Choosing a tech platform for a digital alumni event
There are a multitude of suitable tech platforms out there, such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype etc. All platforms have different technical features and come with various pricing schemes. Pricing and features can be difficult to compare, so it helps to get clarity on the most important capabilities required, e.g:
Is there a limitation on the maximum number of participants?
Moderation functions: i.e. muting audience, break-out rooms, waiting room
Security functions, i.e: password protection for events, expulsion of “intruders” …
While we have not found the perfect solution yet, we have had some very good experiences with Zoom Professional Webinar edition. This edition does, however, come with a significant price tag, which we managed to get sponsored by a member’s organisation.
Using Zoom as the tech platform for digital alumni events
Zoom frequently upgrades its services and features. Since it is difficult to track all developments, we do not keep a written best practice guide for using Zoom. To facilitate new digital alumni event “hosts” to use Zoom as their platform of choice we thus only use reference links to Zoom’s proprietary support offerings:
Creating an account with Zoom and installing a client on your Mac and PC is the first step if you want to host a digital event on Zoom. You will find all resources required to do this in the Zoom support section “Getting started!”
Make sure that your selected Zoom subscription includes all the technical features you require for your digital alumni event. (see above: 1. Choosing a tech platform for a digital alumni event) NB: if you have more than one moderator, each person needs to have a Zoom account and client installed.
All issues relating to managing your subscription (e.g: temporary upgrade to professional webinar subscription), your account (e.g: changing passwords or profile settings) and your payment method are described in the Zoom support section “Account & Admin”.
All questions relating to scheduling, starting a meeting or a webinar and technical capabilities such as attendee control in a meeting, moderator features, in-meeting security etc. are well covered in the Zoom support section “Meetings & Webinars”.
The Covid-19 situation has forced a lot of people (especially students and professionals) to spend a significant amount of time in video meetings, virtual lectures, webinars etc. So, when planning an online event, be mindful of their time and ensure that attendees will get “real value” out of it. In our case we try to follow the following guidelines:
In our experience, everything around 60 minutes works best. Furthermore, some interesting research has been conducted showing that audiences cannot concentrate on one individual speaker for more than 10 minutes at a time. We try and script the event in a way that no speech or information module will be longer than 7-9 minutes.
Experiment with different time slots to engage as many members as possible and get people’s feedback, e.g: breakfast briefings, evening lecture, lunch speakers, etc. You may find that different times fit better with different audiences.
Choose a topic of relevance and genuine experts to talk about it. Keep it focused and specific, rather than trying to fit into an event as much content as possible. We have found that getting two speakers with different views on one topic works well. Try and facilitate “genuine value for money” i.e: fresh insights, relevant topics, inspiring speakers, unique access to culture and entertainment, etc.
It is important not to have a monologue. Depending on the event format and the selected technology platform’s built in features – always encourage interactivity, i.e: Q&A sessions at the end, e-voting on the topic, etc. We also found that having two speakers instead of one directly impacted on the interactive element. Having more than one voice would be recommended. If you want to add ad-hoc voting or other technical interactive features mentimeter (real-time voting or word clouds) or mural (interactive white board) are two possible and convenient interactivity platforms which can be integrated with most digital webinar platforms.
Unlike offline meetings which allow for improvisation, online events must be scripted meticulously in advance. The moderator will be in charge to enforce time keeping and manage interactive features. It sometime helps to work as a pair: one moderator and one “technical and timing guy” who will also operate the tech features. The moderator should consider a documented and printed flow/script to refer to. There is still a lot to think about on the fly during a virtual event, so the more you can document in advance the better. You can always deviate as needed but we found a hard copy helpful to write on and re-adjust when there are breaks (e.g: other people talking).
If you invite external experts or service providers to speak on a topic, agree with them in advance what the content of the talk will be, and remind them to focus on the topic and not use the event to market their firm or product.
Avoid topics which implicitly or explicitly invite the expression of extreme political, religious, gender or racial views. As moderator you will need to be very mindful of this. Be prepared to intervene politely if a discussion gets out of control and, as a last resort, use technical moderation features to stop the event or mute intruders.
Good preparation goes a long way towards hosting a great digital alumni event. Make sure you really familiarise yourself with the technology platform and all required functions well before the event. We have had a very good experience with doing short “dress rehearsals” or mock events one day in advance with the actual speakers, so everybody really understands how the platform works and all speakers feel at ease with the script and technical procedures. This also allows moderators and speakers to check if their audio works and if their background and lighting is suitable for a digital video event and to connect in person before the actual event.
Generally, you do not need any special equipment to host a digital event. If you do it often in other areas of your life (like your job or education) you might want to invest in an 'LED selfie light ring', as it can make the appearance much more professional (and flattering) There are cheaper versions that clip onto the table and have a mobile holder to position the camera correctly and more expensive versions that come with a tripod.
As a host and moderator, you and your team should log-in early and stick around until the very end. To be there 15 mins in advance will allow you to make sure the digital platform and that the log-in processes are working smoothly. Furthermore, you and your team can fine-tune any last-minute changes to the agenda or script.
Virtual settings do not allow you to use your body language and eye contact to interact with the mood of an audience. Also, there is no real feedback between the participants. Thus, virtual meetings require a different and more mindful handling of meeting etiquette:
Introduce all active participants (speaker, moderator, team) in person and name all participating parties (alumni groups, partner organisations). Be sure to introduce all parties at the beginning to create a welcoming environment and stimulate engagement.
As part of the welcome, explain to the participants the method of interactivity (e.g: how can they ask questions, vote, etc).
Be respectful to all participants, especially in the interactive Q&A sessions.
No eating or drinking during the event.
Ensure that you have a clean, appropriate background. You want your attendees’ focus to be on the meeting content, not your messy office or your amazing art collection.
Humour does not always work online, and research has shown that, in particular, irony or sarcasm gets amplified.
Eliminate distractions by switching off your mobile or any messaging services and try and secure a place where you will not be disturbed.
Inform your attendees if you are recording the session and let them know what you plan to do with the recording. We sometimes post videos of our online lectures on our social media channels.
This seems obvious but is more important in virtual alumni events than in life meetings. Make sure everyone knows from the beginning the exact time frame for the event and protocol for Q&As (during speech, after speech, mode of communication with moderator with chat function or others).
Ask everyone to be on mute when not speaking or mute them with your moderator function, otherwise the noise level can be very disruptive. If you find that the bandwidth of your technology platform is not sufficient and you get bad quality visuals, it sometimes helps to ask all participants (apart from the speaker) to turn off their video transmission.
As a moderator, make sure all speakers stick to their time allotment and manage interactive features carefully not to exceed the overall time frame. You should discuss this with the speakers in advance and let them know how.
If you are looking at yourself on the screen while you are talking, it will seem like your attention is elsewhere. Direct eye contact into the camera while speaking gives attendees the impression that you are looking at them rather than off to the side, which creates an environment where everyone feels engaged and present in the conversation. Be sure to position your web camera and monitor at eye level so you can look into the camera and simulate that eye-to-eye connection with other attendees.
Some professional digital speakers pre-record their speeches (sometimes cutting-in animation and film clips) and sending the film file in advance. In such cases the only real interactive part is the Q&A session. Different platforms allow for pre-recorded speeches to be shown by sharing the screen of any video player. Make sure you adjust the settings to allow sharing of audio as well as video.
Recording a great digital alumni event can be a nice asset to enhance a group’s social media channels. Make sure to inform your attendees at the beginning of an event of any such plans, to give them a chance to log-out or not participate.
There is always room for improvement. If possible, get feedback from your speakers immediately after the event. Did they feel well prepared, that their topics were interesting to the audience, was the format good…? Also, try to get feedback from participants.