Lis Harper of Medley: “Community ”

Music — Music has a subconscious effect on the brain, and the right music in any setting can set the tone, lift people up, energize an audience, bring peace, and offer our conscious brains a moment’s rest. Incorporating music in transitions, as breaks between programming, and anywhere else it may fit, will go a long way toward […]

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Music — Music has a subconscious effect on the brain, and the right music in any setting can set the tone, lift people up, energize an audience, bring peace, and offer our conscious brains a moment’s rest. Incorporating music in transitions, as breaks between programming, and anywhere else it may fit, will go a long way toward keeping audiences connected.

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 Lis Harper.

Lis brings a passion for thoughtful communications and creative energy to her role as a Strategist and Account Executive at Medley Inc. With over a decade of experience in digital marketing, message strategy and project management, she offers clients a wealth of diverse industry and audience insights. Her services include guiding and producing virtual events, securing press placements, crafting strategic social media campaigns and supporting the needs of clients and teams.

Prior to joining Medley Inc, Lis translated policy research into compelling stories for the public and guided the launch of new websites and social media platforms to leverage digital communications for audience growth at nonprofits. She served as the communications and marketing manager for nonprofits and supported the needs of business, government and nonprofit clients as a consultant.

Lis has a Bachelor of Arts in History from Indiana University and a Master of Arts in Public Policy with a Concentration in Women’s Studies from The George Washington University.

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 Indianapolis, living with my mother in a small ranch house on a large piece of land. It was just the two of us, and she was an English teacher, so I had ample opportunities to create my own stories and means of entertainment, not to mention imaginary friends. I loved school and have fond memories of attending enriching summer programs at IUPUI in downtown Indianapolis, where I could take classes in computer science, art, dance, writing and more. When we weren’t in school, my mother and I would take adventurous road trips to Florida or New Mexico to visit family. My fondest memories of childhood stem from those vacations where the sound of my mother’s laughter would echo throughout the house, and my family made even simple activities like shopping at Target highly entertaining. One of my other stand-out experiences was participating in my high school theatre program for three years. From backstage techie to stage manager, from actor to director, I learned an extraordinary amount about what it takes to produce a quality performance. These skills would come in handy in my professional experience.

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

I was always a curious child, and that attribute, combined with my extensive writing experience, propelled me into a development position with a think tank in Washington, D.C. Eager to learn more and be helpful, I dove into new projects including updating the organization’s website (in Dreamweaver, back in the day before streamlined content management systems were popular and accessible), overseeing report publications and press relations, and launching the organization’s brand on social media. Through each new role, I continued to add experience in different areas, such as program development and special event management, but my curiosity and passion always collided around digital marketing and PR. When I discovered agency life, I knew I was home. It could be because my mom believed she had (undiagnosed) attention deficit disorder, but I was always most comfortable in an environment where a myriad of challenges and topics presented themselves each day, so agency life was a natural fit.

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?

Early on in my career, I was tasked with crafting an invitation letter for a very influential policymaker to join a panel discussion hosted by my organization. I wanted to show initiative and move the project along, so I sent the letter myself. When a swift rejection came back, I was advised that the better approach would have been to put the invite into the hands of more senior staff so that it carried more weight. While I was embarrassed at the time, I can laugh at it now as I learned that getting a job done quickly is not as important as getting things done well.

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?

Like many millennials, I have turned to podcasts to stay informed on the latest news in politics, policy and other topics of importance to me. Don’t get me wrong, I still watch the news on TV daily (just as I did with my mom when I was a child) and listen to local radio, but podcasts have become a primary source for gathering information and learning about new topics and stories. One of the podcasts that has most impacted me is Pod Save The People with host Deray McKesson. Deray and his co-hosts (shout out to Brittany Packnet Cunningham and her own new podcast Undistracted) provide a powerful weekly run-down of news stories not reported on either MSNBC or Fox News. The hosts are people of color and bring a diverse, under-represented lens to the news, and the stories and research reports they share are often not captured or reported in any mainstream media. This podcast and other similar podcasts (Undistracted, Our Body Politic, Call Your Girlfriend) are so meaningful to me because they challenge my standpoint and allow me to better understand the world from being my position of privilege.

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

One of my favorite musicians, Ani DiFranco, said in a song, “I walk like I’m on a mission ’cause that’s the way I groove. I got more and more to do and less and less to prove.” I love this for a couple of reasons. I’ve always walked with a fierce purpose, to the point where colleagues from a previous job shared with me that I startled them when I’d walk down the hall. There’s also comfort in the juxtaposition of “mission” and “groove” — if you can’t dance with a purpose or dance through your life, maybe it’s time to change your soundtrack. The second line of this quote reminds me of my mom and of the wisdom and grace I’ve watched come to so many women as they age. We’ll always have plenty to do but as the years go by, I find myself appreciative of the lack of concern I have for trying to prove myself or my worth to everyone.

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?

My time in high school theatre served me well when it comes to event management. From lectures and panels to luncheons and social engagements, I have years of experience organizing all aspects of various events. From start to finish, an event has to be clearly crafted, with crisp messaging that not only reaches but resonates with the target audience. I’ve learned that keeping an audience engaged and entertained comes both from the content of the event and from the surrounding influences, from lighting and sound to refreshments and other audience members. A high-quality event can be successfully pulled off when strategic thinking is applied to every part of the process, and a team can flexibly follow or derivate from the run of show as needed.

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

We have all pivoted rapidly into the world of virtual events for everything from meetings to fundraisers, entertainment to professional conferences. We’re all learning lessons quickly, and I think two key themes that have emerged for me are the importance of rehearsal and the value of redundancy. A tech run-through is key to identifying gaps from lighting and sound to backdrops and scripting. Rehearsals are a key to success but at the same time, events cannot be too rehearsed lest they become stale. Additionally, having backups available across the board, from extra team members on hand to pre-recorded video in case of a technical breakdown, will help ensure live virtual events run smoothly and gafs are kept to a minimum.

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?

One of the most compelling virtual live events I’ve seen recently is the Democratic National Convention. The producers were interviewed in Variety to share their story, and I found it to be an interesting read. Conventions thrive on the energy of being present in the room, sharing the experience with thousands of people, but given the constraints of COVID-19, none of that was possible, and yet the energy of the event and engaging pace ensured that each night offered compelling content. I was impressed by the thoughtful use of hosts navigating viewers to different segments, and the interplay of pre-cut packages alongside live shots and conversations, all with dynamic visuals and music and at a pace that felt similar to and yet nothing like in-person conventions. It felt as though they were able to capture the energy of a stadium event and translate it to viewers so that everyone became an equal participant.

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?

When people try to take a full event, say a conference or fundraiser, and retain every piece of the in-person event in a virtual setting, the event is bound to be challenging. No event should last longer than an hour if virtual. If it does, the run of show must include ample breaks as well as spaces and opportunities to go into small groups, hold discussions, and access different types of content to refresh their interest. Careful planning and strategy from the get-go must be implemented, along with a thoughtful approach to balancing necessary messaging with the audiences’ need for entertainment.

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

My team and I have had great success running events with Streamyard. This robust platform offers a simple interface, ensuring that teams can control a variety of event elements from graphic and video overlays to the number of speakers and even audience engagement. Streamyard also has easy-to-use processes for bringing in pre-recorded content in the event of a technical error or loss of connection.

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

Beyond Streamyard, which is an extraordinary platform, learning the functionality of video editing software such as Animoto and graphic creation software such as Canva can help wrap a live virtual event with elegance and style. These platforms are relatively simple to use, but when in doubt, the best approach is to contact professionals like the team at Medley who can help take the burden of virtual event production off your hands. A solid team is just as important as the tools and software used to produce an event.

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.)

There are so many ideas to be implemented into a powerful, compelling virtual event that helps bring people together and keep them engaged. These are my top five:

  1. Music — Music has a subconscious effect on the brain, and the right music in any setting can set the tone, lift people up, energize an audience, bring peace, and offer our conscious brains a moment’s rest. Incorporating music in transitions, as breaks between programming, and anywhere else it may fit, will go a long way toward keeping audiences connected.
  2. Community — Virtual events by their nature make us feel disconnected from one another in a way that we can’t experience the event together. Ensuring a mechanism for community engagement — whether through a robust chat, breakout rooms for small groups, small Zoom groups to collectively participate in events, or other means — will help ensure people feel a shared sense of experience around the event.
  3. Visuals — Television news outlets have known this for a long time now, and virtual event producers will do well to learn the lesson. When a speaker has been on screen long enough to make a point or communicate the opening message of a segment, cutting to a package of graphics, visuals, b-roll and other visually interesting elements will go a long way towards keeping audiences’ attention.
  4. Brevity — I’m sure you’ve heard or said, in the past three to six months, that you are “Zoomed out.” We all have virtual fatigue, which is why it is crucial that events focus on ways to keep both the segments and the overall event brief. People on average tend to lose interest or disconnect from virtual events after one hour, so if your content requires more time than this, it’s best to figure out ways to break up the content into more digestible, manageable chunks to retain audience participation.
  5. Back-up — Everything can be prepared and rehearsed to be executed flawlessly, but if one producer or speaker loses internet connection or a microphone quits working, the event will face severe challenges. Ample time for planning, rehearsal, and the preparation of back-up content is essential to preserve the integrity of the event for viewers. Use the opportunity for technical checks with speakers, performers, and any other talent as a time to record the packages so that back-up content is available in case of emergency.

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?

A recent report indicated that people plan to wait at least six months before attending events in person, so we are in this space of virtual events for longer than anyone may prefer. That said, virtual events can be incredible with a few key steps. When an idea comes to mind, the first step is to think it through. Who is your audience and what do they want? What are the resources you have available in terms of talent, visuals, music, and more? When will your event take place and is it in conflict with anything else your audience might prefer to watch? When you have a good sense of all of these elements, the best next step is to bring in experts — whether the team at Medley or another group — to help design and present a virtual event that you can be proud of.

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.

As a mother who loves her work outside the home, I recognize the incredible benefits of my privilege to be able to balance work and caregiving, but for far too many it is far too hard. If we truly believe in investing in our future, by both supporting the existing talent of women and mothers in the workforce and the future potential of children, we need to get serious about the structural inequality that too often leaves women and mothers to fend for themselves when it comes to figuring out quality child care, education, and other caregiving needs for families. Women shoulder far too much of the burden in this regard, and while we are strong and capable people, it simply should not be this difficult or impossible, and the benefits would have a significant ripple effect in the economy and on our future.

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 relish the opportunity to learn from the tenacity and creative genius of Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes has built an entertainment empire in spite of the most difficult barriers in entertainment, and I would love to learn more about how she created so much extraordinary content that centers the experiences of women and people of color as the primary lens through which stories are told. There’s something utterly uplifting about being able to truly connect with characters and stories because they’re told from a vantage point that you can understand and connect with, and I also happen to completely agree with her that teachers make far too little money for the work they do with our kids. Maybe she can help me get my movement for systemic change in child care and education off the ground.

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

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