Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. — This is obviously true for all events, whether in person or online. But with online events there is much more out of your control. In these COVID days your presenters will most likely be connecting from their homes and are in control of their access, background and audio. Not all your presenters will be tech savvy. Be sure to do some run-through to test the technology and tools you’ll be using and provide counsel on lighting and background staging or help them set up a custom background. We’ve all seen too many ceilings on our Zoom calls or faces in shadow or distracting backgrounds.
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 Andrea Heuston
Andrea is the founder and CEO of Artitudes Design, a 25 year-old experiential design firm that works with Fortune 500 companies (Microsoft, Starbucks and Expedia to name a few) as well as startups and nonprofits.
Pre-COVID Andrea and her team specialized in designing and executing corporate events — from visual concepts, video, motion graphics and animation to presentation design to speaker training and support– for events from 5 to 50,000 attendees. These days they’re helping their clients pivot to virtual events.
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 in a suburb of Seattle, in a very conservative household where there was only one way to do things — there was no question of me being allowed any independent thought. When I was 16 I spent a year in Denmark as a Rotary Exchange student and it was the most formative year of my entire life. I learned that it was okay to be me and okay to have different opinions from my family. It was the making of me, I learned independence, I saw a bigger, wider world and different viewpoints and ways of doing things and gained an independence I didn’t have before.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
I had originally planned to go to law school and had actually been accepted. But I got a summer internship at an energy systems engineering firm as a technical illustrator and loved it. I ended up switching to communications and put myself through the University of Washington at night while working at the engineering firm. I worked my way up to running the creative services department and had seven designers who reported to me. When the company was purchased by a French company, they brought me in one day and said we need you to lay off your entire team as the new firm has their own team in France. At 24 I was totally unprepared for something like that. The day after I laid my team off, they laid me off. I never saw it coming. Two days later they called me back and said we made a mistake — we need to do some rebranding and we need you and a team member to come back. I decided then and there that no-one else was going to dictate my future. I jumped in my car, drove 60 minutes to Olympia, the state capitol, and got a business license. The next day I called them back and told them I’d come back and bring my teammate Sandy, but that they would be hiring my company, not me.
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?
That’s a hard one. My mistakes are always huge, but not amusing! For example, my first employee and my best friend embezzled money from me. Another employee interviewed so well that I didn’t check her references before hiring her and she ended up throwing a chair at a contractor working for us at the time and I almost got sued. They’re funny in hindsight but were no laughing matter at the time. However, I learn so much from my mistakes. They’ve taught me resilience and made me a better person and leader.
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 love the EntreLeadership podcast hosted by the Dave Ramsey network. Ken Coleman is my favorite host. It’s all about entrepreneurship and about people who are making a difference in the world, how they’re doing it, and their lessons learned. I’ve been able to take a lot of those lessons and integrate them into my business and in my life. Some of my favorites are: Dare to Serve with Cheryl Bachelder; The Science of Perfect Timing with Daniel Pink; Why all Leaders Need an Assistant with Tricia Sciortino; and How to Always Add Value with Adam Grant.
It also inspired me to create my own podcast — Lead Like a Woman — because I know so many amazing women entrepreneurs and want to share their stories on life and leadership and empower and inspire other women.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You will do foolish things BUT do them with enthusiasm.”
This has long been one of my favorite quotes. It’s by Colette, a French writer from the early 1900s, and it has helped to guide me in business and in life. I often find myself in the midst of foolishness, but I always remember to have enthusiasm. Half the battle is looking like you know what you’re doing, even when you don’t. Deep, fervent enthusiasm has helped me many times with that illusion.
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?
We’ve worked on everything from a 5-day event with more than 50,000 attendees, 12 keynotes, and over 300 breakouts in Chicago to smaller, more intimate gatherings of 1,000 sales people learning from other leaders and celebrating successes in the wine industry. We inspire audiences to think bigger, do better, and create more value. For our clients’ events we provide audience development, speaker support, script development, custom branded stage design, scenic, audio, video, pre-production and onsight graphics management at any studio location or remote. We understand technology, logistics, creative, content and costs. We work with Fortune 500 companies (Microsoft, Starbucks, and Expedia to name a few) as well as startups and nonprofits.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
We’ve spent this year helping our clients transition to online events. One thing we’ve learned, it’s not as simple as turning on a camera and live streaming the event. If you want an effective and compelling event, one that will engage your audiences, you need to rethink the format, delivery and content.
One of the most interesting things about pivoting to live virtual events is the amount of advance prep work it takes for a live virtual event. Obviously in-person events take a lot of work too, but with online events, there are many different and new things that have to be decided way ahead of time. You have to consider how people are going to log on, will content be available for rewatching, do you want interaction, what kind of actions do you want your audience to take, do you want them to break into smaller groups, will all the content be live or will some be pre-recorded, which technology platform best suits your event? There’s a lot you have to consider that was never a consideration for live events.
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?
Ste Michelle Wine Estates is doing an amazing job with all sorts of live events, making them really inclusive and interactive. We recently helped them with their annual National Distributor Summit. What has always been an in- person event had to be reimagined as a virtual live event, with two days of keynotes, sales presentations, and audience interaction.
What really impressed me was their approach to reinventing the event. They didn’t start by saying ‘how do we replicate our event from years’ past’, but instead said, ‘let’s start with a clean slate and figure out the best way to engage with our distributor network in this new, virtual environment.’ There was no ‘but we’ve always done it this way, it won’t be a NDS if we don’t have x.’ They were open to all of our ideas from what technology to use to how to structure the entire event. The event ended up with double the amount of attendees and was actually more interactive than some previous events, as technology allowed participants to attend way more sessions than they would have been able to do at an in-person event. And because we recorded a lot of the content, it now lives on and can be rolled out for other purposes — such as onboarding new employees and training other departments — so it has a much longer shelf life and more value for them than a live event.
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 biggest mistake I see is when people treat their event just like they treat an in-person event. It’s a huge mistake.The old model of a keynote speaker giving a lengthy speech no longer works. We all have short attention spans at the best of times and many of us are now ‘Zoomed’ out. Additionally, when you’re viewing alone, and not physically present with others, it’s easy to zone out — check email, work on something else, get distracted by a kid or an animal, or even leave and go put a load of washing on. To keep your audience engaged you need to create ‘snackable’ content instead of lengthy, talking-head presentations.
A typical speaking slot at a conference or event is somewhere in the 30–45-minute span. TED talks are 18 minutes long. For online corporate events, it should be even shorter — we recommend changing things up every twelve and a half minutes: change your speaker, intersperse the presentations with pre-recorded video, add an activity or breakout room.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
Zoom is fantastic for smaller events without a lot of interactivity or if you want to break up into break out rooms. It has wonderful features for that and it’s able to be managed seamlessly as long as you have someone who knows what they’re doing. So for smaller meetings, I would every time recommend Zoom. After you get past about 50 participants, it’s impossible to really have an impact on them, unless it’s just a talking head meeting.
For larger and particularly multi-day events, Bizzabois awonderful platform. It handles registration, it handles live meetings, it handles content, you can do your schedule, you can import it — it handles everything that you need and is a fantastic tool for a big event. ON24 is another great one that we use.
The other one I recommend all the time is Evia, a woman-owned Seattle company driven by equity and inclusion and built into their products and services. So if you’re looking for a platform that is really timely and now, it’s a great one.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
We work a lot with Microsoft Teams and Slack as they have the ability to create and manage content seamlessly.
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.)
Rethink the delivery
Plan for a greater variety of speakers or for your speakers to appear more frequently but for shorter periods throughout the event. We also recommend that speakers mix it up and pepper their presentations with an assortment of methods and interactions such as polls, videos, breakout rooms, real-time chat and Q&A sessions, increasing the engagement level. Note, it’s key that a live Q&A is moderated and it’s best if it’s scripted where you can poll people ahead of time and then ask questions so that your speaker is not caught off guard. Having a moderator is important as s/he can watch the chat thread and feed the questions and comments to the speaker. This leaves the speaker free to concentrate on their content and not be distracted by needing to watch the chat box.
We also recommend a mix of live and pre-recorded presentations. What pre-recorded sessions may lack in real-time engagement they make up for in production value, and your speakers can have multiple takes to ensure their message is clear, concise and on-point. An added bonus is that those speakers who aren’t comfortable with live presentations really appreciate this. When using recorded video, we recommend following it up with a live Q&A with the audience and an exercise of some sort. That way you get the best of both worlds — a polished presentation and the audience gets to interact with the speaker.
Make your event as interactive as possible
There are very few of us who don’t have Zoom (or Go-To-Meeting, Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams) fatigue by now. If your event has a steady stream of back-to-back-to-back talking heads, it’s almost guaranteed to lose your audience. When designing your digital event, brainstorm what you can do to engage the audience. Beautiful visuals, video, motion graphics and animation should be a given. But what else can you do? Think about designing engagement points throughout each session of your event such as interactive exercises, shared experiences, branded materials shipped ahead of time, post-session virtual happy hours, trivia contests and more.
For some events we’ve worked with Boxperience to send customized connection boxes. The content and theme of the boxes — with personalized audio or video cards — is tailored to match the content of the event and tied to the agenda. At a certain point the moderator/presenter instructs the audience to open their box and leads them through the content, so it becomes a fun and interactive presentation. We’ve also found this to be more valuable than your standard swag bag of tchotchkes at a conference. It’s curated more thoughtfully, and for the person receiving it, it becomes something they want to keep and refer back to.
For one client event we hired a nationally known comedian to emcee it. His remarks were actually pre-recorded but we provided him with a list of about 20 key people who were in the audience of 1,000, and some quirky things about each one, so he was able to roast them. He was funny, he was sarcastic, it felt spontaneous, the audience thought it was live, and it added a great level of energy to the event.
Hire coaches for presenters
We recommend our clients hire both speaker coaches and media coaches for their presenters. They are two different things and equally important.
A media coach is super important these days to help your presenters get comfortable talking to a camera. If they get energized by speaking in front of a live crowd, they may find it difficult to bring that same energy and excitement to their presentations when speaking to a camera lens in an empty room. A media coach can help teach your presenters how to connect with an audience even when they can’t see them and tips for on-camera do’s and don’ts.
A speaker coach can help your presenters hone their content and message for right and compelling delivery and get their stories told to your audience in the way that the audience can receive it.
Make sure you’re working with someone with small screen expertise
Someone may have a sweet home office set up with a 24 or 30+ inch monitor. But it’s equally possible that they may be viewing your event from their laptop, iPad or even iPhone. All of those are a far cry from big screen video walls at corporate events. It’s key that you make sure that the company or individual you’re working with understands how to create effective visuals for a small screen because the visuals you have on a multi-story screen at a live event will not translate to the small screen.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
This is obviously true for all events, whether in person or online. But with online events there is much more out of your control. In these COVID days your presenters will most likely be connecting from their homes and are in control of their access, background and audio. Not all your presenters will be tech savvy. Be sure to do some run-through to test the technology and tools you’ll be using and provide counsel on lighting and background staging or help them set up a custom background. We’ve all seen too many ceilings on our Zoom calls or faces in shadow or distracting backgrounds.
Additionally make sure you or your client has the appropriate technology for the job or are working with someone who does. We had one client insist that their Zoom account could handle their event despite us insisting otherwise. As it turned out, they had an account for 100 people, but they invited over 500. Fifteen minutes into the event we were getting all sorts of emails from people who couldn’t get into the event and were unhappy. In trying to fix it on the back end the whole event got shut down, everyone was kicked out of the meeting and we had to start all over again using our Zoom account.
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?
Before even planning the event, spend the time up front on audience development. If you don’t know what your target audience wants from you, you will not have a successful event, you absolutely will not. We always start by finding out as much about the audience as we can. Not in a creepy way, but we want to know what they like, what makes them do things, what are their trigger points. We do a lot of research and then we can start figuring out the right content, delivery mechanisms, speakers and activities.
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.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be around the idea that feminism is stronger when all people support it — all genders, all colors, all political parties. When women rise, society benefits. Closing the gender gap in pay and societal roles can raise the GDP by 35%, according to the World Economic Forum. There is a rising tide for equality and even equity in gender roles. I believe that it needs to be bigger, louder, and bolder in order to see some sort of parity within the next 100 years.
I’m passionate about empowering women to empower others and that’s really what I’m trying to do with my podcast. I believe fully that when we listen to women, we get a fuller story than when we listen to men. And that’s not to say that men’s ideas and voices are wrong or bad. That’s not at all what I’m trying to say. Rather, women have a different insight and different approach to things, and if we can inspire women to empower other people, the world will be a better place. Mainly because they will be listened to on a different level. Women see things that men don’t see because they’re deeper into the trenches generally of their lives, their families’ lives or anywhere where the fringes are in society. Women when they get together can do incredible things. Men can, but there’s a little more jockeying.
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.
Melinda Gates. I’m so impressed with what she’s doing to elevate women in this world. Everyone can learn from her. She continuously steps out of her comfort zone and listens and learns from the people she’s helping.She’s very humble and open to feedback and I don’t know many people in a position like hers that are so open to critical feedback. I’d LOVE to have her as a guest on my podcast.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.