You are not throwing an in-person event, just online, you are throwing a virtual event. You do not have the same level of attention from your attendees, but you can work with that. Set up spaces where people can talk about what they just listened to, and give them time to do so. Ask your speakers to attend the event to interact.
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 Heidi Waterhouse.
Heidi is a transformation advocate with LaunchDarkly. She delights in working at the intersection of usability, risk reduction, and cutting-edge technology. One of her favorite hobbies is talking to developers about things they already knew but had never thought of that way before. She sews all her conference dresses so that she’s sure there is a pocket for the mic.
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”?
My mom was an award-winning speech and debate nerd, and now is a pastor. Growing up as a pastor’s kid means you may always get tapped to talk into the mic, whether you expected to or not. In high school, my specialty was extemporaneous speech. These experiences sparked my interest in public speaking and a career in speaking followed.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
I spent a lot of my career as a technical writer, and I started speaking at technical conferences when I realized that I had a message that I wanted to teach people. Working for multiple companies and educating from the inside was too slow for me! I spent several years balancing technical writing as a freelancer and travelling to speak at conferences, and then moved into developer advocacy, which is all the good parts of both.
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 fell off a stage. Literally. I’m prone to pacing if the A/V setup allows me to, and I was making earnest eye-contact with the audience and just… stepped off sideways. Fortunately, it was only a couple feet high, so I wasn’t hurt, but it was SO EMBARRASSING. But ever since then, I know what the criteria for success will be: don’t fall off the stage. And no matter how I feel about a talk, it will never be as embarrassing as that. So I think my advice is to set a very, very low bar for victory and remind yourself when you clear it.
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 really love the book _Badass: Making Users Awesome_, by Kathy Sierra. She talks about how almost no one wants to use software, they want to do the things that software makes possible. I think that’s a lesson that extends to a lot of things, including technical talks. No one is here because they just really enjoy sitting in conference chairs listening to someone talk to them — they want information, entertainment, or some combination of the two.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Everyone does the thing they get rewarded for”. It’s a paraphrase of a dog-training quote, but also a lot of Business Philosophy. When I don’t understand why something is happening, it helps me to stop and see what there is about the structure they’re working in that makes this a rational behavior. It seems really simple, but once you get into thinking about intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, and organizational structure, and communication styles, you start to see how it’s an interesting problem.
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?
Most of my direct event organization was for volunteer organizations I worked with, but as I moved into a lot of conference speaking, I also got included in CfP evaluation, helping run events for the company I work for, and then, in this year, attending and organizing virtual events. Most of my historical knowledge is about how very difficult it is to organize programming without conflicts. Most of my current knowledge is about lighting for webcams and how important it is not to rely on wifi connections.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
I’ve volunteered to help several conferences with the sudden movement to virtual. One was a conference that I’ve always really admired for their logistics. They had a whole event A/V team and it was actually very effective from that angle, but it turns out that running a panel is really difficult when you have a time-delay/videos of multiple people. I made a little map of who I was going to ask a question to so I made sure everyone got equal time to speak, because I couldn’t lean across and give someone The Eye without everyone in the audience seeing it.
Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s still important to have an anti-harassment team and statement, but they need to have different training, and your event needs to be clear about whether people can get kicked out for bad behavior somewhere other than the actual event.
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?
Not companies, but Cascadia and PyConAU both had excellent experiences as a speaker and attendee. I think the elements that make a virtual event better are:
– Real A/V professionals who can help troubleshoot speaker’s setup ahead of time.
– Some way for speakers to see audience reactions and for people to interact with speakers. One of the variations of this that I really like is having the speaker submit a recording, and then attend their own talk live and answer questions in chat as it happens.
– Some way for attendees to mingle with each other. I really enjoy platforms like Rambly, which use proximity-aware audio, but they are not fully accessible, so that is a consideration.
– A live MC to help tie talks together, cover any technical problems, and generally hold the theme. Cloud Native Kitchen had a very cute “kitchen” theme, down to sending speakers chef’s hats and having the MC speaking from his kitchen.
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?
I think the biggest mistake I see is skeumorphism. This is not the same as a physical event, you don’t need to have “sponsor booths” and “lunch tables”. Instead lean into the things that make online more accessible and powerful. Instead of trying to replicate what it feels like to walk around a convention center, think about what problems you’re trying to solve and how they work with this new format. This is why I recommend pre-recording talks — it’s nerve-wracking enough to get up on a stage in front of people, but now we’re asking speakers to do it live, without even someone to be nice and hand them a water and sit in the front row to look encouraging. Also, it’s easy to want to get more content in and forget about breaks, but people need MORE time to stand up from their screens, not less. Keep your presentation slots and give people enough time to eat in their day!
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
This is a difficult question because every event organizer has a different audience and different goals. That said, I really enjoyed Venueless: https://venueless.org/. As a speaker, it was straightforward for me to call in, I got instant feedback from audience emojis and chat, and the event chat channels were incorporated. After the conference, I spent a couple hours talking with the developer about experience and features, which was a really nice nerd-out. Discord makes a nice communication platform, since you have the option of synchronous and asynchronous communication.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
For your speakers, send lights. There’s almost no home office that is well-lit enough for a good video.
For your attendees, I think it would be nice to set up a place they can share or pool notes, so if anyone has to step away, they can still catch up. I’m exploring using Wakelet to capture my live tweeting.
For everyone, remember to caption! If you pre-record talks, it’s much more economical to send them to a captioning service than to pay for live-captioning, but live-captioning the MC and Q&A is also important. Captioning isn’t just for hard-of-hearing or Deaf people, but for everyone who is taking notes, not great at audio processing, or hollering at a kid to do something. WhiteCoat Captioning is the premiere service that I would cite. They have transcriptionists who know technology words, which is certainly something you don’t get from auto-captioning.
Bonus: I think it’s really fun and engaging to hire a sketchnotes expert to do pictorial notes on all the talks, and it’s a nice thing to be able to use on social media after the conference is over to promote watching the recordings.
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) You are not throwing an in-person event, just online, you are throwing a virtual event. You do not have the same level of attention from your attendees, but you can work with that. Set up spaces where people can talk about what they just listened to, and give them time to do so. Ask your speakers to attend the event to interact.
When I was speaking at PyConAU, I made a joke about chicken parm during my talk, and there was this great discussion in the chat about chicken parm in different Australian cities. It wasn’t relevant to anything, but it did give the attendees something silly and common to talk about, and something besides the talk to remember me by.
2) Lead collection is smaller, but higher-quality. The friction to scan a badge in exchange for a bit of swag is very low. The friction to go to a channel and ask for a demo is much higher. So don’t compare your lead counts from physical events to this.
Our lead count goal for badge-scanning events was something like 10% of attendees. That’s not a metric that works for virtual events, because very few people are attending the whole event, and it is hard to convince someone to type in their information to get sales emails without being able to hand them socks. Honestly, as an industry, we’ve been coasting that way. None of the DevOpsDays events allow badge scanning, and so we already had a model for what to do without it, but even so, our numbers were something between ‘depressing’ and ‘crushing’. But when we looked at virtual events as a way to spread our message and get people to come look at the product on their own time, it wasn’t so bad. Still not great. It’s really hard to tell how much of “no one is in the funnel” is about virtual events, and how much of it is about general caution about buying new things this year.
3) Virtual events have a long tail. Now you have all these great talks — how do you “explode” them? You have a video. Now do a wrap-up blog post, drawing together themes. Do another post on social-media coverage and contents. Do a supercut of talks that emphasizes shared themes in a shorter, more digestible format.
Honestly, this is something we are still working on — we have some great content from our annual conference that we had in August, and we put it online, and wrote blog posts around it, but we need to get it sliced and diced into small snippets that we can post as teasers online. As I’m writing this, everyone is obsessed with TikToks of people singing sea shanties, but the important part of that is that you can see it happen on your timeline without clicking through to anything. We need to do that with our conference content!
4) Hire professionals for what you can. You’re going to want someone who has experience in running a multi-person livestream. You are absolutely going to need a video editor to make you and your content look good.
One A/V team found me a piece of webcam software that makes the Logitech C920 behave well with a Mac, because Logitech’s drivers for MacOS are terrible. Since then, I’ve gotten several compliments on how nice my camera is — it’s the same as many people are using, but I look better because this team had the expertise I needed at the right time. (It’s called WebCam Settings, it costs a few dollars, and it’s great)
5) Embrace the new accessibility. In-person events were very exciting and it was wonderful to spark off people spontaneously. But they also excluded a lot of people — folks who can’t afford travel, or have caring duties, or can’t get visas, they are all showing up to virtual events because it’s possible for the first time. I was at an event in April, and there was someone logged in from Greenland. Have you ever met anyone from Greenland at a conference? I haven’t, and I have STATISTICAL SIGNIFICANCE. I’ve seen more attendees from Nigeria, more attendees who are parents, more attendees whose companies don’t support them. This is so great. I hope we can keep those doors open.
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?
The first thing to ask yourself is what the value of this event is. Is it about getting together people who miss each other, or share a common interest, or want to learn something? I saw a conference recently that was a celebration of rogue-like video games. Who knew that was a community? But it is!
Next, think about attendance and budget. How much can you afford to spend? What do you need to get from it? Is this something other people would help you with? How much can you buy vs building?
Then comes programming, which is the catch-all for talks and workshops and panels and everything else. What do you want to share with people?
All of this has to be done a long time ahead of time. If you haven’t planned an event before, it may surprise you to know that people usually set the dates a year ahead of time, and start working on the rest of it 5–6 months out. The timeline depends partially on your audience and budget, but there are steps that slow everything down — setting a date, advertising, getting content submissions, selecting content, waiting for acceptances, promotions about the content… it’s a lot of planning.
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.
Thank you! The thing I volunteer time toward is education about consent and healthy relationships, especially for teens. We can’t expect them to make good choices if we don’t give them as much information as we can.
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.
If it was safe for her, I’d love to sit down with Kathy Sierra and talk through her philosophy of software and usability.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.