Pace matters — For in-person gatherings a 75 minute keynote speech from a subject matter expert might work fine, but virtually that will kill your energy and drive your audience into their smartphones. If you want to hold people’s attention the whole time then build your experience so that they can’t possibly turn away. This requires you to think about pace and to be constantly changing things up. Ask that keynote speaker to break their program into smaller segments or to move in and out of different camera views. Ask them to try different ways to display info or content on screen like whiteboards, video, and more. Or ask speakers who have longer sessions to build several mini Q&A breaks into their program. Whatever you’re planning, don’t let what’s happening on the screen stay the same for long.
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 Joe Mull.
Joe Mull, M.Ed, CSP is a professional speaker, author, and CEO who teaches leaders how to be better bosses. As founder of Joe Mull & Associates, he speaks and writes about commitment in the workplace and designs leadership development training (in person and virtual) for clients across the U.S. Joe is the author of two books Cure for the Common Leader and No More Team Drama and host of the Boss Better Now podcast. Prior to launching his own firm, Joe previously managed training for one of the largest physician groups in the U.S and taught leadership courses at two major universities. In demand as a professional keynote speaker, Joe holds the coveted Certified Speaking Professional™ (CSP®) designation, held by fewer than 20% of professional speakers worldwide. The CSP is the speaking profession’s international measure of speaking excellence and signals a proven track record of experience and expertise, and a commitment to outstanding client service and ethical behavior. For more information about Joe, visit joemull.com.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/03c632d2c635bafbd45b08d8ec5cbc34
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”?
Growing up I always enjoyed performing and by the time I graduated from high school my goal was to make it to Broadway. I majored in music (voice) and have been in front of audiences ever since. While my career has taken me into the speaking and training realm, it’s that background in the performing arts that is my foundation. I’m a song and dance man at heart. I draw on that foundation constantly, as my work puts me in front of audiences every day.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
During my college years I was active in a variety of leadership and student affairs roles. I ultimately got a Master’s degree in education and for years worked in a series of professional roles all of which required me to design and deliver programming of one kind or another. Every job I’ve ever performed had me in front of groups teaching in some manner. During that time I fell in love with two things: coming up with creative ways to make learning fun and helping leaders better support the people they supervise. Once I figured out that I had a knack for designing and delivering content in a way that others found compelling, I didn’t want to do anything else. Speaking, writing, and training, for me, mixes the science of learning with the art of performing. Nowadays, I help leaders become better bosses and teach them how to create the conditions that lead employees in the workplace to thrive.
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?
Years ago, I was speaking at a conference in Kentucky and was greeting attendees as they came into the room. One woman introduced herself as Kee-um. I repeated it back to her, to make sure I had it right and then said “That’s a really interesting name. I don’t think I’ve heard that before. How is that spelled?”
At this point, the room was quite full, and our conversation was taking place in front of everyone.
She folded her arms, clearly annoyed, turned her head to the side and said “K-I-M! Kee-um!” in a thick southern accent.
As you can imagine, we were both quite embarrassed. It was a great lesson to learn, though. Now, whenever anyone tells me their name, whether I’ve heard it before or not, I simply say “It’s so nice to meet you!”
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?
More than a specific book, there’s a style of book that’s had an impact on me more than others. In recent years authors like Michael Lewis, Daniel Pink, and Malcolm Gladwell have written rich, thought-provoking books that masterfully mix psychological and social science research with captivating storytelling. This approach makes these books fascinating, gives them a high degree of real-world application and utility, and makes them impossible to put down. Their style has heavily influenced my own writing, especially my second book No More Team Drama: Ending the Gossip, Cliques, & Other Crap that Damage Workplace Teams. When that book went out for review to a handful of other authors, a gentleman I respect very much wrote me a note saying the book was “Gladwell-like” in its style. It’s one of the highest compliments I’ve received.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them…” — Maya Angelou
This is such a powerful nugget in both our personal and professional lives. Managers in organizations often go to great lengths to accommodate poor performers, tolerate actively disengaged employees, or cater to abrasive senior leaders. We often do this in our personal lives as well, making space for those who would abuse our kindness, treat us poorly, or take advantage of our humanity. Many leaders hesitate to move on from people who aren’t a good fit because they explain away problematic behavior. In our personal lives, we often believe that the space long-time friends and family occupy in our lives is intractable. Yet, when we allow problematic people to remain on our teams or in our personal lives, they do harm. That harm compounds over time and leads to suffering. The only way to avoid such damage is to have higher standards for those we allow into our orbit. When someone shows you who they really are, believe them, and act accordingly.
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 a professional speaker, I’ve keynoted hundreds of events in the last 10 years, both in-person and virtual. Having contributed to so many events, large and small, it’s pretty common that we end up providing advice and input on a variety of logistical, content, and technical questions with our clients. Additionally, as the founder of a boutique training company, we’ve also organized and hosted dozens of our own events of various sizes and functions.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
Prior to the Coronavirus pandemic we did a handful of virtual events, but they were a small percentage of our overall work. Since March 2020 however, we’ve ONLY done live virtual events. In addition to providing virtual keynotes of varying length and style to audiences large and small, we’ve organized and hosted our own virtual events. In addition to doing dozens of virtual workshops for our training clients, we’re about to launch our third BossBetter Virtual Summit which brings together hundreds of managers from across the country for a half-day virtual mini-conference. We’ve made it our goal that this audience experiences that gathering as the most fun AND useful virtual event they’ve ever attended. That goal has influenced our decision making in a variety of ways and taught us a lot about the role that pacing, connection, information, entertainment, and technology play in successfully executing a live virtual event.
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?
Tony Robbins has done an outstanding job moving his seminars and business events into the virtual arena. For years his live gatherings have been “bucket list” events for many. Recreating that experience digitally poses innumerable challenges, but his team has done a tremendous job. One thing they did that impresses me is that they built a 360-degree studio that allows Tony to see everyone. This was brilliant AND necessary because feeling seen and heard by Tony is key to the connection that he makes with each person in the audience. A webinar-styled format would not produce that experience. Tony’s approach reinforces a great lesson for us all: No audience is “too-big” for meeting style. If connection is important, get creative and innovate to reach your audience.
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?
As a wider audience has become more familiar and comfortable with virtual meeting platforms, it’s easy to think that planning a virtual event is simply organizing a series of Zoom meetings. Too often it’s this thinking that results in a poorly organized, glitch-filled, low-energy experience for the end user.
Running a live virtual event requires all the planning and attention to detail of an in-person event with an additional layer of technological prep, planning, and experience added in. If the person in charge of planning the event also has other duties in their job, or they lack experience planning virtual events, then organizers should consider professional support wherever possible, including tech support, professional and experienced virtual speakers, and possibly a veteran host or MC for the event. Executing an enjoyable, well-run virtual event that is worthy of your audience requires a lot of work AND expertise. Get it wrong, and future virtual events will be dreaded and poorly attended. Get it right, and you’ll open up a whole new world of ideas and enthusiasm for how people connect, learn, and share information.
Another common mistake is not holding a tech walk-through ahead of the event. Rehearsals dramatically improve the success of virtual gatherings. Whether you’re planning a multi-day conference or a single virtual meeting, spend time walking through a detailed outline of what is happening when and by whom in advance. Time things out, make sure everyone involved knows how to use the tech and software, and discuss your back-up plans for no-shows, power outages, and other potential hiccups that could occur.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
When our clients ask us to host trainings and events for them, we recommend Zoom. Our experience has been that it’s the most flexible platform in terms of integrating seamlessly with other kinds of software and gear, and it’s the one most people are familiar with these days. We also value the full suite of features that allow breakout rooms, whiteboarding, recording, reactions, different formats (meeting vs webinar), live chat, etc. For the record, I have no stake in Zoom nor do I benefit in any way by recommending them.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
It’s critical that organizers understand the role that internet connections and upload speeds play in the quality of a virtual experience. Nowadays, most people are connected online via a wireless internet connection. But these connections are less stable and there is typically a notable loss in download and upload speeds via wi-fi. We strongly encourage anyone hosting or presenting during a virtual event to set-up a hard-wired Ethernet connection by plugging their computer directly into their router. We also ask anyone involved in the delivery of the event to run a speed test on their machine and make sure they have upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps to reduce the chances that their stream will be glitchy or get hung up intermittently during the event.
Additionally, event planners should know that insisting their professional speakers adhere to a specific format or presentation style may rob them and their audience of a unique, compelling experience. Many established, professional speakers have moved quickly during the pandemic to adopt sophisticated broadcasting software for a more dynamic delivery of content for a virtual audience. These platforms — products like eCamm and OBS, for example — allow the speaker to layer sophisticated information and tools into their program including interactive graphics, music, multiple camera angles, pre-recorded video, and more. This is something we’ve spent hundreds of hours working on, yet we still have event planners who ask us to stick with classic WebEx or webinar formats. I’ve personally been asked to “just do PowerPoint with narration,” been told that the meeting host has to control the keynote speaker’s presentation in real time, and had our video broadcast shrunk into a tiny window on the screen to ensure that announcements, twitter feeds, and sponsor acknowledgements be shown the entire time. If you’re working with an experienced virtual keynote speaker, start by simply asking them to show you what they can do. I’m delighted when a potential client asks me for a demonstration. Many end up seeing entirely new ways to experience a virtual program, which leads them to get excited and think differently about everything they’re planning.
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. Preparation is everything. — The best virtual events have been carefully planned, timed, and rehearsed. Organizers have also made contingency plans in the event there are unplanned hiccups. For example, do you have secondary or backup content you can roll out on the fly in the event something or someone doesn’t go as planned. I was part of a large virtual conference recently where the keynote speaker was introduced, and their broadcast just would not come through. We were staring at a black screen. The organizer had a done their due diligence planning for every potential pitfall and so they had a recording of a prior year keynote all teed up and ready to go just in case something like this happened. They rolled that archived keynote while troubleshooting the speaker behind the scenes. In the end, all the attendees were forgiving because the organizers were prepared. In fact, participants ended up with even greater value than planned because they got content from two outstanding keynote presentations.
2. Pace matters — For in-person gatherings a 75 minute keynote speech from a subject matter expert might work fine, but virtually that will kill your energy and drive your audience into their smartphones. If you want to hold people’s attention the whole time then build your experience so that they can’t possibly turn away. This requires you to think about pace and to be constantly changing things up. Ask that keynote speaker to break their program into smaller segments or to move in and out of different camera views. Ask them to try different ways to display info or content on screen like whiteboards, video, and more. Or ask speakers who have longer sessions to build several mini Q&A breaks into their program. Whatever you’re planning, don’t let what’s happening on the screen stay the same for long.
3. Hire professionals — Running a live virtual event requires all the planning and attention to detail of an in-person event with an additional layer of technological prep, planning, and experience added in. A lack of experience produces log in and access problems, a lack of flow for the event, an inability to anticipate glitches like timing or a/v issues, boring or amateur content delivery, and more. My advice: if at all possible, hire experienced virtual professionals. In some cases this means hiring a technology company to manage the registration or hosting platform of your event. It may mean hiring a professional MC with experience hosting virtual events. An MC, for example, guides your audience from one segment of your event to the next, handling intros, transitions, instructions, and more. They can facilitate interaction, connect the audience online and via social media, vamp when needed if things go awry, and more. This kind of professional hosting results in a more seamless remote experience. The same is true for your keynote speakers. No one in your audience wants to stare up the nose of your “keynote” speaker while the light on their ceiling blinds them from behind the speaker’s head. A professional speaker has the set-up, tech, gear, and know-how to create a dynamic, interactive, content-rich virtual program that your audience will find captivating.
4. Plan for Fun with a Purpose — If the only way your audience is asked to participate in your event is by just sitting and listening, they’ll get bored, tune out, and all your effort will have been wasted. Instead, you want your audience engaging, interacting, and not noticing the passage of time. One surefire way to create this experience for attendees is to build in games, prizes, competition, and other forms of fun with a purpose. I have a client who recently wanted to hold a 3-day multi-state virtual conference and had never done so before. I connected them to a professional DJ and Virtual Gameshow host who ended up hosting and organizing their entire 3 day event for them. In addition to helping them layout their content and agenda, he brought in music, dancing, games, prizes, and more. They’re event was a huge success and they said hiring him was the best decision they could have made.
5. Overcommunicate — This is true for both your audience and your contributors. In the run up to your event, be clear about what your audience can expect. What will they need to have in front of them to participate? Will their cameras need to be on or off? Can they participate via tablet or smartphone, or is a laptop or PC required? When will breaks be and for how long? For speakers, panelists, and other guests, when do you need them to log on and what phone number do they call or text if there are tech issues? What is happening right before and after their appearance? What platform will you be using to host your event and where do they go to download software or test their system? During the event, invite people to participate and tell them exactly how to do so. Tell them what is happening when, what’s coming next, and what you’ll be asking them to do along the way. Want people to stick around for your whole event and be excited about what’s coming up? Tease topics, speakers, giveaways, and more early on in your event. If nothing else, remember this: you must tell people exactly what you want them to do before they can do it exactly.
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?
Most of the time, planning has to start with budget and schedule. How long will the event be? How much time exists between now and then to plan and execute that event? What is the budget and, more specifically, how can we allocate that toward the professional support or content we need to make our event a success? (In-person events that have moved to virtual often enjoy significant costs savings on things like renting space, food, tchotchkes, etc. that can be redirected to content and tech support.)
From there, organizers must get clear on their goals for the event and how the accomplishment of those goals will be measured. We did an event recently where a primary goal of the event was information dissemination and audience reach. For that reason, the audience size, not revenue, was our most important metric. This influenced every decision including what to charge, how to structure registration, when to hold the event, how long it would be, etc.
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.
I’m on a mission to rid workplaces of bad bosses. Why? Because an employee’s boss is the single most influential factor on their level of workplace engagement, commitment, and fulfillment. It is not out of bounds to suggest that increasing the number of great bosses in the workplace would have a startling impact on the overall health and well-being of society.
Think about it: for too many people, work is a means to an end. A necessary evil. Too many people begin and end their days dreading the way they spend most of their time: at work. Where mediocre supervisors exist, so too does job boredom, apathy, and burnout. Where bad bosses are in place, the problem is even worse. Leaders who are selfish, uncaring, abrasive, or just incompetent breed resentment, discord, carelessness, self-preservation, and misery.
Where great bosses are in place, however, employees have an entirely different experience. Where bosses activate talent, care deeply about people, value input, build relationships, foster belonging, and give work meaning, people are transformed. Their work is enjoyable, purposeful, and deeply gratifying. When we help leaders at all levels build the self-awareness, knowledge, skills, and relationships required to become great bosses, people thrive, inside and outside of work.
Everyone deserves to work for a great boss, but most organizations fall short in preparing and supporting managers on the journey to leading people effectively. So that’s my movement: to fill workplaces with better bosses. The impact on global happiness and wellness would be nearly indescribable.
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’ve always wanted to meet Barack Obama. Politics aside, I have a great admiration for both his intellect and his demeanor. It’s obvious he puts forth tremendous effort to remain calm and steady even in the face of emotionally charged situations. I also greatly respect his empathy and the way he thoughtfully and carefully chooses his words for maximum clarity and impact. It is these attributes, coupled with his belief in and championing of public service, that made him leap to mind first in response to the question above. I’m not sure he’d have time for a private lunch, but I’d love to have my picture taken with him some day.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.