What it was like speaking at a virtual conference

On 16 July, Meetings & Events Australia delivered a virtual full-day conference with more than 25 plenary and concurrent sessions broadcast live from Deakin Edge at Fed Square in Melbourne to more than 550 event professionals across Australia and New Zealand.

MEA partnered with leading industry suppliers including Events Air’s award-winning online platform OnAir, to reimagine its traditional face-to-face conference and repackage it into a single day, TV-style production – the first of its kind for MEA since its inaugural conference in 1977.

What was the experience like as a delegate?

Australian stand-up comedian, actor, television and radio presenter, Dave Thornton, was engaged as conference MC, bringing his expertise in TV and live events to the event; keeping attendees engaged throughout the day and the energy levels high with short session introductions and wrap-ups. He did a great job and proved once again that an MC can add – no make – a virtual experience bearable, especially when there’s a full day of content to consume from your desk.

Between educational sessions, the program offered personal care, wellness and fitness sessions – an important inclusion given the impact on the industry and its people in the current climate.

Participants were also invited to connect network online with other attendees via the Meeting Hub and virtual exhibition during morning tea and lunchtime breaks. The final networking was just like a wheel of fortune, click a button to reveal three new people to network with, a lot of fun and anyone with FOMO would have continued to spin the wheel until the close of the event.

So what was it like speaking at a virtual conference?

I (Alana), facilitated a session entitled Renovate Your Marketing in the New Normal: What Can We Learn from Other Industries? The initial idea was to speak on virtual event marketing, however given that there are very few events ready to be marketed, I was more interested to hear from marketing experts from OTHER industries, who have been impacted, and understand how they’ve adapted their marketing. MEA was gracious in allowing me to reshape and rename the session and the preach-fest turned into a virtual panel discussion which worked rather well for an online forum.

I intereviewed Josh Halling, Sales Director – Direct & Independent Agencies at Nova Entertainment; Rachel Millar, Freelance TV Producer who has worked in TV for over twenty years, predominantly in entertainment and comedy. Programmes she has produced include Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell, Rove, Andrew Denton’s Interview, Spicks and Specks, and Kath and Kim. And Rob Farmer, Group Director, Marketing and Partner Solutions at Mamamia, an exceptionally smart guy with a long list of credentials and experience, who is Group Director, Marketing and Partner Solutions at Mamamia.

From a content point of view, we could have talked for days, but we had 37 minutes to get through it all, so I broke the session into four sections to give it some structure and keep it lively:


  4. Q&A

Just like any live event, I set up a briefing phonecall with the panellists in advance. From this, I crafted the questions around their key take-aways then sent the questions to the panel for review a week in advance. I booked in a rehearsal two days prior, to craft who would be best to take the lead on which question when, so the presentation would feel smooth and no awkward silence breaks waiting for someone to speak. In a live event setting, small silences often create impact and leaning forward to butt in and converse with other panellists would be OK. But in a live virtual setting which is 2D, this would have cause awkward silences, would have been difficult to hear multiple people and potentially appeared as rude to speak over an other panellist. We decided to have each panellist answer questions, then allow other panellists to chime in on the conversation. This helped to make it feel relaxed and conversational but remain sensibly structured.

From a technical perspective, our dress rehearsal with the online platform provider was brief but useful. We were coached with tips on lighting, facing to camera, setting up our at-home backgrounds and ensuring we were close to camera. I think I’d already read a blog from the super-smart industry pal and author, Ian Whitworth, about having the camera in line with your eyes vs from below your double chin and not leaning forward to ‘hear’ resulting in participants having a close-up inspection of my wrinkles. Thanks Ian, noted and actioned.

I used a split screen to have questions and backup notes on one side, the backend of the system (unmuted) on the other. This meant I was looking left to right, which is a no-no for next time. Turns out my brand new nuc (computer) doesn’t have the best microphone – which, besides making me sad – resulted in two participants providing immediate feedback about my audio quality. It was great to see that immediate feedback and address it quickly and directly, something that may have taken more than a few minutes if I had been on stage. I need to invest in a professional microphone if I’m to do this again.

In-room (in the virtual room, that is), there was no usual conference representative to introduce me as facilitator, so after a quick self-introduction, the first minute was spent introducing each of the panellists in brief. From a speaker perspective, whilst I’ve done a reasonable amount of public speaking, event keynotes and at media events, speaking to a camera was a whole new universe. Speaking to camera requires laser-precision eye-work, which I found challenging. I find my eyes jumping across the screen to look at each panellist when they spoke which was probably not the best look from an audience perspective and something to do better at next time. For the Q&A I needed a separate screen, being my laptop, signed into the front end of the system to see the questions and muted. This meant I had to lift that screen to read through questions, so I was looking down and scrolling. I’m sure the professionals have this nailed, but it was a challenge to stay engaged, move quickly through questions, banter with the audience and reframe questions for quick answers. Having the Q&A viewable from the backend of the system would have meant I could have looked at my main screen and not juggled between the 3 windows of camera/video/notes.

The session went well, we stuck to time, which meant we weren’t cut off mid-sentence like other speakers I’d watched during the day and we did. I saw 170 people in the session at a time, which was pretty good for a concurrent session of three. 

Overall, it was a fun and interesting experience, I learned a lot from our panellists and have full respect to professional TV presenters who do this for a living.