Plan it out! or Make (and write down) a Plan — As with any good show, there has to be a plan, everyone has to be in sync and know what’s coming. While a full script is definitely helpful, it’s not completely necessary. At minimum, write down your run of show as a basic outline of your event. Be sure to include when people need to be shown or removed from screen, when audio/video elements are to be shown or removed, and any text or graphics to be shown. If possible, include some rough time stamps so you can keep the event on schedule. Having this outline will allow you to determine what, if any, technical hurdles you have to
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 Alan Seales.
Alan Seales is Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder of the Broadway Podcast Network (BPN), the premiere digital destination for everyone, everywhere who loves theatre and the performing arts. Even during a global pandemic, BPN continues to innovate and adapt to the quickly changing times, constantly finding unique ways to keep the arts alive and allow fans of Broadway and beyond to continue to connect to their favorite artists. Alan also hosts his own podcast, The Theatre Podcast with Alan Seales, which explores the personal stories with intimate conversations with each of his guests.
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”?
Thanks for having me! I grew up in a small town in North Carolina, constantly finding myself torn between performing in choirs and completely tearing down and rebuilding my personal computer (much to parent’s dismay). Into my teenage years, I found myself picking up any camcorder I could reach in order to write and direct my own productions, starring myself and my neighborhood friends. One of my favorite videos ever made is a stop motion video using my Batman and Robin action figures learning how to fly (voiced by my brother and me).
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
After obtaining a Computer Science degree in college, naturally after graduating, I became a professional actor(!), all while doing network consulting, building websites, and other such odd tech jobs to supplement my starving artist lifestyle. In 2007 when the writer’s strike occurred, auditions (and gigs) stopped, and I moved to New York City where I ended up as the Director of Information Technology for a post-production company in midtown Manhattan, where I was instrumental in converting their analogue workflow into a digital file delivery system. I consulted for several other companies in the tv commercial spot delivery business, and it’s now safe to say that almost all the TV commercials you watch these days were delivered to the TV studios through a digital delivery system that I had a hand in developing.
Fast forward a few years — you can take the artist out of the industry, but you can’t take the industry out of the artist. I found myself at Google as an engineer, subsequently moving back towards my artistic roots as the first Talks at Google Global Lead. As the one responsible for bringing in global thought leaders and scheduling the best of the best in their respective fields, I found myself rekindling my relationships with the Broadway world — the Olympians of theatre.
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?
My first full time job in the IT space after college was running the network and computer systems for a tiny company. As the newbie, I became the person internally that others wanted to share their professional problems with (since there really wasn’t an HR department). Being a problem solver, I felt the simplest way to help everyone was to aggregate everyone’s issues into a single email and send it off to the owner of the company, along with my thoughts on how to fix all their problems. Needless to say, the next morning I was let go from the company.
The biggest lesson I learned from this experience is that all problems are nuanced, everyone operates differently, and one should never assume they know better than anyone else (especially about their own company). It also made me realize that there are ways to make your opinions and suggestions known, being able to influence both directly and indirectly, without causing conflict.
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?
I got the “silly idea” to have my own podcast after I was asked to be a guest on another podcast that two of my friends host called 10K Dollar Day. They came to me with their travel recording kit, we sat together for 2 hours and laughed more than I had in a very long time, shared our fake luxury travel stories, and had a blast. That experience left me wanting much more, which is when I immediately started researching my own path into the business.
Throughout the last decade of my career, I’ve had the amazing fortune to be able to hear the world’s thought leaders and positive disruptors share their stories. The common thread between everyone is: without risk, there can be no reward. Everyone calculates and evaluates risk differently, but sometimes what can seem like a negative thing at the time may be a forcing function to allow you the time and refocus to start something new. Long story short, if you don’t try, you’ll never know!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Wherever you go, there you are.” If you’re unhappy with yourself or where you are in life, there’s work to be done to explore why you are unhappy. It could seem like a relatively easy thing to simply look for a new job, get a new boss, etc, but if you look through your past you may notice a trend that always points back to yourself. I was unhappy in my purely technical jobs and would shift blame to coworkers or the job itself. After some introspection, and really thinking about this quote, I realized that I simply would not be happy without being part of arts & entertainment in some way. This led me to push towards exactly where I am now!
Take stock in who you are, but especially how you react to and interact with others. Remember you can’t control other people, you can only control how you react to them.
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?
As the single global lead for Talks at Google at the time, I personally oversaw the planning and execution of all of the events in the New York Office firsthand. I worked with local office leads around the globe to help grow the program to almost 40 offices simultaneously running local programs, feeding content through our overall event pipeline, and helping to push Talks at Google to be one of the top corporate speaker series.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
As the global pandemic forced most of the world into lockdown, shut down Broadway and many other industries, and moved many companies to adopt a work from home policy, the need for live, virtual events has never been greater. At first, the trend was “how do we continue doing what we’re doing?” At Broadway Podcast Network, we quickly realized that it would be even better to create new methods to get our content directly into the hands of the fans! Following up on the in-person live podcasting events we established in 2019 and early 2020, we easily adapted to the virtual world and developed our BPN Live series of events (BPN.FM/live) — live, interactive, publicly available streams for the Broadway community and beyond. These events have included a variety of offerings from national voter activations for both Voter Riders and Broadway for Biden to holiday celebrations with Shake Shack and Broadway’s favorite stars.
Interestingly enough, we found that we had to approach them like any in-person show in terms of writing out a (rough) script with cues for transition points, audio/visual elements, screen shares, and the like. Whenever possible, we do a “cue to cue” walkthrough with the participants beforehand if not a full rehearsal. We also have a templated form we use to send out best/practices & instructions on how to connect to the streaming platform that goes out to all participants, offering technical support and pre-event troubleshooting whenever necessary.
Recently when planning a charity event for Vote Riders, they requested showing a private “room” of 30+ celebrity ambassadors (much like a traditional phone bank for an old school telethon). This presented a challenge, as every live streaming platform either has participant limits and/or internet bandwidth constraints. I figured out a fun solution that accomplished all of our needs. One of the participants in the stream was also a member of a Zoom room with all the ambassadors and when we needed to “show to the phone bank” we showed the participant’s Zoom window full screen for the viewers at home. It was a seamless transition that worked out perfectly!
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?
Aside from how proud I am of the work Broadway Podcast Network has done (obviously!), I am grateful for the work that NBC has done to continue some of their live events. From the virtual Macy’s Day Parade to their Best of Broadway event, they still continue to make safe efforts to provide content where it’s needed.
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?
The most common mistakes I see are normally easy to fix, and have to do with sound quality and/or lighting. Remember to always wear headphones (wired whenever possible) to avoid echo cancellation issues. If sound is coming out of your speakers at the same time you are speaking, your microphone often cannot discern your voice from what it’s hearing through the speakers. As a result, it dials down the input volume of your connection completely to avoid feedback, leading to the audio “hiccups” we hear all too often.
In terms of lighting, take note of where your light source is coming from. You do not want to sit in front of a bright light or you will be backlit. Try to avoid windows with direct sunlight so that as the light changes throughout the stream, you can avoid inconsistencies in your video quality or light source. An easy fix is to make sure any nearby shades are closed, use a ring light, and position the camera at eye level. This may mean propping your laptop up on some books or a box.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
Thankfully, there are a plethora of platforms to choose from that can get the job done (the job changes each time!). For the Broadway Podcast Network, we use a combination of several platforms depending on the needs of that particular event. In no particular order, we use StreamYard.com, Zoom, Squadcast.fm, and Zencastr.com the most frequently — sometimes individually, sometimes in tandem.
Other platforms we use less frequently but that help us add that little bit of extra pizazz when needed are Livestream Studio, Vimeo, and StageTen.tv.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
The Google suite of tools is free, easy, and incredibly collaborative. If you’re not familiar with Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Keep, Tasks, etc then I highly recommend that as a great place to start. One of the most important things is to stay organized and on schedule. Being able to have a suite of free cloud-based, real-time collaborative tools at your disposal is incredibly helpful. (and they don’t even pay me to say that…)
If you’re an advanced user, you could even write your own code via Google’s built in scripting platform Apps Script or record your own macros to automate many tasks within a spreadsheet.
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) Plan it out! or Make (and write down) a Plan
As with any good show, there has to be a plan, everyone has to be in sync and know what’s coming. While a full script is definitely helpful, it’s not completely necessary. At minimum, write down your run of show as a basic outline of your event. Be sure to include when people need to be shown or removed from screen, when audio/video elements are to be shown or removed, and any text or graphics to be shown. If possible, include some rough time stamps so you can keep the event on schedule. Having this outline will allow you to determine what, if any, technical hurdles you have to overcome, which will influence the next item below (which platform to use).
2) Decide which platform is right for you — what are your ultimate goals?
As mentioned above, there are fortunately many platforms that may fit your needs, so it’s important to do your research and figure out which one is right for you. To do this, first figure out what your ultimate goals of the event are, and work your way backwards. Some basic questions to start with are:
- Do you need to lock down the content behind a paywall?
- Are you trying to stream to multiple destinations (YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, etc) at once?
- Is your content all live, all pre-recorded, or some combination of the two?
- Do you need to show audience comments and/or interact with a live audience at all?
- How many participants are involved with your stream?
- Do you need a second tech host to be logged in at the same time to help run your virtual control room?
- Is the live event all that matters or will you be taking the footage and processing it in post-production after the fact?
Once you figure out technically what needs to happen, the rest can fall into place much more easily!
3) Get the right gear (and set it up properly).
This is probably the most important item out of all of these 5 things. So many live streaming issues come from simply not having the right audio/video gear (which doesn’t mean particularly fancy), or not setting it up properly. For a rock solid event, do this at minimum:
- Test your internet connection ahead of time to ensure you meet the minimum requirements outlined by whichever platform you’re using. If you’re using software like LiveStream Studio or StageTen that performs all the processing on your local machine, you need a VERY strong internet connection — especially upload speed. If you’re using a cloud-based, hosted solution like StreamYard.com, you can get away with lesser internet strength. In any case, make sure you test and plan far enough in advance to give your internet provider time to upgrade your internet if needed.
- Pro Tip: If you’re experiencing intermittent internet connectivity issues, try either moving closer to your wifi router and/or plugging into your router directly with an ethernet cable. Just note that even when plugged in or sitting right next to your wifi router, the connection itself might need to be upgraded.
- Make yourself sound good! Two very basic, yet important, things can accomplish this: wired headphones, and a USB microphone. While a USB mic is not required, always use headphones to avoid echo cancellation issues when two people talk at the same time. There are many microphone options to choose from, but for beginners I recommend the Yeti Blue USB mic, and any cheap pair of wired headphones you can find in the checkout line of most convenience stores. If you want to invest in a slightly higher end solution, try an AT2020 XLR mic (with mic arm), and a FocusRite Scarlett XLR to USB converter. You also want lots of sound absorbing materials around to absorb echo and record as a clean as sound as possible. Try to record from a room that has carpeting or a big rug, drapes or curtains on the walls (as long as sound from any windows is not an issue), etc.
- Side note: if you use wired headphones with the built in mic on the cord, be sure that you have your USB mic selected in your input/output settings in the streaming platform, not your built in mic!
- Pro tip: record in a walk in closet if you’re not on camera! It’s small, has lots of hanging material to absorb sound, and might even have a door you can close to eliminate external noise. Another fun option (again if not on camera) is to build a “pillow fort” of sorts around your recording setup. I’ve personally seen success working with actors who put big couch cushions or bed pillows on either side of their microphone and have a towel over their heads. You may feel silly, but the sound quality will be amazing!
- Make yourself look good! Again, two basic things can help tremendously: putting your camera at eye level, and making sure you have consistent light on the front of your face by using a ring light. If you do not have a webcam built into your monitor or laptop that you can place at eye level (check out this inexpensive USB camera), prop your monitor or laptop up on some books or a box to make it higher. Position your ring light behind your camera so it shines on your face without casting a shadow.
- Lastly, aim your camera (or tilt your monitor) so that the top of your head is just below the top of the screen. You do not want too much empty space between the top of your head and the top of the screen.
These points also apply to everyone involved in your stream! Make sure to send out a “best practices” tech doc to all of your participants ahead of time so they too can prepare themselves to look and sound as good as you.
4) Teamwork is dreamwork.
It’s not easy planning a live event by yourself. Whenever possible, divide the work amongst a team so you can get more accomplished in a shorter amount of time. Define clear roles and deadlines, and have regular team meetings to ensure everyone is on the same page. A good example of a responsibility split for 3 people might be:
- Person 1: Coordinate guests/participant schedules
- Person 2: Consolidate and process the A/V elements
- Person 3: Setup the streaming platform, create graphics, and sending out communications
5) Go above and beyond.
Once you’re comfortable with the basics of live streaming, figure out how to make each event better than the last, and don’t be afraid to try new things!
- If you are doing an event for a specific theme or holiday, try adding a festive border around the edge of your stream.
- Add your branding to the corner of the stream to ensure people recognize your logo, show name, etc.
- Coordinate a surprise guest or two so that the main participants in the stream are authentically surprised and overjoyed to see someone they were not expecting to see.
- Use your streaming platform’s built in lower third / text generator or create graphics or videos to introduce new segments or people to the feed
- For games, stories, and/or standalone segments within your stream, create transition songs/videos (think like you’re producing a segment for a late night show) to start and end the segments.
- Conduct rehearsals and walkthroughs. Hold pre-production meetings. Sync with the team and gather everyone’s ideas. You never know what will stick!
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?
Using the 5 things outlined above, brainstorm (hopefully with your team), write down the rough details, and decide which platform to use. Divide up the work if possible, set deadlines for yourselves, and decide on your ultimate goal for the stream.
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.
Given we are currently in the midst of a global pandemic as this is written, my biggest hope these days is that people listen to their favorite podcasts, respect themselves and everyone around them by wearing a mask, following social distancing guidelines, and avoiding gatherings whenever possible.
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.
I would personally love to have a meal with Dax Shepard. He is a personal inspiration for me on several levels, continually putting his personal journey through life, addiction, self-discovery, self-help, recovery, parenthood and successes and failures on public display for the world to learn from.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Thank you so much for having me!