Support your speakers to do their best. They are probably used to speaking to people or at least around people. It is vital they are supported to bring that same energy and performance when they are speaking to a computer screen. Hire a speaking coach or delegate this task to someone on the team. One of my clients just performed for a global end of year event for a major corporation and half of the speakers weren’t even talking to the camera or acknowledging the audience. Not a good look.
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 Minna Taylor.
Minna Taylor is the Founder of Energize Your Voice, a NYC based communication consultancy. With an experiential approach, rooted in the principles of improv and performance, she and her team support organizations to explore their full potential in public speaking, brand storytelling, executive presence, and leadership communication. Notable clients include UBER, Red Bull, Citi, and E&Y. Minna earned her BFA from NYU Tisch and went on to earn her MFA in Performance with a concentration in speech and vocal production. Beginning her career as an accent reduction specialist, Minna went on to transfer her theatre training to developing an innovative approach for professional development.
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 on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It was a place where everyone knew who you were and people thrived on connecting, telling stories, and celebrating tradition. There was always a campfire burning or guitar being played. My sisters and I would entertain ourselves with hours of make-believe and play dress up from our costume trunk. It was foundational for understanding how to rely on my imagination and how to play well with others. It was the catalyst for my ultimate path of attending NYU Tisch for acting.
Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?
When I would tell people that I was an actress, the first comment would always be “Oh, so where do you wait tables?” They would think they were very clever. I had two support jobs as an actress, neither were waiting tables. I cleaned houses and coached accent reduction for corporate clients. I got the coaching job through an ad on Craigslist right out of graduate school, where I specialized in speech and vocal production. Over the next several years, I began applying more of my acting training to coaching and facilitation around confidence, performance, and influential storytelling. Eventually I came to a decision point, where I had to choose to dedicate more energy to acting or to building EYV. It was the clear decision to follow EYV, the thing that gave me purpose and made me feel like I was contributing meaningfully to my community.
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?
Oh golly, so many. I am an artist at heart. I hadn’t worked in a corporate setting nor was I educated on how to run a business. It was a learn as I go process and you can imagine that led to some moments of, let’s call it charming confusion. When I first started consulting for accent reduction, I didn’t know how to dress for a corporate setting. It was a conservative office and I was showing up in what I thought was business casual, with my nose ring, and a quirky attitude. The woman contracting me very generously invited me over to her apartment and offered me a bag of hand-me-down clothes to look more appropriate. She talked to me about appropriate attire andI was asked to remove my nose ring. I still have a sweater she gave me!
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?
The first place my mind goes is to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. I remember it being the first time I was swept away into a film. The movement, the colors, and commitment of the actors. The accessibility of the character journey through the modernization of a classic narrative. It was mesmerizing. I cried so hard in the theater when the star crossed lovers die! It showed me the power of storytelling. I not only went on to tell stories for a living, but ended up doing my masters thesis on Shakespeare and the character of Prospero in The Tempest. That was a full circle moment.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Practice and all is coming.” — Pattabhi Jois The way I frame this for myself is “Don’t try. Allow.” The basic principle here is to simply be consistent in purpose, intentional in practice, open in mind, and present in body. If all of these faculties are working in unison, you can achieve amazing things. For me that comes through building habits and behavior that is centered on breath. How I move through my day, my work, my life, is largely impacted by how connected I am to my breathing. This has been the greatest gift I’ve given myself, cultivating this practice.
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 probably get it from my mother, she threw the most incredible parties, but I have always been involved in planning events. In college I was part of a sketch comedy group and we would put on shows. I produced a short film and we organized a fundraiser. Gala organizing for a nonprofit. When I started my company, one of the first things I did was create a series of community classes that were held several times a month. Organized panel discussions. So many events! The events I plan are creative, engaging, meaningful, and very well produced. That’s the key. The purpose or function of an event is just a jumping off point. Then the creativity on how to make it amazing kicks in.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?
Our events fall into three categories: Panels, Classes, and Corporate workshops. The biggest consideration for us is how to translate our work through a digital platform. We are a play based experiential training firm. We use improv as a primary tool. You can imagine the challenge in translating this experience virtually. The immediacy of interaction, translating the visceral into the virtual, has been a deep exploration for us. We have found that if we keep the energy moving and show up as hosts with full presence and authority, things flow smoothly and we inspire our participants to step up their level of engagement. I offer a mini voice exercise where you shakeout your entire body with full voice. I initiate the exercise by telling people they will feel silly, but to lean in. Then we all do the exercise together. It’s so incredible to see dozens of people in their homes, shimmying and looking playful. There’s always a big laugh and communal joy after that exercise. It demonstrates that we can all work together even when we’re apart.
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?
When the pandemic first started and we were all trying our best to navigate how the heck to adapt, I was already booked to speak at a conference. Most of our work was cancelled at the onset, but the conference moved forward. It was for Bentley University and their Gearing Up Conference. Not only were they in close communication with the speakers, they selected a platform that was agile and allowed participants to really interact and network. The event was a tremendous success. It was thoughtful, valuable, and engaging throughout. I haven’t been to an event like that since. It was a testament to problem solving and solution orientation. They looked at it as an opportunity to explore and as a result, we all had very positive experiences.
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 most common mistake I see is organizers failing to adjust their efforts. Virtually, most of the energy needs to be spent on pre-production. Once the event starts, there’s nothing much you can do to adjust or adapt that won’t feel disruptive. Preparing your speakers to be effective is vital. Understanding the technical flow of things is often overlooked. We take for granted people’s capability for interacting with our technology, so it’s the responsibility of the organizers to think through how to facilitate a seamless experience. This takes forethought and I often see people neglect this part. It’s not sexy, but it’s necessary. Have tech rehearsals. Over-communicate. It will benefit you tremendously.
Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?
Zoom is what we decided on and we tried a number of platforms. What we determined is that it’s the most universal and capable for basic events. It’s easy to move from speaker view to gallery view. Breakout rooms are simple and really facilitate community building.
Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?
We are pretty low-fi with our work, so we don’t typically use additional tools or software. The most important thing when you’re choosing a platform, is to be totally familiar with the functionality and know exactly how you are going to guide your audience through the interface to get the most out of the event. For example, something simply like breakout rooms can become really chaotic or at least feel that way. By simply saying, “Hey participant, here’s what’s about to happen, this is what you need to do, and here’s how it will be structured…” goes a long way toward creating a seamless and fluid experience. At the end of the day, that’s what is all about. People may not remember all the content, but they’ll remember how they felt about it.
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.)
- Support your speakers to do their best. They are probably used to speaking to people or at least around people. It is vital they are supported to bring that same energy and performance when they are speaking to a computer screen. Hire a speaking coach or delegate this task to someone on the team. One of my clients just performed for a global end of year event for a major corporation and half of the speakers weren’t even talking to the camera or acknowledging the audience. Not a good look.
- Have at least one tech run. I recommend this for all events from large scale virtual conferences to high profile internal corporate meetings. If the tech matters, test it. That way you can get everyone familiar with the commands and functions. You can also talk through the “run of show.” For example, “Okay Mark, after Sally finishes, I’m going to mute her, unmute you, and then spotlight your video.” That clarifies who does what and when. Note that there is also the person who is running the practice run and will be responsible for the backend during the event.
- Match your marketing. I have been to so many events that seemed really interesting on paper. Then I log on and there is no structure, the vibe doesn’t align to the image they promoted, all the hosts look bored in their little video boxes that they didn’t default to speaker view. That’s a bummer experience. Think about the tone of the event. Who are going to be the people attending and how can you surprise and delight them. Key words that inspire behavior. Colors palettes. This can be simple or ostentatious or educational, but make a choice one way or the other and stick to it. All the way from Save The Date through your follow up email.
- Hold attention. Within two seconds of lag time, people will be on their phones, checking emails, or doing something else that is pulling their attention away from the matter at hand. It is your responsibility to keep the energy up, set expectations at the start around limiting distractions, and ensure that the flow keeps going. Think about it as keeping a line of connection to each participant taught. As soon as the line loosens or we let it go, they are gone. Keep hold and keep it tight.
- Create Community. People want to connect! I have been to so many events where “networking” is promoted, but never facilitated. People are busy and they are all making the time to participate. Honor that by making it meaningful. This must happen throughout the event by way of encouraging chat features or breakout sessions, for example. The conclusion of the event should bring everyone together with intention and a clear call to action. The followup to the event should provide a way to continue engagement either with your organization or with one another.
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?
Answer these two questions: Why are you hosting the event? Who do you want to invite? The answers will calibrate all further decision making. If you know what you are in service of and who your audience is, everything else will be much easier to work out.
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.
Kindness as a global value. It requires nothing from anyone, so you are in complete control of implementation without expectation. We can activate it in every decision we make. Imagine how that would shift outcomes and relationships.
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.
Krista Tippett is a tremendous voice for global awakening. Her curiosity and insight is so inspiring.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.