How to turn a real-life conference into a good web-event

As a passionate translator between IT and non-tech people my main credo has always been: “Put yourself in the shoes of your audience“.

During the last, challenging days and weeks I got some requests for support from people who have known me for some time. Those people know that a) I am both curious and technology-loving and b) that I’m always up for a simple, hands-on solution in turbulent times to make things happen.

One of the main questions I got: “How do I turn a real-life conference into a good web-event?”

Let me give you a quick overview on the four steps to a successful web-conference (inspired by the Deming cycle):
1.Preparation, 2. Execution, 3. Follow-up, 4. Improvement

4 steps to a successful web-conference: preparation, execution, follow-up, improvement

Phase 1: Preparation

Create an overview

  • Define your topic and create your story line
    Depending on whether you are preparing a sales presentation or a training session you will need to use different material and media. Draft your story line and limit yourself to a reasonable amount of content. Well, that’s always hard, but your audience will be thankful for a crisp and pointed online presentation. And to be honest: this is always true, no matter whether you are giving a real-life or an online presentation.
  • Think about your audience
    Language, tone, and the level of details of your presentation depend on your audience. Is it your internal sales team, do you give a product introduction or a training. Is your audience international? Do you know them personally or are you fishing for their attention? Are they used to technology and trained in the usage of online technology?
  • Build your own team
    As an example: have 1-2 presenters, one or more people as backup for clarifying or sort incoming questions and one tech support who could take care of individual issues from participants. Brief all of them so everybody knows her/his role during the event.

Prepare your own session

Most likely you will use a PowerPoint presentation or equivalent to guide your audience through the meeting. Please be aware of a few, but important topics:

  • Avoid visual confusion and overload
    Imagine you are the recipient and you do not know what to focus on. As a presenter you have to guide your audience through your story clearly as you can’t point physically or support your presentation e.g. with body language. This means that you have to balance between visual highlights and written/spoken elements. Too many colorful pictures, poorly chosen and in different styles do not replace one clear statement. If you want to highlight text, always use the same style (e.g. underlined, bold, different text color).
  • Structure your content properly
    It is not only about the structure of your content, but also the structure of each slide. There is much said about preparing a good, easy to follow and memorable presentation. So let’s reduce this paragraph to the absolute minimum:

    • Find your style and stay as consistent as possible.
    • Test it on different devices Desktop large screen, laptop small screen, tablet, mobile to make sure that text can be read and picture resolution is sufficient.
    • Consider a format different from your usual company PowerPoint master. Most of those documents have a heavy header and footer section and leave only small space for real content. For the web session you might use a light or slim version, e.g. giving your company logo only at the end/ the beginning of the presentation in full size.
  • Use correct grammar and punctuation
    Hint: to avoid inadvertent mistakes in PowerPoint texts you can mark all objects or text boxes you want to review and set your desired language in the “Review” ribbon. This is especially helpful if the software and presentation language are different. Example: in a German PowerPoint installation usually German is used as the predefined document language. It does not automatically recognize the language used in the contents and therefore does not suggest corrections.
  • Have an eye on details
    Please follow at least these simple rules to give your attendees eyes an easy time:

    • Start headline and text at the same places (e.g. headlines top left, not centered)
    • Use sans serif instead of serif fonts
    • Use a maximum of three different font sizes (e.g. headline, text, caption)
    • You can’t point with your hands and arms. Give even more visual orientation, e.g. if you have a list of topics, highlight the topic you are currently referring to or break the list in a number of different slides, e.g. with a supporting graphical detail. Please do not forget to give an overview first and summary at the end.

Example slide with improved visual orientation

  • Prepare and test interaction and the usage of media
    In case you personally want to welcome your audience with a live introduction using a laptop or web camera:

    • Test your camera and audio settings
    • Place the camera at head level
    • Test switching back to the presentation
      It is disturbing for your audience if you are desperately looking for the right browser window to present next.

If you want to play a video: There are different ways to embed this into your presentation. You can either embed this into your presentation as a separate file or preopen it in a browser or player window. In all cases

  1. Make sure the source is available. If necessary, download the video and save it on your computer, so you don’t have to rely on your internet connectivity.
  2. Test the audio settings. That you hear the audio of the video in your (home) office does not mean it plays properly in the web presentation.

Prepare your invitees

  • Provide a proper invitation
    This includes the correct form of salutation (bonus question: do you know the exact salutation, e.g. if you are inviting Mr or Mrs or even a Ms. or Dr. In some cases you might not be 100% sure whether a first name is male or female. So check first!).
  • Send a reminder shortly before the meeting
    Attention: if you are using the tool provider’s software or website to send out invitations, make sure you still can manage acceptance or decline of the meeting requests. In case you are using e.g. Microsoft Outlook, do not forget to add all relevant information to your invitation. Take care of a good formatting of your invitation. You are creating a first impression here. Nevertheless, be careful with the usage of HTML or pictures in the body of your e-mail. In some cases, HTML might be ignored, and e-mails delivered as plain text and pictures might not be displayed or even forward your message to the spam folder. It’s always a good idea to test this upfront.
  • Invite your participants to test their settings and equipment
    There are all kinds of different scenarios we can think about: In case of a company internal web conference, when using a secure and properly distributed software or web solution running only on trusted company devices, you might have a reasonably well trained audience. But what if you are not sure? Or if you do not know which devices and operating systems will be used by attendees, if people will dial-in via phone or use speakers. Also, in case you will allow the usage of a camera – a test can prevent everybody from surprises.
    Most providers of web conferencing tools offer to attend a test meeting including the test of the above-mentioned settings. Do yourself and your invitees a favor and include this information plus related link to the respective website to your invitations and reminder messages.
  • Give a brief outline of the content to set expectations
    You want your audience to stick to your story and listen carefully. Also, your audience wants to know in advance why they are attending and what to expect. Increase your invitees’ comfort level by giving them an outline of the content. Instead of simply using the table of contents of your presentation, add some more interesting facts and benefits. Example: “At the end of this session you will know how to…”, “After the web-conference you will have all information about…” Use full sentences and no abbreviations.

Phase 2: Execution

Welcome and introduction

Now you have done lot of preparation and finally the day of your web session has come. Sad fact is: for some of your participants it is “just another online session”. They might be in a rush between a phone call and the preparation of their status slides for a project. Therefore, it is a good idea to give your audience a calm, focusing and appreciative welcome and introduction. At the beginning give a brief outline of the content to set expectations. You remember? “At the end of this session you will know how to…”

Introduce yourself as the speaker and the team (potential other speakers, support team), their role in the company and the respective function during the session.

Tell your story

You have carefully prepared your story, storyline, defined who in the team is presenting which part of the session and also tested this beforehand. Please remember: a web presentation or conference is different from a personal presentation. Your audience misses a lot of otherwise important side details: they don’t see your body language, they cannot follow your gestures while you are talking. They don’t necessarily hear if the speaker changes. This means you have to

  • Speak slowly and clearly
  • Pause sometimes to give people to think about the input given or make notes
  • Say and probably repeat what you are doing and thinking Example: You get a question from a participant and don’t know the answer immediately. Let your audience know that you have to think about the answer for a second, will come back to the question later during the session or look it up after the session and answer personally or in written form
  • Avoid fill-in words, e.g. “Hm”, “Ehm”, “Actually”, “Right?”, “Ok”. It may help to record a “dry” or test run of the presentation and listen to your own speaking.

In general, be kind, open, respectful, and appreciative. Don’t forget to smile sometimes, people can “hear” your facial expression. If possible, use full words or sentences instead of technical terms and abbreviations. Not everybody might be familiar with your products, your company, or your field of expertise.

Add some interaction and limit interruption

Some software solutions offer the opportunity for interaction. If you want to use those options, please try them before the real event. Example: for an international event you might want to present a world map and ask people where they are located. Make sure you know how to handle this. Other options for interactions are polls (Do you want to present the results and know how to do it?) or the simple chat function (your backup person can help on sorting questions and answers).

In case you are planning to record the meeting, remember to ask participants if they agree to this. If not, be prepared to cancel recording. Alternatively announce your plans in advance and give invitees the option to drop out in time or limit their interaction

Depending on the number of participants give your audience the chance to use the microphone. For a small group of people, it might be interesting to introduce themselves personally to others. For large groups this is not recommended. On the contrary: to avoid acoustic disturbance, it is a good idea to mute all participants. Again, make yourself familiar with the functionalities to make sure you can e.g. unmute your co-presenters while everybody else still cannot be heard.

Closure and follow up

Give a very short summary, final thoughts and let your audience know what to expect.

  • Is a follow up session or a series of sessions planned? Inform them about date and topic or where/ how to find this information.
  • In case the meeting was recorded: where and when to find it
  • Contact information for questions
  • Last option for interaction: ask your audience what they took away and summarize or read out answers loud
  • You would like your audience to rate the quality and benefit of the event? Announce this now and tell them how to access the survey
  • Thank your team!
  • Farewell

Phase 3: Follow-up

Team lessons learned

After each session, but especially if you as a team are new to the online format, have your own lessons learned (online) meeting. Ask yourself what you could have done better or what you want to change. Give respectful feedback to your team members and ask for their feedback.

During an online event, even more than during live events, participants will notice any kind of dissent or subtle aggression. Not only your smile, but also anger can be heard and sensed. Try to make the event an even-tempered experience for everybody.

Do what you promised and what needs to be done

Whatever you announced or promised during the event-deliver! You promised to come back to somebody regarding a technical question? Do it. You announced the invitation for the next event will be sent out the next day? Do it or make sure it’s done. You want to avoid the impression that an online event is less reliable and serious than a personal meeting.

Plan improvements

Especially if you and your team are new to online events, there will always be options for improvement. Ideally the lessons learned session results in a list of improvements.

Phase 4: Improvements

Convert this list of improvements to a list of real activities, assign a responsible person and a date when the activity is done. Of course, you might need to involve more people in the execution of your improvements. Imagine you decide to change the software and need to get used to new functionalities.

Without going too far here: the term improvement implies that the result is better than the previous outcome. It might be helpful to ask yourself and your event participants what a “good” outcome or result is. Your own performance indicators will most likely differ from those of your invitees. But think about both interests and give yourself a set of indicators to measure a successful outcome. Example: X% of attendees buy your product after a sales event. Y% reduction of support requests after a training session. But also: Z% of your attendees rated the benefit of the event higher than 3 out of 5 stars.

Last but not least: The last topic on your list could be the dry or test run for the next online event.



Image source: Pexels

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