Our friend and fellow facilitator Jimbo Clark said something recently that stopped us dead in our tracks:
“I used to travel to meeting rooms, hotels, or islands to run meetings. I would obsess over the break menu, the sound system, how the chairs were set up, the natural lighting, etc. I would arrive 24 hours early to make sure that the space was set up exactly how I wanted it, and that was time well spent.
Now we just throw a link up, expecting people to want to be there and STAY there."
These days, when there must be more Zoom links floating around than sheep in New Zealand, why are we surprised when folks show up to virtual gatherings less than enthused and the meeting itself is about as much fun as a root canal?
Your programme (virtual or in-person) might be awesome; packed full of incredible opportunities to be inspired and bond with like-minded beings; but the way in which you communicate that programme - the sizzle - is where most hosts and organisers fall short.
It’s this content, in your format of choice, that drives participation (and revenue). It also sets an expectation of desired behaviours of and outcomes for a participant, in terms of their time, effort and money.
In the old days it used to be an elaborate 4pp (or if you were really fancy, 6pp) glossy brochure with colourful photos and persuasive copy, sent by snail mail or faxed (yes - that’s how old we are 😣). These days, participants are lucky to get a link to a sparsely populated web page.
Our mistake as organisers is that we expect everyone to be as excited about our event as we are. We expect them to just ‘get it’ - often forgetting the people we’re inviting haven’t been obsessing over this gathering for months; doing research, finding delivery partners and securing talent. They’re just sitting at home, in one Zoom meeting after another.
So all that time you've spent, researching with your community and crafting an incredible programme, is likely to be wasted if the details aren’t well communicated. Not only might they miss what the event is going to deliver, they are definitely not primed to join in the most effective way for them (more on this topic shortly).
Your content is also an excellent way to showcase your event’s unique personality. Language, colour, imagery - they all help communicate and set a tone for what the event is about.
We can see why there’s been a shift towards “less is more” thinking, but we’d argue it’s gone too far. We’ve got to start giving the people something to work with!
Like these folks have done:
Concrete Love from House of Beautiful Business is a recent favourite. Awesome story telling about the overall vision and what the individual contributors will be, well, contributing, means you’re fully informed of what you’ll be experiencing and taking away from the event. The design and layout effectively convey a ‘this is not business as usual’ sentiment. (Full disclosure: We’re Residents of the House, and currently working on a virtual "Australian editon" of Concrete Love, but our appreciation of their work is strictly impartial!)
We’re also huge fans of visuals. After all, we learnt to draw before we learnt to write, and science tells us most people absorb and recall information better through images, even those of us without photographic memories.
We often use such journey maps, or road maps, to visually represent not just what the programme covers but what to expect along the way, and what you’ll take away from the experience. Coming back to our point about ‘priming’ participants, this visual agenda gives you the opportunity to inform your participants, playfully yet clearly, that they should be prepared to fully participate - i.e. “this is not a webinar, it’s cameras ON, mics ON, energy ON”.
For the virtual edition of Brains on the Beach, Jimbo takes visual agendas to a whole new level, with an actual map of the adventure that awaits workshop participants. How cool is that?!
But as Jim rightly notes (in the virtual setting): “It is a different investment of time and energy up front for the organiser and also for the participant (new tech means new challenges) which over time, as both organisers and participants get good at being platform agnostic, leads to a better experience for all.”
⚠ It’s easy to get caught up in ‘clever marketing copy’ mode. But a word of caution - it can go very wrong. We recently saw an example of an established maritime conference using an inappropriate (and frankly, unnecessary) phrase in its tagline. Our sources tell us this tagline has been in use for a long time (?!) and the host is of the impression it somehow makes them more ‘edgy’.
Our advice is to make sure you don’t get ‘edged out’ by being too ‘edgy’. Gratuitous use of sexual references, for example, can alienate people of more conservative backgrounds. Content should reflect the values of diversity, inclusion and representation; particularly as conference organisers seeking varied perspectives for fruitful conversations. If you’re an invited speaker or potential participant and you spot inappropriate content, call it out.
In conclusion, virtual or in-person, spend time on communicating why your gathering is needed, what change it will drive, what tangible outcomes participants can expect and what their role will be in achieving this. We promise it’ll be worth it.