Managing the risks of virtual events

Australia is currently dealing with its second wave of COVID-19. And event organisers, many of who were hoping to ride things out until we return to normal, are facing the realisation that ’normal’ may be a long way away.   

Of course some have seen the current environment as an opportunity to explore alternatives. According to Eventbrite there has been a 2,000% year on year increase in online events. Yet others have been waiting on the sidelines, hoping it will all blow over. At a C-Suite level, the most common reason to avoid online events is the perception of risk. 

Following is a breakdown of the four key risks of online events and how we help clients overcome them.

The risk of attraction
The risk of attraction is the risk associated with marketing our event and getting people to attend. How can we promote and sell tickets to an event when it doesn’t have a track record? When we don’t have footage or testimonials from last year’s event? Or when deep down we’re not even sure ourselves how the event will look and feel online?

Attraction risk also extends to sponsors. How do you entice sponsors to support an event when you don’t know how many people will attend? How do you translate old branding opportunities such as a banner in the foyer into online space?*

*The value proposition of virtual events for both audience and sponsors is actually very attractive. We do a lot of work with clients to help them understand that proposition and articulate it. We often go so far as to produce promotional videos to market the event and hold education sessions with event sponsors. 

Although attraction risk is a very real short term problem, over the long term it’s the least significant risk. Over the long term, the answer to attracting both an audience and sponsorship is simple.

Deliver an event that’s amazing.

If you do that, your audience will rave about it and sponsors will come flocking. But the inverse is also true. If you deliver something average it’s incredibly easy for your audience and sponsors to go elsewhere. 

The risk of attention
Fundamental to delivering an amazing event is keeping people’s attention. The risk of attention doesn’t have the biggest consequence, but it definitely has the highest likelihood. Why? Because most seasoned event organisers aren’t yet familiar with the nuances of online events. 

Maintaining attention online isn’t easy. Every minute of your event you are competing with a world of fine-tuned distractions. There are emails to check, text messages going ding, YouTube videos to watch, and Zoom calls to attend.

We encourage event organisers to think of their event in terms of TV. TV programming has evolved over decades to capture and maintain our attention. But online events can be even better than TV. Unlike TV, online events provide an opportunity for your audience to contribute and shape the content. To do this, events need to be live, your audience needs to be engaged, and your programming needs to be spot on. 

The risk of execution
We often see this as the biggest risk. This is the technical risk associated with getting the event up and ensuring people can access it. Over the last few months we’ve all been exposed to webinars, Zoom calls, and other online events that didn’t go to plan. 

There is also execution risk when it comes to physical events. A power outage, a fire, a missed flight…or a pandemic can all wreck havoc with our event.

Understanding the underlying technology, how it works and how it connects is incredibly important. Not only to give you the reassurance that risk is manageable but also to ensure you have plans in place should something go wrong. 

The risk of inaction
“A bend in the road is not the end of the road…Unless you fail to make the turn.” – Helen Keller

All this talk of risk might have you thinking ‘Why bother? Let’s just wait for this to blow over’. But the biggest risk right now is the risk of inaction. 

Given the current roller coaster we are on, how sure are you that we will be back to ‘normal’ next year? Or in two years, or in seven? And how sure are you that within that unspecified time frame your audience and sponsors will wait for you? 

The risk of inaction is the result of two aligned forces. First, the longer this goes on the less likely people will want to go to the types of events they previously went to. They will be cautious about travel. They will be forced to wear masks. They will avoid networking and unnecessary social interactions. And second, online events will keep getting better. The technology will improve. New approaches to networking will be devised. Programming will get better. 

As I’ve previously written, inaction can turn operational risks into strategic ones. You might avoid the risks of attraction, attention and execution but in doing so you create a new risk — the risk of irrelevance.

Zoom’s legacy

As social isolation restrictions start to ease across Australia, there are many who are looking forward to getting back to the office…or perhaps more accurately, getting out of the house. There has been much talk about the impact of Zoom (or Teams/Skype/Meet if your organisation is otherwise inclined) on how we work. Most recently, that talk has turned to Zoom fatigue. The feeling that we are all Zoomed out and looking forward to meeting people ‘face to face’ again…or perhaps more accurately ‘body to body’ (as Zoom does faces quite well).

But before we collectively throw away our webcams and relegate our virtual backgrounds to the bin (Mac) or recycling (Windows) let us pause for a moment and consider the legacy that Zoom will leave.
Over the last couple of months everyone has suddenly become very comfortable with videoconferencing. They’ve done it because COVID-19 required flexibility in terms of where people can work from, but its legacy will be much greater than that. Organisations are realising that apart from flexibility, videoconferencing can dramatically reduce travel cost. This is less evident when we talk about getting coworkers together when we could have used the meeting room down the hall but incredibly evident when we think about meeting with geographically dispersed customers or running training workshops for a sales team.

My live streaming studio

Zoom’s adoption might have been driven by a need for flexibility but its legacy for organisations will be reduced cost, better customer service, and more timely conversations (there is also the potential for a positive legacy for employees, the ability to work remotely and yet still maintain the ability to effectively communicate and collaborate has meant improved work life balance and greater autonomy).

So far, most organisations have been happy to deliver an MVP-Q (Minimum Viable Production Quality) when it comes to videoconferencing. This can be excused because of the operational scramble of the last few weeks, but don’t confuse a proof of concept with the final product. If your business wants to tap into the huge lead generation and cost saving opportunities that videoconferencing can deliver, they will need to lift their game. We have all been inundated with low quality Zoom webinars (I spoke to one colleague who is currently getting 20 invitations a week) and organisations are going to have to get good quickly if they want to stand out.


And if you want to get good at video quickly, you might be interested in the Digital Champions Club. We’ve helped a bunch of organisations get self sufficient in video building the in-house capability for high quality video conferencing, webinars, live training events and content marketing. If that sounds interesting you should get in touch.

Some things are good in theory but better in practice

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to deliver a brand new keynote for the first time. As a professional speaker, a new keynote is like a newborn child. About 12 months ago, I was talking to my team and suggested we should try for another keynote. We already had a couple of keynotes that we loved and it was difficult to see how we were going to have time for another one. More content to change, more sleepless nights wondering if they’re OK, and ongoing concerns about how you will love them all equally. But once you have the idea in your head, it’s hard to shake. So after a couple more discussions we decided to take the leap and get serious about it.

Into the mountains

Between that point of inception and the delivery date (which again, just like a newborn was also about nine months), it felt like this keynote could be anything it wanted to be — the possibilities were endless. But as the delivery date draws closer, the reality starts to kick in, your fears start to kick in. 

What if it’s ugly? 
Will other people still love it? 
Will I still love it? 
What if I neglect it, and as it gets older it starts hanging out with the wrong sort of keynotes — the ones that mumble and are hard to understand. 
Or even worse, the boring ones that send everyone to sleep, or the weird looking ones with dot points all over their slides and who are always trying to say too much…

…hmmm, I think that analogy is done. Let’s move on.

This new keynote was called Thrive on Disruption and my idea was to explore the characteristics of organisations that not only propelled them to outperform their peers, but who (in doing so) often drove the disruption of whole industries or created entirely new ones. The good news was this related to a whole bunch of research I’d done as part of my Master of Leadership thesis a few years ago. The bad news was I had no idea about how to present such big and complex ideas in a truly engaging and meaningful way.

Enter storytelling

There is little doubt that the idea of corporate storytelling is having its day in the sun. Incredible books such as Hooked: How Leaders Connect, Engage and Inspire with Storytelling by Yamini Naidu and Gabrielle Dolan, as well as Gabrielle’s follow up book Stories for Work, and Shawn Callahan’s Putting Stories to Work (just to name a handful written in Melbourne) have all highlighted the power of storytelling in making ideas memorable and relatable and I was keen to see how I could use storytelling in my new keynote. So as part of the keynote development process, I worked with an incredible story crafter in Megan Davis to help design the narrative of the keynote.

The outcome was uncomfortable

Although I’ve read extensively on the power of storytelling and even engaged a story telling consultant to help me, the outcome (more so than the process) was incredibly challenging. In reflection, the biggest challenge was to my self-perception. I had felt that as a professional speaker I was meant to be the ‘expert’, someone with the answers, or at least, with thoughtful and thought provoking ideas to share. And yet, for the first 20 minutes of my new keynote I wasn’t going to share anything thoughtful at all. I wasn’t going to share any of my expertise. I was just going to tell a story of the time I went hiking in the mountains of New Zealand with seven friends (there is more to the story than this but I don’t want to ruin it for you). To say the least this felt incredibly awkward.

And yet it entirely worked

The saying goes that some things are good in theory but not so good in practice. I can only suggest that my experience of storytelling is entirely the opposite. Although I already knew that storytelling was good in theory, the experience in practice was far better than I could have imagined. Ultimately, the hiking story served as an easily understandable analogy for how organisations operate in disruptive and challenging environments. It provided a safe way for participants to reflect on their own organisation’s behaviours and practices, to better understand what is working and also what could be improved, and it provided a relatable way for sharing how cutting edge organisations operate differently. Finally, I think the story shed light on my own mistakes and my own vulnerabilities, which in turn perhaps made the ideas I did share more relatable and achievable. In hindsight, this is everything you get told about storytelling, but sometimes struggle to believe. 

And why do I share this with you all? It’s not because I want you to use more story telling in your work, though I sincerely hope you do (and please check out some of the links to the great books and people above). It’s because theory and practice often bear little similarity to each other. It’s not just that some things are good in theory and yet bad in practice. It’s just as likely that something is bad in theory but good in practice or, as in this case, something I believed to be good in theory was in fact incredible in practice. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is practice, not theory. So if you really want to know if an idea is a good idea you need to stop reading about it and thinking about it…and actually do it.

Check out Simon’s LIVE Speaking Guide to get a taste for what he does or get in touch to discuss how he can add something special to your organisation’s next event.

What professional speakers could learn from the Rolling Stones

For the last nine months or so I have been working on a secret project. It would have been called a skunkworks project if I worked at Lockheed Martin, or a moonshot if I worked at Google, but as I work at neither of these places (and have a much smaller budget) I just called it Project Live.

Project Live is an (ongoing) experiment in the future of keynotes and live events. It was born out of a realisation that most professional speakers present cannot compete with the prerecorded virtual versions of themselves. Just like TED.com has a far bigger audience and reach than the actual TED conference, the incredible quality and unparalleled convenience of the online version means that live experiences need to evolve if they want to compete. This is not just a problem for professional speakers, it is also a massive issue for conference organisers. How do they compete against the convenience and quality of free TED talks and endless YouTube clips?

As William Gibson pointed out “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” This suggests that other people are likely to have already dealt with this same issue, and maybe they might have also found some workable solutions. So what other industries could speakers and event organisers potentially learn from? The most natural learning opportunity would be that of live music.

Live music has had to deal with the impact of Napster, peer to peer sharing platforms such as Pirate Bay, iTunes and more recently music streaming services such as Spotify. So how is it that musicians have responded? The answer is to go big on live performances.

Below are two images, the first is from a Rolling Stones gig in 1972, the second is from a gig from 2017. Notice anything different?

1972

 

2017

The big difference is not what is happening on stage, although Mick is somewhat spritely still for his age he can’t quite cut the moves that he did 35 years ago. The big difference is what is going on around it: the lights, the screens, the imagery…the experience.

Great music is no longer enough, if I want great music I can listen to the fully remastered high definition version on demand in the comfort of my own home. To entice people to come to gigs you need to provide an experience, an experience that is so big and so unique that people will be willing to forgo the convenience and fork out the money to share in the moment and say they were there.

And just like great music is no longer enough for musicians, great content is no longer enough for conference speakers (this is not to say that great content is not required, but rather that it’s the price of admission and you still need to do more from there). To be relevant in the world where everything can be streamed you need to be able to create an experience that cannot be replicated online.

Project Live was created from this idea. I ditched PowerPoint and started playing around with live video mixing software (similar to what is used in a Rolling Stones concert), I started replacing still images with HD video and started mixing my keynotes live on stage. Now that I’ve got this part largely down pat I’m now looking at producing soundscape elements and live mixing them along with the visuals to create a truly unique experience every time.

I’m not telling you this because that’s what everyone should be doing but rather that anyone who wants longevity in the industry needs to be doing something. I’m constantly inspired by other speakers such as Dr Jason Fox and Mykel Dixon who are constantly tinkering with visual, musical and other theatrical elements in their events. Although they are two of the hottest speakers in Australia at the moment they are also constantly pushing boundaries in both their content and their delivery.*

*And even outside the events industry I believe all organisations need to be constantly tinkering and experimenting if they want to ensure their future relevance.

Bell & Howell Overhead Projector

When I started Project Live at the end of last year it was based on a gut feeling, but in March I found proof that this was the future. I was speaking at a conference in Canberra and found an old Bell and Howell overhead projector from the 1970s, the same one that many of us might remember from back in high school. This is the same era as the image of the Rolling Stones pictured above. But whereas the Rolling Stones (along with most other live acts) have fully embraced what it means to give a live performance, professional speakers have limited themselves to a digital version of the overhead projector.

The future is here my friends…and it’s LIVE.

Transformation sucks

Digital Trans-for-ma-tion has a certain sweet ring to it. It says

we’re getting our shit together

we’re going places

and we ain’t taking prisoners.

transforming-leaf_6x4

But in truth, digital transformation is playing catch up. It’s for organisations that have been slow to change and have missed opportunities. As a result, things are now gonna get lumpy (and we might not all make it out the other side).

In someone else’s words “Transformation… requires radical, systemic shifts in values and beliefs, patterns of social behavior, governance and management.”

So here we are.

Whether we like it or not, digital transformation may now be a necessity

and on the other side of transformation we hope to find something magical

…but in between it might not be all chocolate and roses.

Same methodology. Different delivery.

I’m not normally one for self promotion so please forgive me for the following email (or see the content as being of such significance that I was left with little choice). Following is the briefest of summaries, then feel free to read on, delete or (should the idea of self promotion be so unbearable to you) unsubscribe.

playground-of-champions_6x4

There has been much success.

New programs now available.

Read on?

Much of my work over the last 12 months has been focused on working with organisations to develop digital champions. This started with the Digital Champions Club, a process improvement program for SMEs using digital technology as a catalyst. It resulted in me writing a book called The Digital Champion: Connecting the Dots Between People, Work and Technology and has also seen me running the Breakfast of Champions and speaking at events around the country.

During that time I’ve had heaps of feedback on the digital champions approach (in summary – two people giving two hours each per week to deliver a $100,000 in value in a year), both from members who have been a part of it, and from outsiders who might like to join. As a result I am now launching two new ways for organisations to engage in the digital champions approach.

DCC Elements the smaller of SMEs

Some SMEs really wanted to be a part of the Digital Champions Club but didn’t feel they had the resources (financial or human) to fully commit to it. DCC Elements is the same methodology and contains all the same elements that have made the Digital Champions Club a success, but delivered through different channels and at a lower price.

Applications for the December bootcamp are now open. If you want to find out more about the Digital Champions Club and the different membership types, check out digitalchampions.com/memberships-and-pricing.

Digital Champions for Government

The other area where I’ve been doing a lot of work over the last 12 months has been in local government (mainly helping senior leaders cope with growing information pressure by adopting a digital first approach).

At the Municipal Association of Victoria’s Technology Conference in August, I gave a keynote called Why the IT Department Needs to Die that outlined the need for a new approach to digital within local government. Given it was a conference for IT professionals the feedback was surprisingly good and I am now talking to a number of local councils about Digital Champions for Government.

If you work in government and are interested in a rigorous, targeted and supported approach to improving process and building digital capabilities, you might want to check out digitalchampions.com/gov

That is all.

Beware the digital veneer

Now that digital is cool, hip, and happening, organisations are hustling to get their digital on.

wood_6x4

Unfortunately a deep, meaningful engagement with digital takes time, effort and resources.

It requires training to enable people,

breaking down silos of decision-making and responsibility,

and it requires a culture that encourages risk-taking and accepts (the right type of) failure.

So instead of doing something meaningful, some organisations find it’s just easier to invest in a digital veneer. A bit of social media marketing over here, a Facebook messenger chat-bot over there. Just enough to give a semblance of being digital but without…well, without anything meaningful.

The problem with a veneer is that as soon as you scratch the surface there is not much substance underneath. The same inefficiencies, mistakes and problems still fester away behind a well-presented facade (and like cheap, flat-packed furniture, it all come unstuck at the slightest hint of pressure).

Although it’s important to start somewhere, a digital veneer is more often than not just window dressing for organisations that haven’t committed to their digital future...

…rarely is it a promise of something better to come.

 

If you’re looking to start a digital transformation program for your organisation but having a hard time getting the ball rolling, head over to the Digital Champions Club to see how we can help you through the process.

 

Avoid the digital disconnect

There is an ongoing tension between the digital savvy of people and how an environment* enables or supports them. If one of these forces move too fast OR too slow we create

a digital             disconnect

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in organisations this is the combination of systems, devices, tools, norms and policies they operate in

There are two types of disconnect

The first is where the environment is more technology enabled than people are comfortable with.
This drives fear, creates cognitive overload and inevitably results in an underutilisation of the technology. All of this come with inherent cost to the organisation.

The second type is when people are more tech savvy than the environment they operate in.
This results in frustration, which subsequently drives people to operate in the shadow lands outside the defined IT environment. The additional IT expense, increased risk and missed opportunity also come with a cost to the organisation.

But,
if we can manage this tension just right

magic can happen!

By striving to meet the needs of increasingly digital savvy users, we can create a pull towards more enabling environments. In turn more enabling environments will push people to be more digital savvy.

The interplay of these two forces can shift an organisation from ‘adequate’ ways of working built in the past to truly effective ones created for the future.

If you’re looking to start a digital transformation program for your organisation but having a hard time getting the ball rolling, head over to the Digital Champions Club to see how we can help you through the process.


  1. The digital disconnect is already happening in schools
  2. When technology creates fear. The rise of neo-luddism.
  3. Shadow IT – how 83% of organisations clearly aren’t meeting their users needs
  4. Why lots of little changes are more effective than a few big ones

We need to improve before we innovate

Innovation might have been the buzzword of circa 2013 but for many organisations it is still preferable to talk about it rather than actually do it. Why?

Idle_6x4

Because the way most organisations approach innovation is painful at best and destructive at worst.

When we expect innovation to be game changing, future making or next generation we end up overlooking small regular improvements in our search for big, one-off transformations.

There is a mistaken belief that big one-off transformations are easier because we only have to do them once. But most people don’t like this type of change because

 it’s big
        and it’s irregular

IT’S ALL TOO MUCH.

The change doesn’t stick.

And we slowly slide back towards the status quo (at which point we then start planning our next big, one-off transformation).

Don’t get me wrong, people can handle change. In fact we do it all the time (and generally without the need for change managers to be involved). It’s just much easier to change a little every day than a lot now and then.

And it’s easier to innovate if you’ve already got a culture of improvement.


  1. Fancy a game of buzzword bingo?
  2. Innovation vs ingenuity: is it just semantics?
  3. Something I wrote about evolution, revolution and approaches to change
  4. At least 5 reasons why small projects are more successful than big ones

Eyes and opportunities

Just as day follows night, the exponential growth in computing power is creating an exponential growth in digital opportunity.

The eyes have it_6x4
There are more apps, platforms, devices and integrations than ever before (and there are many, many many more still to come) and each one might be an opportunity to do things faster, cheaper, and better.

But…

in most organisations the responsibility for digital is limited to the IT department. Which means the number of people tasked with identifying and acting on these opportunities is growing linearly at best and is stagnant at worse.

So…

If you don’t have hundreds of digital opportunities on your radar coming it doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it just means

                             the number of opportunities exceeds the number of eyes looking for them.

In the future (and when I say ‘future’ I mean ‘now’) everyone will need to start taking responsibility for digital.

 


  1. Computing power defies expectations
  2. Number of apps to double (thankfully some are not crappy games)
  3. IT workforce is growing…just very slowly
  4. Are robots more aware of what’s going on than you?