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Seth Godin, the American marketing expert and speaker, wrote recently that conferences are in danger of using “false control” measures that risk “burning time, attention and trust”.
What he is referring to are the now common “interactive moments” at business events, whether in-person or on-screen, using phones in the room or chat functions on digital platforms. There is the frenetic upvoting of questions and comments, the unedited live reactions broadcast to the whole event or the opportunity for every person to introduce themselves at length.
Over the past 18 months, communal gatherings have been dominated by contributions that often seem to showcase the democratic possibilities of technology, rather than meaningful interactions.
While in-person business events across the world have picked up again recently in some sectors, the concept of “hybrid events” — trade shows, conferences, seminars or meetings that combine in-person and virtual elements — has emerged as the new shape for post-pandemic professional gatherings.
The hybrid conference is being sold as a Covid-friendly way of holding an event. There is all the planning for an in-person event, but with live streaming built in as the back-up plan. This can be ramped up if the in-person component gets cancelled because of a lockdown, pingdemic or some other unforeseen crisis.
But in-person events are often more emotionally engaging than their digital equivalents. It happens in every sector: it’s more exciting to visit the theatre rather than watch a YouTube recording of the same performance.
Psychologists call this preference “affiliative social engagement”. This describes the moments when people see others moving in time to music, when everyone nods or applauds, or when a crowd laughs at a punchline. Pre-recorded or streamed events can borrow some of this feeling if they are rare, exclusive or have high production values (TED talks, for example, trade on all of these). But to be truly affiliative, people need to be in the same room.
So while hybrid events may be practical, in some ways they are also a compromise. There is no “you-had-to-be-there” effect upon which a phenomenon such as the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos relies. With hybrid, while some people get to be in the room, most have to watch it happen on mute from home.
The world of conferences, business panels and work-related events is in crisis. The UK’s business events sector was worth £31.2bn in 2020, according to figures compiled by Business Visits and Events Partnership. But between March and November 2020, 845 major exhibitions in the region were cancelled, equivalent to £8.9bn, research suggests.
Now the industry faces many questions. What is the right attitude to adopt to in-person work events? Should they be embraced — and with what degree of caution? Where do events fit into the office-versus-working-from-home question? Do you go for a three-line-whip on attendance? Or let people stay at home? The latter risks not only creating a hierarchy of presence and absence, but also that the in-person event becomes a non-starter before anyone fires up the slide deck.
The answers to these questions are highly subjective and can change in a matter of hours depending on the latest Covid data.
Furthermore, the quality of a hybrid experience is not easy to control. Many event organisers might think they can produce their own version of TED talks for a live audience and record them for posterity. But to deliver content that is worth watching live — and, most valuable of all, afterwards — requires a level of planning, curation and technical production that is beyond the capacity of many companies.
How to manage hybrid events
Ask: what is the objective of this event? If it is simply to mark a new phase in the pandemic, then be honest about it. That is a low bar, but being open allows for proper planning. The measure of success will be that an event took place and the change of phase was marked. If that is enough, do not turn it into a Royal Variety Performance.
If there is a more ambitious or specific objective — for example, you want colleagues to bond, hear from an inspiring speaker, make them feel cared for or remind them that it is back to “business as usual” — then be clear about this. If colleagues are expected to bond, for instance, they will need to be in the same room, or have a facilitator who is deeply skilled in doing this online. Priya Parker’s podcast Together Apart has good ideas on how to achieve all these aims.
Do not try to be all things to all people. Without huge investment and tech knowhow, it is very difficult to create an effective shared moment that works in person, online and for posterity. Hone down the aims, edit ideas and be specific about the target audience and how this will reach them.
If you must live-stream an event, and/or record it, use more than one camera. Anyone watching will want to see the reactions of the audience as well as the action on stage.
Consider how the audience (whether live or digital) will ask questions and how those questions will be processed and controlled. Be wary of audience hierarchy, for example, organisers will need to make sure that those in the room are not more likely than remote delegates to have questions answered.
Professionals are also not in the same place psychologically as they were at other points during the pandemic. For example, during lockdowns, online events — big and small, commercial and private — were a valuable place holder. They could be surprisingly intimate and bonding at a time when many people were experiencing similar emotions including isolation, uncertainty, anxiety and cabin fever.
Now, however, professionals are in a different, more unevenly-spread psychological space. Great events and moments of connection depend on drawing an audience together who are experiencing similar emotional reactions and intellectual insights at the same time. But the range of responses to the ongoing situation is wider and more unpredictable than before. In short, it is difficult to second-guess an audience’s mindset at the moment, even if they are all colleagues in the same organisation.
In this context, achieving what the comedian and master clown Phil Burgers calls “meeting people where they are” is difficult. This concept describes the chemistry of a live situation where performers identify with the audience in a way that makes them feel connected. It is yet to be proven whether this phenomenon — common in live theatre, comedy, music and sometimes the corporate world — can be achieved simultaneously in person, digitally and in recordings.
Perhaps someone like Beyoncé, performing a live show which could be streamed and available to download, may be capable of confronting such a triple threat. But it is wise not to try to be Beyoncé without her infrastructure. In working life, it is better to scale down your event ambitions, ask what is truly achievable and meaningful, and do one thing very well instead of three things badly.
As Godin puts it: “Synchronised, real-time interaction is precious. It creates magic. We shouldn’t waste it on bureaucracy or false displays of control. It’s better saved for moments of connection and possibility.”
The writer is the author of ‘How to Own the Room: Women and the Art of Brilliant Speaking’.