Steve Levin of Inkling Group: “Find your purpose”

#1 on the five things to know list is critical — find your purpose. Determine why you’re holding the event and why attendees would spend their time and/or money to attend. If you can’t answer this, you shouldn’t have the event. After you’ve determined your purpose, get clear on who your attendees are — what do they need to […]

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#1 on the five things to know list is critical — find your purpose. Determine why you’re holding the event and why attendees would spend their time and/or money to attend. If you can’t answer this, you shouldn’t have the event. After you’ve determined your purpose, get clear on who your attendees are — what do they need to know, what are their challenges/opportunities? You should also research other events that are similar or are targeting a similar audience and determine what makes your event different and unique, what’s your value proposition.

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 Steve Levin, Founder and CEO of Inkling Group.

With more than 20 years of experience in conference development, business management, marketing and business development, Steve Levin specializes in identifying emerging trends, driving event content strategy and working with global thought leaders and visionaries. He has successfully launched more than ten products, six companies and numerous conference and product brands. Steve has created and managed global conferences for organizations including Microsoft, ServiceNow, YPO, Cisco, Global Silicon Valley (GSV), Arrow Electronics, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Vistage, HighTower Advisors, AMD, Yara, TIME, ABC News and FORTUNE, among others. Steve founded Inkling Group in 2016, specializing in event content strategy, program development, and speaker research, booking and management services.

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”?

I grew up playing sports, especially basketball, and hung out with friends. I did well in school but didn’t really enjoy the act of learning until college, where I got more curious about the world. I started as a psychology major but then switched in my junior year to TV/film, radio and advertising with a minor in writing. I was interested in the idea of storytelling and figured I’d do something in TV/film production after college, but otherwise didn’t really have a serious plan at the time.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

I hopped around a bit in my career, starting out in TV production, switching to advertising after a couple years and then moving into marketing roles at several startup tech companies. I needed a break from the pace of startups so I decided to start my own marketing consulting group during the recession of 2002…because starting your own company during a recession isn’t stressful at all! Well, that clearly wasn’t the case as I struggled to find consistent clients. I was trying to land what I thought was a small local events agency in Boulder, thinking they needed marketing help. Turns out this “small” agency was one of the top conference content strategy and program development agencies, with deep connections to executives and luminaries around the world. After meeting the CEO a few times and talking about everything from geo-politics to neuroscience, she told me she wasn’t interested in my marketing services, but instead offered me a job as Director of Program Development. I had no idea what that was but it sounded really interesting and seemed like a much better option than marketing. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out all my previous work in TV production, advertising, writing, marketing and being constantly curious about the world is a pretty good background for a program development role.

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?

I made a lot of mistakes as I learned about the events business, how to develop a unique and memorable program, and how to work with C-suite executives. The most memorable moment was when I first started in the events business on my second or third day of work. I flew to Seattle with the agency CEO to meet with a client — Microsoft. Much to my surprise during the flight there, she told me that I was going to be the program director for the account, the event was a global CIO Summit for their top 100 customers, and that the Summit was just moved from China to Melbourne, Australia due to the SARS outbreak. To top it off, she informed me the event was in three months so we were already months behind in terms of content and speaker planning. I had never worked on a conference program before, let alone one for CIOs, and didn’t even have a formal job description yet, but here I was meeting with a top GM at Microsoft who was responsible for billions in revenue. Nothing like trial by fire! My lesson quickly learned was to ask at least a few more questions before jumping on a plane to meet with a client.

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 would say “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think” by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. The ideas in the book were certainly interesting and I had the privilege of working with Peter before reading his book so I already knew some of his thinking. However, one of the biggest takeaways for me was how he takes seemingly disparate ideas and connects the dots to draw a unique conclusion about where things were heading. I had done some of that connecting the dots thinking in my program work over the years, but I remember feeling even more inspired to “scratch that itch” and read more about what I was curious about and then figuring out how disparate ideas might be connected. That type of thinking has paid off over numerous times the years in creating unique sessions in events.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” It’s perfect for anyone in the events industry, as things change so quickly and you have to constantly adapt. I’ve had natural disasters cancel or alter event plans, speakers not show up for events, arrive late, and get sick the day before. I’ve had the power go out during an event. I’ve had unexplained sound issues during a big closing keynote, after testing everything countless times during rehearsals. And this past year certainly has had its share of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, as COVID forced us to quickly shift events from in-person to digital, with everyone learning as fast as we could along the way. If you don’t like change, the events business will not be a good fit for you.

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?

I specialize in event content strategy, program development, and speaker research, booking and management. I often work on a project from concept through onsite (and now digital/virtual) production. Although I’m not in charge of the production, my background in TV production certainly comes in handy to put together show flows, staging and transitions as I tend to look at events from the perspective of how the audience will experience them. For in-person events, I also partner with the event management team who drives all other aspects of the event (venue selection, food & beverage, room décor, transportation, hotels, etc.)

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

Thankfully, most of my clients pivoted from in-person to virtual events in spring 2020 due to the pandemic. There was a lot of learning as you go in those early days and we’ve all learned a lot since then, including the various virtual event platforms and tools, how to adjust and shorten program content for virtual formats, the differences in planning a live vs. pre-recorded simu-live virtual event, and especially audience expectations. I think attendees were more forgiving during the early days of virtual events this year. Since then, as they’ve attended more virtual events and countless Zoom and Webex calls, their expectations have increased while Zoom fatigue has decreased their attention span. The event content and speakers have to grab attendees quickly and keep their attention, the platform has to be easy to find the sessions they want to attend, and there needs to be some sort of fun-factor to the event — yoga sessions, gamification, etc. I think of event programs more from a Netflix-type of approach, ensuring there’s enough high-quality content programmed to appeal to and engage the audience so that they don’t shut down their browser window and move on to the next thing on their calendar. There’s a lot of competition for attention these days when everyone is working from home.

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?

I think Cisco Live did a great job with their virtual event this year, integrating a mix of technical and executive-level content with entertainment and unique speakers across four simultaneous channels. They were able to increase their in-person registration from 28,000 attendees to more than 125,000 virtually.

I also enjoyed Adobe MAX, which had really high production value. They did a great job launching new products and generating awareness and excitement around new features, while integrating storytelling and celebrity speakers in interesting ways. For example, they included fireside chat style interviews that were produced in a way that made you think the two speakers were in the same room, along with interstitial content such as Stanley Tucci hosted a mixology class on how to make an old fashioned and Nick Offerman giving a tour of his woodshop while sharing stories about various items in the room.

Other events may not have the budget or celebrity connections of Adobe or Cisco, but both had a clear content strategy and plan that they executed against to keep attendees interested and engaged.

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?

One mistake I’ve seen is programming solo presenters one after another, which can lull the audience to sleep with too many “talking heads.” Having a mix of formats will keep attendees more engaged. Session length is another area, as some event planners simply lift and shift their content thinking from an in-person event to a virtual event by programming 45–60 minute keynotes. Virtual events require different thinking in terms of how attendees will interact with and digest your content — shorter sessions are better.

Another mistake I’ve seen is not having a plan for attendee interactivity and engagement, which is critical in a virtual event as people can’t just strike up a conversation during a break. Having a well thought out event on-demand strategy is another potential missed area. Attendees may tune in for the live event, which may be programmed in a linear fashion, but they often want to go back and view sessions they missed or invite their staff and colleagues to view it later. That’s where a Netflix perspective helps to allow you to think about the event content in a non-linear way to enable on-demand viewing.

The key to all of this is looking at an event from the attendee’s point of view and expectations and making sure you have a plan to meet and exceed those.

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

Most of the virtual events I’ve worked on don’t use an off-the-shelf platform. Instead, most clients have taken the approach to find the best tools for various event functions — broadcast, chat, gamification, registration, session catalog, etc. — and combine them to create their own platform. That, of course, takes a certain technical skill to do, but it’s worked well for clients I’ve worked with.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

Collaboration is critical to event planning and execution. However, as we’re all working remotely these days, collaboration can be a bit of a challenge. Some tools I’ve used to help event teams collaborate and stay in sync include Smartsheet, Airtable, GroupMap, SharePoint and Google Docs to name a few. Slack, Webex Teams and Microsoft Teams are also critical for quick communications and idea sharing.

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.)

Recreating that in-person energy is certainly a challenge in a virtual event. Here are my five things to know:

  1. Find your purpose. Why are you holding the event? Why would attendees spend their time and/or money to attend your event? What are the key takeaways attendees will come away with that they can’t get anywhere else? Write that on your whiteboard or on a sticky note on your computer screen. Purpose is your north star that should guide the content and experience.
  2. Plan your attendee engagement strategy. Don’t try to replicate unplanned networking of your in-person event, as it’s impossible to recreate some of the impromptu moments that happen onsite (striking up a conversation at a happy hour, for example). Rather, think of it in terms of what experiences you can create and facilitate in a virtual setting that are valuable to your attendee. There are some interesting tools you can use to create environment and opportunity for networking to occur. For example, you can still create attendee networking opportunities but need to put more thought into how attendees find each other and communicate in a virtual setting.
  3. Create conversations around content. Attendee chat, Q&A time with the speaker either during or separately from their session, hosted birds of a feather sessions are some of the ways you can do this. Another way is to use your on-demand event content for post-event conversations with customers or members. Ultimately, your goal is to get attendees talking with speakers and with each other. The more they engage with the content, the more they’ll get out of the event.
  4. Create shared moments. This will be different for each event as “community” means different things to different audiences. For example, you could send attendees chocolates or other specialty food prior to the event and then host a session where they get to make something with or it just sample it and share their favorites with each other.
  5. Plan for the best, prepare for the worst. You would certainly need to do this for an in-person event, but now you have different variables to worry about. As virtual events rely on the Internet, some elements are outside of the event organizer’s control — the attendee’s connection speed, other programs and apps the attendee has open on their device that are using resources, Internet traffic and spikes since everyone is on non-stop Zoom and Webex calls, just to name a few. However, you need to think through where the attendee experience can break down and plan ahead.

Ensure your virtual event platform can handle the anticipated number of attendees, and then increase that so you have some wiggle room, especially if your event is free. Make sure you have a backup plan…and a backup plan for that backup plan…so that you have continuity in the event there’s a server or technical issue with your virtual event platform. Have a strong event tech support team ready to help attendees with login and password access issues to connect or reconnect to the event.

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?

#1 on the five things to know list is critical — find your purpose. Determine why you’re holding the event and why attendees would spend their time and/or money to attend. If you can’t answer this, you shouldn’t have the event. After you’ve determined your purpose, get clear on who your attendees are — what do they need to know, what are their challenges/opportunities? You should also research other events that are similar or are targeting a similar audience and determine what makes your event different and unique, what’s your value proposition.

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.

That’s a tough one as there are so many areas that need more attention and conversation today — diversity and inclusion, racial justice, environmental and economic sustainability are certainly top on my list. I think a foundational element of all those that could use some more attention is creating more empathy, understanding and the ability to see things from someone else’s point of view. If we could get to that level of understanding, we could more easily create a conversation about why it’s happening and how to solve the issues together.

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 been very fortunate in my career to have met and worked with several celebrities, athletes, luminaries and world leaders. And there are certainly many more I’d like to meet, so picking just one is hard. If I had to pick one, I’d say Barack Obama. I’d love to talk with him about his story of overcoming the odds and naysayers to rise to the office of President, as well as how he and Michelle are using their platform to shine a light on critical social and global issues. I’d also love to work on the annual Obama Foundation Summit program, so I might have to squeeze in a quick pitch during our conversation. I recently had the opportunity to book him for a client event and was really excited I might get the opportunity to talk with him for a few minutes before the session recording, but unfortunately the client cancelled the event. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to meet him one day soon.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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