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Matthew Confer of Abilitie: “Pre-event messaging is key with virtual events”

Pre-event messaging is key with virtual events. You need to get people excited about what is to come (the teaser to keep them intrigued) and you need to give them the tools for it to be a good experience (the logistics). Before every event, an email goes out including an exciting (but somewhat vague) description […]

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Pre-event messaging is key with virtual events. You need to get people excited about what is to come (the teaser to keep them intrigued) and you need to give them the tools for it to be a good experience (the logistics). Before every event, an email goes out including an exciting (but somewhat vague) description of what they will experience. This is the teaser. They also get a link to test their system for the technical requirements to log-in. This is the logistics.


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 Matthew Confer.

Matthew Confer is the Vice President of Strategy at Abilitie, a Leadership Development company based in Austin, Texas that provides immersive business simulations to a global client base that includes over 50 members of the Fortune 500. In the past three years alone Abilitie’s leadership programs have been delivered to over 20,000 corporate professionals in more than 30 countries.

Matthew has spoken on the topic of decision making at the TEDx Conference with a talk entitled “Before You Decide”. Matthew also hosts the Learn To Lead Podcast where he speaks with authors, professors, creatives, and business leaders about their leadership journey and how they are working to develop the leaders of tomorrow.

Matthew has facilitated simulation-based training in North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East for clients including Marriott Hotels, Coca-Cola, Nokia, and CBS. He began his career at Deloitte Consulting and holds an MBA from Boston 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”?

Originally, I wanted to be an anchor on ESPN’s SportsCenter and then I desired to join the legal field due to my love of the show Law & Order. Needless to say neither of those paths crystalized for me, but I’m very happy with the path I ultimately embarked on.

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

I started my career at Deloitte Consulting. One of the last projects I did at the firm focused on new hire onboarding. I was tasked to help redesign the content of the training and actually facilitate the event. I came to find that I had a real interest in talent development. The firm I work for now, delivers simulation-based training events for Fortune 500 companies in 30+ countries around the world. I’m impressed every day with the professionals we get to work with.

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?

The first facilitation I did with Abilitie was actually in the City of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. The client was amazing, and the participants were engaged with the content. Unfortunately, the WIFI in the hotel went out in the middle of our event. Thankfully I was able to bridge the gap of 45 minutes with some additional content, but it is now a funny event to look back on.

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?

Here comes the shameless plug…earlier this year our firm launched the Learn To Lead podcast and made the decision/mistake to let me host it. I have had a blast. We have released over 40 episodes and we are talking to authors, academics, artists, business leaders, community organizers, and many more fascinating people about their leadership journey and their advice for the leaders of tomorrow.

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

My mom would always tell me that “this too shall pass.” It is vital that you think of that in terms of the good and the bad. You can’t rest on your laurels if things are good and you also can’t be bogged down by the bad. If you keep a good attitude, and you focus on the future, you never lose sight of the fact that this too will pass. It leaves you in a state of gratitude, optimism, and allows you to reject complacency.

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?

Over the past 3 years, more than 20,000 professionals from more than 30 countries have participated in one of our training events. We work with corporations, non-profits, and universities to deliver events in-person and fully virtual events. Our organization has run events as small as 8–12 Executives all the way to 300+ person team-building experiences.

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

Over the past 5 years we have been offering our training events as virtual experiences. COVID-19 has had a truly unprecedented impact on training events. We are extremely thankful that we have been cultivated virtual options for our simulation experiences.

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?

Thus far this year I believe Apple deserves an immense amount of credit for taking their in-person product release events and turning them into virtual events that you can stream around the world. They embraced what was amazing about their company, their ability to create compelling product release videos, and they took those lessons to create engaging virtual events.

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 taking the live event and simply copying it over and turning a camera on. You have to think critically about how the audience will interact with the content through a screen versus in person. I don’t believe you need to scrap completely what worked before, but you do need to investigate every component and see what needs to be adjusted for the new medium. Think about the content from the audience/participant’s perspective.

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

We utilize ZOOM simply because the breakout room functionality is so robust. For us, being able to move people in and out of the main room and breakout rooms gives us the capacity to engage participants in different ways. It also gives people opportunities to experience large group discussions and smaller group conversations.

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

N/A to the work we do.

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. Pre-event messaging is key with virtual events. You need to get people excited about what is to come (the teaser to keep them intrigued) and you need to give them the tools for it to be a good experience (the logistics). Before every event, an email goes out including an exciting (but somewhat vague) description of what they will experience. This is the teaser. They also get a link to test their system for the technical requirements to log-in. This is the logistics.
  2. When people log in, you need to WOW them in the first 5–10 minutes. Distractions are the enemy for every event. For virtual events they are even harder to avoid for your participants. How are you going to WOW them early so they stay engaged? For us we either have an icebreaker with small groups, or we lead with a funny story, or an engaging video. You have to keep people on the edge of their seat early so they aren’t shifting their attention to YouTube cat videos.
  3. Break planning is key. We do more frequent, but shorter duration breaks for our virtual events. You have to make it clear up front that people will get breaks to take care of what they need to. Additionally, get creative with breaks. During in-person events you might meet someone at a coffee station. How about running a “in-home” coffee break in breakout rooms during your session? That way people can still meet people over coffee, it is just coffee that they made at home.
  4. Keep participants guessing a bit. Breakout rooms, poll questions, prompts for responses in chat, anything you can do to have the interaction change throughout the event is a win. When we are running an event, we attempt to not have our facilitator go more than 5–10 minutes without getting some sort of interaction going as either an individual reflection/response or as a small group or large group discussion.
  5. Closing an event on time is even more important when the event is virtual. How you close (think back to the importance of “WOW” at the start of the event) and the same theory applies. Make sure you end on a high note and consider your “after the event messaging”. During your planning process you need to be abundantly clear about what you want participants to leave with. Whatever your final activity is, the central focus should be leaving participants with something that will resonate long after the event has concluded.

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?

Imagine that a participant that is considering attending your event is double-booked during your event. Think about your planning through that person’s eyes. Is what you are putting together compelling enough to ensure that they will choose your event. Will you keep them engaged? Will you deliver the content you are promising? Will you leave them tangible insight that will benefit them after the event has ended?

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.

Virtual events make it possible for people from all around the world to participate together. This allows different perspectives to share their insights to allow us all to have a more well-rounded perspective. How are you thinking about ways to bring more different perspectives into the conversation you are hosting?

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.

Professor Galloway from the NYU Stern School of Management

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

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