Seek real-time feedback. Use a simple 1–10 rating and ask your viewers to share why they rated. You’ll be amazed at how much your audience will share with you to help you improve. They’ll appreciate the fact you are even asking. Mention your feedback form at the beginning, middle, and end of your event.
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 Andrew Sumitani.
Andrew is the Senior Director of Marketing at TINYpulse. An employee engagement platform for CEO’s and CHRO’s to keep track of how employees are doing. Especially relevant today — with lots of businesses who have had to go remote suddenly or make other changes affecting employees. Andrew is a frequent guest on marketing and leadership podcasts for his unusual take on how to recruit and build great teams.
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”?
Sure thing, I answered a tweet recently on #MarketingTwitter asking what you wanted to be when you were a kid. I answered Superman. Anything is still possible I suppose. Growing up I was on the track to going to a music conservatory and becoming a professional violinist. I still play today. Just not as my day job.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
It really boiled down to a desire to learn and sit with the best. I joined BuddyTV in 2010 where I learned about online advertising and publishing. I owe just about everything I learned to the two Seattle-area entrepreneurs who bet on me, David Niu and Andy Liu. I also got a taste of B2B sales there. I wore a lot of hats before we were acquired. All throughout that time, David was an incredible mentor and steward of my career. I had the opportunity to work with him again at TINYpulse, a company he founded and leads with a mission of making employees happier.
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?
One time I flew to Montreal the day before an important meeting. Our CTO missed the flight because he forgot his passport at home. I had to pick him up early the next morning in Montreal. What I didn’t know was the meeting was a couple of hours drive from the airport. So over 24 hours I probably drove about 9 of them in a Dodge Dart basically picking somebody up from the airport. I didn’t have an international plan on my phone or anything. I got a lot of thinking done that day.
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?
Quite recently my wife got me a cookbook that blew me away actually. A cookbook. It’s by Magnus Nilsson, the famed Swedish chef who woke up one day and decided to close his world-renowned restaurant. He published some of their signature recipes. But what blew me away were the essays with his point of view on things like creativity, craft, and the restaurant business. The book is close to 100 dollars but super worth it in my opinion.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite right now is “Hell yes or no” which happens to be the title of Derek Sivers’s latest book. As a father of a small toddler during the pandemic, I’ve had to say no to a lot of things. Both at work and at home. I think this quote is interesting because while it does mean saying no to a lot of things… it leaves room to say hell yes to what’s really meaningful. That’s the whole point of it.
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?
For five years running, we’ve run an annual user conference in Seattle where a few hundred customers come to learn and network. I was in charge of the last three. The very latest one we decided to go completely virtual because of COVID-19 and, at that time, travel restrictions.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
What’s interesting about TINYcon is we had to make the decision rather suddenly. And it actually turned out to be a bigger event than any of our live in-person ones. No one expected us to double our attendance which is exactly what happened without any loss of quality. A prideful moment if you ask me.
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 actually think companies who are going smaller are doing it right. For example, the cookbook I mentioned above came with a live Q&A event with Magnus Nilsson himself. I thought this was an incredibly effective execution. So if I were a business running events I would keep them super exclusive, almost VIP in nature. This ensures you have the right people in attendance but not so big you lose the structure, timing, and pace. To make up for volume, do them somewhat more frequently.
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 not accounting for the faster pace of virtual events. A speech that takes 45 minutes on live stage probably gets done in about 30 minutes online. So plan for more content. The second mistake is not making it interactive. I see way too many events that do not use live polling, Q&A, or other features. It costs nothing to use these and they are incredibly effective at increasing audience engagement. Plus, it makes it more memorable.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
We’ve used Zoom webinars. Plenty of tools do similar. The proof is in the programming.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
Invest in a great camera. If you have a DSLR get a mini-HDMI cable for a few bucks. You can get a fantastic image quality. Nobody’s doing this and if you’re one of the few events that actually look great you’ll stand out above the rest.
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 — Program your content so you can hook your audience in the first 30–60 seconds. Or they will consider leaving or doing something else leaving your event in the background. You might think it’s hard to keep people paying attention. I disagree. If people can watch Game of Thrones for hours on end, they can watch your event. But you HAVE to make it gripping.
2 — Find speakers who speak well on camera. Which is not the same as stage presence. It’s worth the extra prep. Just ask speakers you don’t know to share video of their past gigs.
3 — Consider switching your format. Not everything has to be a speech followed by Q&A. Try speaking for 10 minutes followed by Q&A. Then speak for another 10 minutes. More Q&A. This stops your audience from going long periods without interacting.
4 — Camera presence is different from stage presence. Send your speakers a soft-box photographer’s light to make them look great. You can get excellent microphones. You can Google other best practices on how to look great on webcam. But the basic message is it’s cheap and there’s no reason not to do it.
5 — Seek real-time feedback. Use a simple 1–10 rating and ask your viewers to share why they rated. You’ll be amazed at how much your audience will share with you to help you improve. They’ll appreciate the fact you are even asking. Mention your feedback form at the beginning, middle, and end of your 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?
Announce your event. You don’t have to commit to doing anything yet. Just announce you’re thinking about doing event X. And collect early interest signups. If you don’t get any signups no sweat. Just try announcing another event idea. Nobody will remember. Really. But if you do get a few hundred signups, you get to go back to your boss and say your event is going to be successful because you already have interest.
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 would develop a standard language for everyone in the world to use. To me bringing good to the world is more about eliminating bad. There’s a staggering amount of bias, fear, and alienation people exhibit because they just don’t understand each other. If we can eliminate that and understand each other better, we stand a better chance at unleashing the good I believe humans already have.
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.
Charlie Munger, Oprah Winfrey, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I think these are a few individuals who I believe approach life with an actual strategy. Maybe it doesn’t work out all the time. But they applied a set of principles and achieved. Rather than floating on the wind like most of us.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.