TIPS for a Mind Blowing 'Online Event' with Interaction

How do you organize an online event where virtual guests stay awake? How do you ensure authentic interaction? And can you just copy an offline format to an online event? All questions for digital moderator Jan-Jaap In der Maur.

Kevin Van der Straeten
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Hi Jan-Jaap, welcome to our studio. Unfortunately it's virtual, due to the Corona-crisis. But I think this will also work.

Yes, it almost feels like I'm sitting next to you.

We're going to talk about on-line events today. And especially in presenting or moderating them.

But before we dive into that, maybe it's important to have a look at: what is an on-line event? Because on the one hand you have...

We all have video calls these days. A Zoom-call, a Skype-call with several colleagues.

And on the other hand I think you might have something like live television shows.

And maybe an on-line event is something in between. But then what makes it different?

I would prefer, if you don't mind, to talk about a triangle and not about a straight line.

Because what you sketched just now, was: on the one hand there is the video calls. Most of the time they are very functional. Within a company we talk about day-to-day processes etcetera.

On the other hand there is the television shows. And they are about broadcasting. About sending out the information or entertainment or whatever.

And what makes on-line meetings different is that on the one hand it's not only functional. There needs to be an emotional component. Where you really engage people. And on the other hand it is not just sending stuff, like broadcasting. There needs to be interaction, going back and forth. Between, let's call it the stage, the speaker or the organizer and the participants. But also amongst the participants. So, it is not somewhere in between functional meetings and television shows. It is something different. Using a few elements of both.

Okay, but what I...

I see myself if I join on-line events. And I did do a couple of them over the last few weeks.

Did you like them?

Well, yes and no. And to be really honest, and that's also why I was asking the question like this, most of the time it was either like a video call or either a broadcasting of information. And I did see a lot of people putting a lot of effort in that and doing a really great job in making a television show. But to be really honest, in between I was emptying the dishwasher and doing other stuff.

Because: it was good content, it had everything it needed. But I couldn't stay in my seat, just watching what was happening. And we're missing something.

Yes and I've witnessed the same.

Let's give credit to all those people that did the really great efforts and experiments etcetera. And technically it was beautiful and it was crazy stuff they did etcetera. But if you do not interact with people and do not engage them, they will not remember what you told them. They will not internalize the behaviour that you want from them. The only way to get people really involved in what you are telling them is by making them act and do stuff and talk to each other.

So, what we should be looking for is: learn from the television shows and learn from loads of other stuff. And then find a way to add something extra. And that extra is what we as live event industry always did: bring people together, talking to each other. Feeling each other.


Okay, that sounds really good, of course. But how do you do that? How do you have on-line interaction? Without it being a gimmick, just like randomly, every half hour: now press a button or we do a quiz. How do you do that in an on-line event?

Well, by making sure that you constantly realize that you are talking to human beings.

I mean, the funny thing is: we are talking through a screen. And on most occasions, that makes you feel like you're not talking to a real person. In our case: I've been on that bench for many, many times. We know each other. Quite well, I think. So, we know that we are both human beings. But, would you have been a completely new interviewer to me, there would be this hazard of us thinking that we are talking to something digital.

Remember, with every step of the way, that it is about human beings. So, make sure that you do stuff with them that makes them feel human. Interact. Be spontaneous. Have fun. Do crazy stuff.

In my meetings, every once in a while, I have people running away from the screen to find something in their house that I order them to get. And that makes them feel human.

The fact that, when I have a screen full of people, and I see a few people smiling, I will tell them. Hey Kevin, I see you smiling. What are you thinking? The fact that, in that small moment, I show you that I see you and that I want to know what you are thinking, that makes it human and that helps people interact.

And another element in this one is: I call it the temporary tribe. With every meeting off-line or on-line, but especially on-line, people should feel part of a group. For the time that they spend together. So, please design exercises or dialogs or formats or whatever, to make that group feel like a group at that point in time.

And if those are your two designing principles, the temporary tribe and humanizing the digital, then you make a great first step in succeeding.

So, it's definitely not the traditional way. You have, at the beginning of the day, a moderator. Then a speaker. Another speaker. A break. A speaker, speaker.

No, I mean, honestly, it shouldn't be like that on stage.

But even more so when on-line, you should rethink the way the build-up of your program is. Start with some interaction, immediately. Start engaging people, immediately. Thus doing the coding for your event in the first three to give minutes, people understand what the event is about.

If I have you listening to speakers for an hour first, and then start interacting, you're already gone.

Yes, indeed. Sounds familiar.

And the big difference between on-line events and live events is: with a live event we can lock people up. We just push them into a room, lock the doors and they can't escape anymore. Probably they're not active, mentally, all the time. But at least you can keep them there.

But is that a good thing? No, I don't think so.

And a great thing about on-line is: you can tell immediately whether you're doing a great job. Because if after a break, half of the people don't come back, well, you probably might not have been that good. So, I like the immediate feedback of people showing up after a break, or not. It's great. 


We are talking about the meeting design.

But of course you also need technology to be able to deliver such a meeting. What are platforms you would suggest event planners should, at least, have a look at?

Zoom is still, for me, the standard because you can have 49 people, almost 50 people in 1 screen and see them all and interact with them all.

That's one. And then, there's a few. I like Hopin. I like Let's Get Digital. I like Remo. I like NetworkTables. Because they are all platforms that are looking into interaction. And having possibilities to have people talk, with cameras and sound etcetera. Rather than only using chat.

I mean, honestly, when Hopin just came to market, it didn't look that great. A bit crappy to be honest. But I didn't mind. Because it facilitated people having real conversations. And if I have to choose between a platform on the one hand that looks absolutely tremendous, but doesn't do any interaction, and on the other hand a platform that looks crappy, but allows me to interact with a lot of people, I'll go for the crappy design and the interaction opportunities.

You mentioned, just before, that with Zoom the advantage is you can have 50 people on your screen.

Does that mean there is a kind of a limit to the maximum of people you can have in an on-line event? Or does it also scale to large rooms?

Yes, I mean, it's the same in live events. Give me a room with 40 or 50 people and I can have more direct interaction and engagement than with a room with 5000 people.

So, that means that if you have two and a half thousand participants on-line, you need to start rethinking your program.

And you need to be aware of the fact that, for some time, you can do plenary, and do a little interaction and a little engagement, with a bit of chatting and a bit of polling etcetera. And then, quite quickly, you need to break them up in groups. And make sure that people find ways or are facilitated to talk in duos, in trios, in groups of 10, in groups of 20 and maybe in groups of 50.

So, break up your program in order to get a maximum of engagement and interaction. Then you can go to any group size.

I witnessed a meeting, a few years ago, and there were over a 100.000 participants. And they were all interacting because there was a structure design where people talked in smaller groups. And then in somewhat bigger groups. And outcomes were transformed into a higher level of grouping. And by the end of the day, everybody contributed to the end result.

Yes, that's really...

Imagine, a 100.000 people, that's brilliant.

Yes and the advantage of on-line is, of course...

If you have a room with a few thousand people and you have to put them in small groups, then you need an hour of logistics to be able to do so.

But in an on-line meeting it's one click on the button and everybody is in small rooms.

Yes and there's nobody: where do I need to go? Where is room 5?

It's here. Click. And you're gone. It makes it easier, yes.


What would...?

From your expertise, because you did a lot of on-line meetings already, what would be a good duration for an on-line event? Because, in traditional congresses we look at a day. Sometimes multiple days. Is that a good idea for on-line events too? Or...?

Well, it's the same remark: I wonder if it's a good idea for live events, in some occasions.

But, in general: yes, you can do three or four days. The only thing you need to do is design, being very aware of what you can ask of people. And of energy fluctuations etcetera.

So, if you do a three day conference on-line, make sure there's more breaks than you're used to. Maybe not as long as you're used to, but more shorter breaks.

Make sure there is more variation in formats. Allow people to take off, for an hour  sometimes, to do other stuff. So, have a clear program and accept the fact that some people will make a choice not to be there on the morning of day 2. But they know that, at 11:30, there is something that they really want to witness. So, then they are back.

Everything is possible. Engagement-wise. Interaction-wise. Planning-wise. Etcetera.

On-line, everything is possible. The only thing you need to do is plan with the human factor in the back of your mind.

Okay. Maybe one last question.

What you do see happening, a lot of times, is that people try to do on-line events or even on-line meetings alone, by themselves. They are doing all the interactions. They're doing the presenting. They're doing...

They're starting the videos etcetera, etcetera. I don't think that's a good idea. I think you need a team to do that.

But what is the minimum you need, from your perspective, to run a good on-line event, from a team-perspective?

Again, I try to imagine these people doing the same on a live stage. They're doing the lighting. The sounds. Everything. The catering. Nobody would dream of doing so.

I think the minimum is two. Because you need to separate content and moderation, and the technological stuff. So, you will never see me touching buttons while I'm moderating. Because I want to concentrate on the flow and the interaction and the connection I make with you and the other participants. So, minimum two. And, fairly quickly, you will need a third.

If you expect a lot of responses or questions in the chat, it really helps to have somebody, who understands what a moderator is doing, taking charge of the chat. Answering the simple questions, so that I don't have to do it. Informing me when there is a kind of red line in all the responses. I will only see a few, because I'm talking to you. So, if somebody else is scanning all the responses, and just slips me a note: JJ, most of them are worried about...

And then I come up with a question: so, Kevin, a lot of people are worried about blablabla...

And everyone will think: what a brilliant moderator JJ is. But, that is because somebody is scanning the chat-stream for me.

So basically I'm a lousy moderator, I depend on people, that you don't see, around me.

Can you turn you camera, so we can see who's there?

No, just kidding.

Jan-Jaap, thank you very much for your time and sharing these tips.

Okay, thank you.

And you at home, thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.