How to clear the 5 hurdles I faced with my first paid virtual conference

A few days ago, one of our speakers, Leo Piccioli, emailed us to share that he had just hosted his first paid virtual conference — for 70 attendees from an automotive enterprise.

We asked how it went, and he offered to share some insights.

A lot of the roadblocks that Leo came up against are likely issues a lot of speakers transitioning to virtual events are running into.

With this post, we are going to draw on our collective insights here at SpeakerHub, along with providing you with additional resources, to help you overcome these obstacles.

Here are the 5 hurdles with online-only presenting many speakers are struggling with.

Issue 1: The audience did not know how to use the conferencing platform

Here is the issue Leo laid out:

I can’t hear you”, Pedro wrote in the chat, right after my (hopefully) funny introduction.”

I was picturing everyone at least smiling, but had to quickly turn my attention to helping him. It was easy to solve: volume on his side was too low.”

Most of the attendees had joined prior to the hour (I asked them to), but the two or three that arrived late had these types of problems.”

But part of my mind kept on thinking, ‘What did I do wrong?’”

My client was a car dealership 1K miles from my home and had not used Zoom meetings before. Either way, my presentation was guaranteed to be memorable: their first virtual conference … or their first virtual fiasco.”

In preparation, I created a brief invite (enough for them to connect) and attached a pdf to fill out the detail.”

Summary: When people arrive late or have not tried the platform before, it can cause disruptions and delays.

Solution: Make onboarding as clear as possible and adjust your agenda accordingly

There are a multitude of different platforms being used right now to bring people together — empathize with your audience.

Imagine that this is the fourth platform they have been expected to learn…this week.

How can you make this as easy as possible for them?

Could you make a quick 3-page visual guide?

Write out the steps in an engaging way?

Create a quick video of you introducing yourself and explaining the steps?

Think of ways to help your audience connect as efficiently as possible.

Also, build time into the beginning of your virtual event for latecomers to arrive.

This may seem counterintuitive if you want to start off your presentation with a bang, but it is worse to be mid-bang and have to stop and try and pick up momentum again. Adding 5 to 10 minutes at the very beginning of your agenda to connect and gather everyone together can help you clear the hurdle of latecomers interrupting, while you get the chance to engage with your audience.

This is not to say that you sit in awkward silence for the first five minutes — instead come up with ideas on how to connect and network with your audience. You could open a discussion right off the bat and ask them questions — like what they hope to get out of the webinar, and what issues they are most struggling with at the moment.

Issue 2: Answering questions interrupt my presentation flow

Here is the second issue Leo had:

“An interesting question popped up in the chat right in the middle of a key point in my message, and I did not want to interrupt my flow to answer the question.

Later, I had to find the time and attention to go back in the chat and answer it.”

Summary: When audience members ask questions, it is challenging to efficiently answer them without breaking the flow of the presentation.

Solution: Utilize co-hosts and presentation assistants

“No man is an island.”

-John Donne

If you are doing an online presentation for more than 10 people, consider utilizing a co-host or a presentation assistant.

Questions and issues are bound to come up, and to offer the best experience these should be seamlessly worked into the presentation.

Think of this as an opportunity — every audience member is able to ask their questions and share insights, something previously very difficult to achieve in physical events. You could think about setting up polls where you could gain insights and stats from your audience or find out exactly what are the most common questions and concerns from your industry. Gaining insights from each individual attendee can be an asset.

However, questions and issues can be a lot to manage solo.

There are many ways to bring in help. Here are some ideas:

1. Find a co-host

Is there another speaker or expert from your industry who is also struggling with this issue at the moment? Look at teaming up. They can help you with your sessions, and in return you can help them with theirs. This is also an added benefit to the event organizer and audience, as your co-host’s insights can be valuable.

How you work out settling on compensation should be clearly discussed before the session, so that you don’t run into issues afterwards.

2. Ask the organization for a helper

When discussing the event with the organizer, simply ask if they have someone available who could help you run the session.

There might be a team leader who is scheduled to attend the session who could also help by leading the session, offering support and answering or collating questions.

3. Hire a virtual assistant

Virtual assistants can help you run your webinars, but they can also help you manage your time better, improve your communication, help you with specific projects where you lack the skills (like graphic design or analytics), and free up your time so you can focus on the big picture of running your speaking business.

At some point in your business’ growth, it will become essential to start working smarter rather than more. Investing in a VA to help you with your webinars can be the perfect transition from running solo into creating a growing, thriving, larger-scale business.

You can hire VA’s who have experience as webinar assistants, or you can hire a more general VA and train them in the best way to support your presentation.

If you’d like to learn more about hiring and working with VAs, read this article next: “Expanding your solopreneur speaking business: is it time to hire a virtual assistant?

Issue 3: The audience is disengaged and distracted

Leo outlined the issue like this:

“Everyone has their own life: who has never been distracted or played Candy Crush when on a conference call. Everyone.

At the end of my presentation I wanted to hear (and to have all of the attendees hear) their applause — so I enabled all the microphones.

All seventy at the same time. Someone was cooking. I heard cartoons in the background. Another was driving — It was crazy.”

Summary: When people are participating remotely, there are a lot more distractions and audience engagement can be more challenging.

Solution: 6 ways to level-up your audience engagement tactics

Realistically, you will not be able to engage your whole virtual audience for 100% of your presentation.

From late-night show hosts to politicians, we can see that working from home with your families and pets will lead to constant distractions.

Your job is not to try and fight or control this, but to offer an experience so engaging they will be motivated to stay with you amidst the distractions.

Over the past few years, the team here at SpeakerHub has been creating resources that can help you level-up your audience engagement.

Here are some resources to get you started:

1. Engage with your audience

This is easier said than done.

Engaging an online audience presents a different set of challenges from a physical audience. However, the pillars of establishing engagement are the same.

The audience needs to feel like their attention is essential, and they wouldn’t want to miss a moment.

Resources for learning more about engaging audiences:

How to establish yourself as a credible speaker

How to get your audience to participate

6 Tips for clicking with your audience

2. Don’t be boring

If you don’t want your audience to be bored, don’t be boring.

If you want your audience to be interested, keep it interesting. While this feels like it should go without saying, if you find that your audience is disengaged and unresponsive, chances are, they are bored.

A few keys ways to minimize boring content is to:

  • switch up your content regularly — so instead of speaking for 20 straight minutes, break it up with videos, polls, expert insights (e.g. your co-host, a video/audio clip), or high-impact visuals.
  • Watch your voice and language. Avoid using jargon and complex language, and make sure to vary your voice pitch (i.e. avoid monotone), and utilise pauses effectively.
  • When going through complex information, be sure to keep it relevant and insightful. Avoid dumping overwhelming amounts of information on your audience.

Learn more about how not to bore audiences:

Presenting complex data? Engage your audience with these 10 tips

Reach more people: cut the jargon and speak for a broader audience

Can you re-engage a bored audience?

6 Mistakes to avoid when presenting data

3. Learn how to engage in a webinar-specific way

While many of the above articles have insights specific to physical audiences, we have also created resources specific to engaging online-audiences.

Having a well-prepared, well-thought-out online presentation, with engagement built into the session at every turn, can be the difference between someone opening up Candy Crush or putting their laundry in the dryer, or being captivated by the experience you are offering.

Here are some ideas on webinar-specific audience engagement:

Captivate your webinar audience: how to create an engaging online event

5 ways to make your webinar interactive

The comprehensive webinar checklist

4. Use the right tech

Apart from your webinar platform, which may have tools like polls and chat boxes built-in, there are other aids you can use to keep your audience engaged throughout your presentation — from killer videos to visually impactful slides, to using social media to incorporate a wider audience.

Having the right tech in place, and, where necessary, ensuring your audience knows how to use it, can help you boost engagement.

More on this topic:

Presentation slides: from boring to engaging and shareable

Using killer videos in your training sessions for top-level audience engagement

Interactive presentations: How tech can help increase audience engagement

31 of the best smartphone apps for presenters and professional speakers

5. Become a more engaging storyteller

Never underestimate the power of a good story.

When creating your presentation, look for areas to incorporate specific stories that can help relay your message while engaging your audience.

Here are some ideas on telling engaging stories:

8 Storytelling techniques to use on stage

7 Storytelling techniques used by the most inspiring TED presenters

5 Things stage actors can teach you about professional speaking

6. Incorporate humor

How do comedians keep the attention of their audience for an extended period of time without notes, PowerPoints, or Q+As? How can they keep an audience hanging on their every word in anticipation? There is power in the punchline.

While we are not suggesting you dump your presentation for a stand-up routine, incorporating more humor into your presentation is a surefire way of ramping up engagement.

Note that it is essential that you tailor your jokes and funny stories to your audience, and that the humor comes across as authentic. Lean into your personal sense of humor where possible.

For example, if you never normally tell jokes, and are rather inexperienced at it, a live webinar might not be the time to try this out. Instead, think about telling a story about your life in quarantine that is funny and that others can relate to, or share a funny meme that is relevant to your presentation or industry.

In times of crisis it can be seen as inappropriate to crack jokes, but bringing some positivity to your audience in troubling times can offer some much-needed relief.

Learn how to use more humor in your presentation

5 Tips on using humor to engage your audience

7 Things comedians can teach you about public speaking

Make them laugh: How to generate humor from more angles of your talk

Issue 4: Things fail.

We have all had this happen, but Leo described the issue as such:

“‘Keep calm and carry on’ was my mantra. Even though the cacophony drove me nuts, every time there was an interruption or something went wrong, I kept repeating it to myself.

At one point, my cat walked behind me and appeared on camera (cats do that), and I got distracted. I lost my line of thought, hitting a blank for a few seconds that felt like forever.”

Be aware: Things will fail.

You are there to give value, not to be perfect.”

Summary: When things go wrong, it can disrupt your ability to offer a great presentation.

Solution: Prepare and have a Plan B

Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Without this essential step, when problems arise you will struggle to fix them, which will interrupt your flow and could negatively impact your ability to offer an impactful message.

Having a Plan B will help you navigate quickly and effectively when you hit obstacles.

Imagine the worst-case scenarios, then create the solutions for them in advance.

Examples:

1. Problem: Your internet goes down.

Solution A: Link your smartphone as a temporary hotspot

Solution B: Invest in a secondary Internet connection

2. Problem: There is construction going on outside

Solution A: Have a microphone with noise-cancelling capabilities and/or a sound booth.

Solution B: Set up a secondary, quieter “workspace-appropriate” area where you can go if necessary.

3. Problem: Your cat comes into the room and would like a treat. Right now.

Solution A: Make sure your workroom door is closed and that family members know you are presenting. You can even ask them to support you by distracting the cat.

Solution B: Work the cat into your presentation — you can be creative here. For instance, if you get distracted by your cat, tell the audience, and use it as a way to engage with them and connect with them about how working from home can be distracting, but that there are ways to work with it.

By planning for the issues that can come up, when they do you will have a plan of action you can immediately adapt to overcome the obstacle seamlessly.

Make sure you’ve tested all your audio and video equipment a few times before the event. Even if you’ve tested it once already, or have used it half a dozen times before, another test before going live never hurts.

Also, be sure to test your software; visual presentation, video links, audio recordings, etc., well before your presentation so that you have enough time to sort out any unforeseen issues. You don’t want to be scrambling moments before your presentation.

Issue 5: Audience members break the rules.

One roadblock Leo ran up against was when audience members broke the “rules”. Here is how he described it:

“I set some rules. ‘You can ask questions whenever you want as long as you use the chat function. Please keep your mic silent’, I repeated this (and silenced all users myself) quite often. Nevertheless, I still had a couple of interruptions with comments. I decided to focus on the content and give value, rather than focusing on discipline and demanding text comments.”

Summary: When audience members interrupt, it can be distracting and disruptive.

Solution: Learn how to deal effectively with interrupting audience members

Interrupting audience members can be a problem in both live and virtual events. Here are 5 steps for dealing with this challenge.

Be clear about your expectations before and at the start of the presentation. Explain the agenda, and let the audience know when there will be time for questions and comments. Clarify the most appropriate way for them to communicate.

In most situations, the audience member does not realize they are being rude or breaking the rules. They have something to say and don’t know the best way to say it. If the way to say it is made clear to them, they will likely use the appropriate channels.

Never reward interrupting: What do you do if someone starts to talk over you? Keep talking. It might take a few seconds, but it will make the interrupter (and any potential interrupters) understand that they are out of line. Nine times out of ten they stop talking.

Ask them to stop interrupting: If you have an audience member who keeps interrupting you even after you’ve talked over them and then heard them out in your own time and calmly responded, make a firm request for them to stop.

Here are some examples of how you could phrase this:

“I’m finding it difficult to progress with my presentation. Please could you hold any more comments until the end of the presentation?”

“I appreciate the great audience participation here, but I do need to get back to my presentation. We’ll have time for questions at the end”

“Interesting point. To give it it’s due, I’d like to come back to this at the end of the presentation.

Manage your own emotional state: In this kind of confrontational situation, many people go into a reactionary mode. This can raise your stress levels, and make you defensive and aggressive. The risk is that it will be difficult to shake this mindset, and this can throw off your entire presentation. Your good energy will dissipate, and you will no longer be able to think clearly.

Take a deep breath and stay calm. Remove your emotional attachment to the situation and deal with it in a level-headed and relaxed way.

Respond graciously: Sometimes it is necessary to respond to interruptions. When you are responding, it’s crucial to address the whole audience, not just the person who is interrupting.

Be gracious: Be courteous, kind, and pleasant; even to the person who is interrupting you. The best course of action is to be polite, and get your presentation back on track as quickly as possible.

Wrapping it up

This was Leo’s first remote paid speaking engagement, and he has already been booked by another organization. He said to us,

“I think I was a bit lucky (two events is much more than I expected), but also as business culture evolves, nothing will be the same. There is a huge opportunity in the virtual conference market.”

Many speakers are finding the same — there are great opportunities for speakers who can offer engaging, insightful virtual experiences.

We would love to hear your stories, struggles, and successes. Contact us here.

Do you want to read more on this topic? SpeakerHub has created additional resources to help speakers transition to working online:

Read next:

Going virtual: 20 resources for presenters and speakers

Don’t postpone. Pivot to virtual

Social Distancing: strategies to keep loneliness at bay

This was originally posted on SpeakerHub Skillcamp.

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