Professional Skills

The Four Phases of Preparing for A Virtual Event

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, more of our lives have moved online. This often requires getting used to a new way of doing things which can be overwhelming. To help our yPIE DC members adjust to this new reality, I hosted a sold-out event on July 21 called Designing and Preparing for Virtual Events. I covered the necessary steps and other tips for success based on my years of experience working in virtual learning and events. I’ll be reviewing that same advice, plus a little more, in this blog post.

As an e-learning instructional designer, I’m rarely the person in front of the camera. Instead, my strengths lie in designing the flow of a session, mitigating the risks of something going wrong, and focusing on the participant perspective to deliver a high-quality experience. I’ve broken down my recommendations into what I call the four phases of preparing for a virtual event.

Phase 1: Design for Online

Choose the right format

Before you start any virtual design, take a look at the content and make sure that a virtual meeting or event is the best way to share your message with your intended audience. It might not be! If your audience is younger, can you use social media? If there are a lot of steps, would a job aid, blog post, or screencast be better? There are a lot of options and I encourage you to be creative. But sometimes a virtual event is the best option, particularly in cases where the focus is live interaction between participants, and there’s a lot you can do to make it memorable.

Pay attention to timing and attention spans

According to John Medina in Brain Rules, audiences tend to stop paying attention after about 10 minutes. The general rule of thumb among virtual learning professionals is that virtual meetings and webinars shouldn’t be longer than an hour, preferably closer to 45 minutes. You’ll see 90 minutes on occasion (our session last week ran 90 minutes including 30 minutes of Q&A) but really try to keep it under 60. Within those 60 minutes, schedule breaks and/or activities every 5-10 minutes to maintain engagement and ward off boredom.

Provide opportunities for engagement

Although you might be planning the same type of event for online as you have in the past for an in-person environment, you can’t just take your original plan and assume it will work in a virtual environment. Instead, embrace the interactive features that your web conferencing platform already has built in. Your exact platform might have different features, but common features include chat, whiteboard, polling, and breakout rooms. We polled the event attendees and found that the most common activity they’d used was chat. Chat is great! You can use it to ask participants to share their opinions or respond to questions throughout the event. And in your next event, consider adding at least one more activity in addition to the chat to make it even more engaging.

Bar chart with percentages of which interactive features participants had used in online session. 98% chat, 66% nonverbal feedback, 75% breakout rooms, 51% reactions, 66% polling, 25% annotation, 17% whiteboard.
Results of the live poll with the interactive features participants had used.

Let’s imagine that you run a regular in-person event where you usually have your participants stand up and move around the room according to prompts that you provide. Obviously you can’t replicate this activity exactly online, but you don’t have to discard it completely. Through the whiteboard tools in Zoom, I was able to run a very similar activity on Tuesday night.

Participants used the annotation tool to mark their agreement to four questions about their experience and confidence in preparing for virtual events. Responses to all four prompts showed a wide range.
The self-identification activity with participant responses from the beginning of the session.

Another benefit of this was that I ran it as the welcome activity as participants logged on to the session. This set participants up to be engaged in the topic from the beginning, gave me data about their skills and confidence, and filled time while participants logged in and set up their audio.

Phase 2: Draft a Plan

One of the easiest things you can do to set yourself up for success is to write out your plan ahead of time. I asked the event attendees why they thought a written plan was important, and got great responses:

Set expectations, understand roles, be clear on purpose and time.

-Amy L.

A written plan is important because you need to explain to others involved in the planning the platforms you will use and why, plan the agenda and timing, and specifics about the target audience.

-Jessica M.

To allow for good flow, organization, and mitigation plans in case of problems.

-Maureen G.

Manage your time

It’s easy to over- or under-estimate how much you can cover in a 60-minute event. By breaking down each activity, from the welcome through the speakers to the conclusion, you’ll know exactly what you can cover during the time you have. I find it helpful to write both the duration as well as the start and end times so I can watch the clock and make adjustments as needed.

While going through the planning process, you may find that your activities and speakers will take more time than is available. If you are designing alone or with your team, identify what can be cut or where to build in buffer time for transitions so your event fits within the time allotted. Or if you are working with external speakers, show them the event schedule and where their event fits for context so they understand the time limitations. Then work with them collaboratively to identify the most important content to keep and reduce the rest. You are partners in your event so it’s important to work together as a team in the design.

Designate Roles

Running a successful virtual event often takes a team. As the facilitator for this event, I had two additional people supporting me to ensure it went well. My producer launched the polls, monitored the chat, and moderated the Q&A time at the end. My event support monitored the organization’s email in case anyone had trouble connecting and took attendance. Knowing that these two people were taking care of the tasks as assigned allowed me to focus on my presentation and not have to worry about the rest. You may be able to run an event solo, but try to bring in at least one other person to help you.

Keep it nearby

It is extremely helpful to have your plan on hand and accessible during the event. Print it out, open it on a second monitor, or pull it up on your tablet. By doing this, you will better be able to stay on time, hit all the transition and activity cues, and avoid missing the key points of your session.

There is no definitive answer as to what the “best” design is for an event plan because the plan that’s best is the plan that works for you. If you can read it and it helps you stay on track, then that’s the best plan for you. My usual plan template includes columns for the timing and cues with alternating colors so I can follow along at a glance.

Screenshot of the preparation and welcome activity sections of the session plan for the event.

Phase 3: Test, test, test

It’s not enough to design your session and write it down, you also need to test and practice your session. It not only helps you during the session, but it makes you look more polished and professional.

Ensure everything works

Testing makes sure all of your activities work as planned and your co-facilitators and co-producers know what to do. About a week before the live event, run a dress rehearsal with all of the producers, facilitators, and speakers to iron out kinks. You may have a complex sequence where you need to close one activity and start the next one immediately after; testing this beforehand makes you look like a professional during the live event. For Tuesday’s session, my producer and I tested how breakout rooms are created, opened, closed, and managed so it was easy to do during the live event.

Practice makes perfect

It’s a cliche, but it’s good advice. Practice by yourself, practice with your co-producers, practice in front of your pets, record your practice and watch it back. You’ll get more comfortable with saying your content, with the timing of your slidedeck, and with running the activities. Since you’ll have your session plan nearby while practicing, take the opportunity to adjust the cues for a more seamless delivery when your session is live.

Expect it to take time

By the time you’ve developed activities, written the plan, coordinated meetings with other facilitators and producers, hosted a dress rehearsal to test the event, and practiced your parts a few times, you’ve put in a lot of time. It could take you up to 16 hours, maybe more, to prepare for a one-hour event. It seems like a lot, but there are a lot of steps needed to prepare. I spent about 15 hours preparing for Tuesday’s 90-minute session.

Phase 4: Communicate with Attendees

For free virtual events, you should expect that many of your RSVPs won’t attend. Even though our event sold out of our 100 tickets available, only 55 attended. I was thrilled with this number! But now the yPIE DC marketing and events staff will look over our communications and identify ways we can raise that number even higher for part two of this series.

Event reminder email

Platforms like Eventbrite automatically send a reminder email 48 hours beforehand. But that email isn’t necessarily the best message to convince people to take time out of their day and attend your event. Getting registrations is only the first step in filling your event. Look at the event reminder email as the next step to convince people to attend.

Connection info

You are not the only one who needs to prepare for your virtual event – your attendees do as well! Part of your preparation should include setting them up for success during your event. Your reminder email should include the information that your attendees need to know to access your event, such as:

  1. Link to join the event
  2. Call-in info to connect to the phone audio
  3. Tips for connecting, including a diagnostic test or test meeting if available
  4. Who to contact if having trouble connecting
  5. If they’ll be expected to use webcams
  6. Homework or prep materials
  7. Handouts or participant guide (if needed)

Beyond the Phases: Keep learning

No matter how much confidence or experience you have in your virtual event skills, there is always more to learn. Join us on August 4 for part two of this virtual event series for Producing a Successful Virtual Event where virtual production expert Michael Keel will walk through the steps and tips for producing events, including how to respond to unexpected technical issues that will probably happen in most of your events. Successful facilitators and producers know how to stay calm, adapt in the moment, and keep the event on task. The more experience you get, the better you’ll be able to handle something unexpected.

But don’t stop there! I encourage you to dig deeper into the many other aspects that go into preparing a smooth, professional virtual event. Look into visual design or meeting management. Don’t limit yourself to articles from your particular field – good design is universal.


About the Author

Ashley Whittington is a learning designer with over seven years of experience in instructional design for digital learning environments. She has worked in higher education and the federal government’s international development space to design, facilitate, and manage distance learning programs with a global reach. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia where she taught English in a rural public school. Ashley holds an MA in International Training and Education from American University and a dual BA in International Relations and Foreign Languages and Literatures from the University of Delaware. In 2018, she was selected as a 30 Under 30 Learning Leader by The Masie Center in recognition of emerging leadership in the field.

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