Experiments with online events

For the past ten years I’ve had anything between 50 to 70 speaking engagements and a 150 travel days each year. From workshops for teachers to high-production keynotes for business conferences events have been my bread and butter.

2020 changed this. I won’t be traveling for at least the rest of the year and most likely international conference travel won’t resume for 2021 either. Luckily, producing and delivering the charm, warmth and energy of live events in a virtual setting is a very interesting professional challenge.

Last week I keynoted CSTA 2020, an online event for computer science teachers. We pre-recorded and shot an “editorial”, high-production value keynote and paired it with a live workshop. During the keynote, I was in the chat, answering people’s questions and afterwards hopped into my own little workshop. I was surprised on how intimate it felt and how connected it felt with the people who were attending.

Four observations:

  1. Show & tell is back. Events are about escaping every day routine and I think we are all bored with badly lit office backdrops and slideshows. Time for show & tell!
    My keynote allowed me to establish a world, in this case a physical room, of my imagination and invite the participants in. On the stage I can’t show how I draw, what an algorithm looks like in practice or create intricate props. In some ways virtual actually means engaging more senses: Paul Curzon did a fun workshop on a chocolate Turing machine and I ate my computer at the end. I read about a Barcelona sangria-making AirBnB experience. My own workshop on machine learning had a dance break with Spot the robot (dance like no-ones watching, right?).

2. Go beyond one screen. During my workshop I used Adobe Sketch to live draw with an iPad. Zoom allows you to select different cameras and microphones, and it’s possible to “live-cut” between them.
Using a wide variety of mediums from Fortnite to Google Spreadsheets is something I want to try out next. Most of the audience engagement I’ve seen so far is around polls which feels silly as the entire medium of computers is about interactivity. Given the number one complaint presenters usually have is the lack of audience reaction I’m sure novel ways of participation (beyond emojis :) will emerge.

3. It’s a theather, build the drama. One of the things I’ve learned to do in live keynotes from standup comedians is shifting intensity. To avoid exhaustion the audience needs instances of rest, variation of tempo and a clear beginning, middle and end. In the workshop this meant a few more relaxed, chatty segments (I wish I had done more of this!) where I would draw and answer questions. Another drama idea from theater is Chekhov’s gun (Чеховское ружьё) — a dramatic principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed. Both in the keynote and workshop I had props that were visible in the background I would end up using through the talk, like the drawings on the wall, the mushrooms in the basket and a few books on the bookshelf.

4. Production levels need to go beyond slides. Having a pre-recorded keynote saved a ton of headache on technical aspects, but it also allowed to build production value to the talk and make for a more immersive experience. A surprising source of inspiration has been live recordings of narrative-style podcasts, like Radiolab Live, where a live conversation weaves together elements music, sound design, quotes and video. There’s obviously a lot of know-how in how to use breakout rooms, having moderation & support for people who drop out/ can’t hear technical issues as well as lightning, sounds and other technical aspects I need to learn about.

I think the best online events don’t try to recreate the past, but start with a different experience. This means I need to learn more from the history of theater, set design, live show production, online communities and a bunch of other disciplines!

A few ideas I’m currently thinking about:

  1. There is a lot of research on how spaces help us attach experiences and memories and I think set design is something I’d like to learn more about.
  2. A lot of the vocabulary I’m developing around the community aspect of virtual events comes from Twitch. It is something I need to study more.
  3. Some conferences are sending workbooks, materials and photo opportunity materials (Instagram is one of the main things people do in events!) in advance, this could be something that allows to think about the listener experience in a very all-five-senses manner. Masterclass has been excellent in pairing video with other materials, but with the amount of content I have online it would be easy to scaffold an entire journey for the conference participant who wants to learn/do more.
  4. A bunch of writers on hosting virtual events, mostly from the tech space: YC on Hosting a virtual event
    Ben Evans on Solving Online Events
    First Round on Virtual Events Crash Course
    Matthew Ball on Virtual Theme Park Platforms (+ his writing on Fortnite is also extremely relevant)
    Gianfranco Chicco on Virtual Events Need to Break the Fourth Wall

I like shiny things and software. Childrens book author at http://t.co/BHa0N4JzUW. Co-founder of http://t.co/u9jfb7qnFB. @Codecademy alumni.

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