they can manage the correct delivery of the content to the audience during the event. It’s our job to help clients create and shape their content, ensure it’s aligned with their meeting objectives and get it ready for show day.”
Co-creation at the core
Of course, there is a close collaboration between the Audience team and the technical team. It’s a partnership that’s just as important as the partnership the team forms with the client during the build-up to the event. And with the client also having to play an active role in understanding the tech during a virtual event, it’s important that we’re all on the same page. Without exception, all members of our production team have said that they feel their clients better understand what they do as producers and content managers in a virtual setting.
Our clients are also proving to be the key to virtual meetings getting better all the time. “Clients who immediately started working on live remote events during March and April are now becoming more creative all the time. With them, we’ve achieved so many wild and wonderful things and they’re pushing us to work harder and explore more options as screen fatigue sets in. I think it will definitely open the door to doing more with face-to-face when we’re able to produce live in-person events again. These are exciting times,” says Bethan.
“I think hybrid meetings will be the default setting for future events. With some people in hubs where they’re allowed to gather and others joining virtually through individual connections, I expect hybrid to really take off. We’re already learning to manage time differences by running parallel or staggered sessions to maximise engagement and attendance. With a mix of global and local, the future is definitely glocal!” laughs Kathrin.
So what else is a consideration when it comes to this new world? With no more captive audiences on-site for two-three days and attendees managing very different situations as they work from home, what else do we need to consider?
“We work with a rough guide that there should be some kind of interactive element every 20 minutes during a remote meeting. Whether it’s a breakout discussion, a Q&A or bringing in a second technology for polling or capturing ideas, it’s important to make sure participants are actively involved all the way through,” says Bethan.
“Getting teams to identify what content really needs to be live is also really important,” adds Kathrin. “To make sure we’re really making the most of the time people spend together in a virtual environment, we’re doing everything we can to make content available on demand either before, during or after the meeting. It really helps to make life easier for attendees as well as making the live part stand out with interactivity. Asking “What will we do here that we can ONLY do when we’re together?” has always been an important part of how Audience works and it’s now the most important consideration when we plan an agenda.”
At the time of writing, it feels unlikely that we’ll be staging events with 500+ people in the same room together in the near future. With sustainability goals also at the forefront of many companies’ minds, continuing to connect and build community through remote meetings is likely to be a feature of future working.
Our clients are becoming ever more savvy when it comes to technology and much more comfortable with live remote events. So what are the biggest challenges the Audience production team faces at the moment?
“Not being in the same room,” says Kathrin immediately. “I know that sounds really obvious! If we’re on site and for some reason the audience can’t hear the speaker, I can grab a hand-held mic and run it to the stage. The audience barely notices, and the presenter can just continue. In a virtual setting, the speaker is often not aware that the sound has failed, and I can’t run across the room to provide a solution.”
So what can you do in that situation?
“Stay calm, communicate with the tech team and ensure we have a Plan B where a moderator is ready to step in. I’ve never had to step in and do jazz hands yet, but I think I could manage it if I needed to!”
Bethan, laughing and nodding, adds: “There’s a certain amount of fear around using technology. For me the biggest challenge is the need to reiterate that the same process Audience has become known for is the one we still follow. First, we consider the audience. What do they need and want; what do we want them to think, feel and do after the meeting? What are the objectives, what’s the content? Only then do we consider the best format to help get the right content to the audience in the time we have. There’s often a tendency to rush to the tech and the tactics – what we call the ‘techtics’ – first, which we would never do for a live face to face meeting.”
And what about the biggest challenges the clients are facing? Both Kathrin and Bethan are in agreement: “For the presenters and speakers it’s so difficult in the virtual setting to keep their energy up! With everyone on mute, there’s just no reaction at all from the audience to help ‘feed’ the presenter. All the small jokes or impressive statements that would normally draw a reaction are just met with a wall of silence. For that reason, a decompression call directly after a meeting is something we plan into our timelines. It gives us the opportunity to give immediate feedback to the speakers, to let them know how things went and initial survey results from attendees. It’s not the same as being able to replicate a live response but, so far, we haven’t found a way to make that happen.”
As we settle into the new normal and the world of work continues to evolve, none of us know what the future holds, but we have learned a lot in the last few months. Our number one piece of advice to anyone planning a virtual event would be: Everything you can do face-to-face, you can do remotely – until your tech team tells you it’s not possible. Start by thinking big! And if you need help? Ask the Audience experts.