Attend a mix of other live virtual events so you can experience different approaches yourself before you create your own
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 Jillian Wood.
Jillian Wood is the Vice President of Marketing & Operations at Pivot Point Consulting, a KLAS ranked healthcare IT company based in Nashville, TN.
She leads teams of marketing and operations experts responsible for delivering engaging, high quality experiences for our clients, consultants and employees. Jillian joined Pivot Point Consulting after working in consulting for 20+ years — developing Y2K services and navigating digital marketing and social media evolution, as well as leading product development for technology solutions and strategy for technology-based brands — and serving as a CMO/COO for several startups.
Jillian is passionate about supporting entrepreneurs and women. She serves as a coach/mentor for organizations and has led programming and spoken at events for those communities.
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 take a “yes and” approach to life. I’ve always been open to possibilities and adventure. At age 5, I packed my suitcase and decided that I was going to walk miles to my grandparents’ house when my mother couldn’t take me for a visit. I actively lean into possibility (big and small) where I can enjoy an adventure every day — even if it’s just taking a different path on a daily walk or participating in a virtual forum with people I’ve never met.
I was born curious and inspired by the world. My paternal grandmother and father were born in England and my maternal grandparents lived overseas so I’ve always been interested in places and people beyond my experience. After college, I spent a year traveling around the world where I learned the power of resilience and an appreciation for contours.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
I didn’t realize how much a chance internship at the Martin Agency between my freshman and sophomore college years would change the course of my life and push me off a predictable “English major goes to law school” path. The business school was the typical feeder for this internship, but I happened to attend an event where I met a Martin Agency exec (thank you, Matt Thornhill) who encouraged me to apply despite the fact that I hadn’t taken any marketing or advertising courses, ever. My “outsider who would bring fresh perspective” case won me a spot in the competitive summer program that exposed me to the power of doing inspiring work with inspiring people.
That summer sparked an interest in strategy, business and creativity — and how they come together to move people — which led to a career in consulting and my current role at Pivot Point Consulting.
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?
When I was just starting my career in consulting, I attended an industry event and happened to be in an empty hallway when John Bogle, Founder of Vanguard, arrived and couldn’t find his on-site contact. My offer to help get him from door to stage resulted in a candid conversation about health and life that I remember to this day. And when we arrived at the stage, I introduced “Mr. Bogle” to the other speakers on his panel even though they clearly knew who he was.
Lesson learned: Interesting people are interested. He was genuinely as interested in my story as I was in his. It’s the “moth to a flame” effect … We’re drawn to people who signal interest in us too.
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?
David Whyte — a wise poet’s virtual series that brings together thousands of people around the globe is one of the best things to come of the pandemic
Entertainment — Rick Alverson’s beautiful, unresolved film that leaves you thinking long after the credits run
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” It’s been attributed to everyone from Blaise Pascal to Mark Twain. It stuck with me because it captures, in contradictory terms, the refinement required to get to the elegant, precise essence of something — whether it’s an idea, a story or an experience.
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’ve focused on digital experience (as part of broader brand stories) for the last 20+ years — watching it unravel in the 1990s with mass-market adoption of Netscape to the unexpected developments that surfaced during the pandemic.
My career conveniently tracked with global technology adoption — from my early days developing Y2K services and navigating digital marketing and social media evolution to leading product development for technology solutions and strategy for technology-based brands. I’ve been part of the digital evolution that has fundamentally changed our lives, our work and our physiology — and shaped our expectations for digital experiences.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
Attention to human factors is more important than content — whether it’s an in person or a live virtual event. You can have the most compelling speaker or experience, but it’s lost on someone who is hungry or whose attention span burned out 30 minutes ago.
Live virtual events should be intentionally designed to optimize for human well-being and experience. Factor human physiology and psychology into programming to offset on screen fatigue, maximize cognitive functions (e.g., attention, perception, memory, social perception), as well as the need for physical movement and community in a virtual context.
Also, incorporate fundamentals for all events (in person or virtual such as — limiting sessions to 20 minutes (max adult attention span before needing a break) and embedding variety (which makes content memorable) into programming — as well as aligning programming with biorhythms (e.g., research shows that most people have the most cognitive capacity 2 hours after waking) and planning “experience bursts” at the beginning, middle and end (which research confirms are most memorable).
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?
2020 was an odd mash up of “next gen experiences” and “back to basics” lo-fi experiences. New concepts surfaced that may have never happened without the pandemic push.
Established events reimagined.
- Adobe99U — From 999 dollars reg fee to free — hefty reg fees gave way to greater virtual access for the masses (across the globe). The absence of conference revenue has, in most cases, been replaced by ~10x+ reach that can have long-tail benefits of increasing in person conference attendance.
- Collison Conference — Collison continues to double-down on powerhouse speakers and enable networking (the holy grail of virtual events).
- Elevate Main Stage — This not-for-profit “unites the world’s innovators to solve society’s greatest challenges” and has invested in thoughtful digital experiences outside of conference programming.
- The Nantucket Project’s Neighborhood Project — Nantucket Nectars’ founder, Tom Scott, is now pushing community (instead of juice blends with bottle cap facts) through “a digital place to wonder, gather, and practice” and enabling communities to form/connect virtually.
Necessity IS the mother of invention.
- Together mode — The NBA partnership with Microsoft Teams uses this new AI tech to create shared experience (in a crowdless arena). We get sneaker squeaks without the heckling from new tech with many use cases off the court.
- Zoomtopia — The (not) Zoom’s Zoomtopia virtual gala gave attendees a reason to get gussied up for a good cause (raising 20K dollars for the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Response Fund and the International Medical Corps).
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 is thinking that a live virtual event is the same as an in-person event — just delivered digitally. It’s not about simply cloning 2019’s in person event as a live virtual event in 2021. You have to reimagine programming to consider human factors and optimize for well-being and experience for a virtual context.
- Another common mistake (that is not unique to live virtual events) is overlooking pre-event/post-event experiences to drive registrations/satisfaction, as well as opportunities for ongoing engagement. Authentic experiences build brand awareness (beyond the event) and also drive registrations for future events.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
Zoom leads, but Teams is a solid enterprise solution for employee events. Teams gives you core event functionality (with breakouts and polling too) that’s integrated and secure as part of your enterprise platform. Employee engagement is different now that “38% of corporate leaders expect their remote employees to continue working from home one or two days a week after the pandemic” (according to McKinsey Global Institute analysis) so leaders will need create new virtual experiences (as well as more frequent in person events) to attract, inspire and retain talent.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
With any tech, it’s important to understand what you’re solving for and how it integrates with your platform(s) and other tools/software. Seamless integration trumps bells and whistles. Tech failure (especially sound) is a deal breaker.
For virtual events, in particular, it’s not so much about tools/software (which are abundant) as it is about deeply considering the digital context. The most advanced, sophisticated tools/software will not fix unintentional programming.
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?
Read The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. According to Dan & Chip Heath, “we tend to remember the best or worst moment of an experience, as well as the last moment, and forget the rest.”
If you understand what makes a memorable moment (in a digital context), you can create them. Research shows that emotion (particularly surprise) increases engagement and makes experiences richer and more memorable. So, it’s not surprising that integrating music (and building a playlist), as well as unexpected video (think Cameo) into programming will give a live virtual event electric energy. And for portions of the programming where you want to create community, you can post questions for folks to react to in chat (pre-event as folks are joining) or riff on what’s working in virtual comedy, and prompt participants to set their mics to 1/3 (during keynotes/activities) so everyone can hear attendees’ reactions without drowning out the speaker.
And speaking of prompts, pair IRL experiences with virtual. Whether it’s sending a box before the event and asking participants to open on prompts (so there’s an element of surprise) or using Google cardboard to enable individual, yet shared, experiences.
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.)
- Attend a mix of other live virtual events so you can experience different approaches yourself before you create your own
- Incorporate human factors into programming to optimize for human well-being and experience
- Find the right balance of “next gen experiences” and “back to basics” lo fi experiences
- Don’t overlook pre-event/post-event experiences to drive registrations/satisfaction
- Understand what makes a memorable moment (in a digital context) so you can create them
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?
- What do you want the live virtual event to do (inspire, educate, etc.)? Then you can define your purpose and set specific, measurable goals.
- What do you want attendees to feel? Then you can create memorable experiences.
- What story do you want to tell? Then you can create integrated programming (think experiences, not just speakers) that takes human factors into consideration.
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.
Educate everyone on social networking. Watch The Social Dilemma and explore the work of the Center for Humane Technology. It’s critical — now more than ever — to exercise agency over our digital choices — including if/how you want to participate, as well as the companies and orgs you want to support.
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’m most interested in people whose impact to reach ratio is high — whether it’s the life changing equal justice work of Bryan Stevenson, the sustainable business practices promoted by Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, or the data-driven, global philanthropy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.