At the virtual IABC World Conference 2021, presenter Chris Graham shared that meaningful virtual connections can be easier, and more powerful, than you think. Read on for a deep dive of Graham’s presentation, and visit the IABC website to purchase World Conference recordings or the All-Access Pass.
Imagine you’re watching a performance at the Metropolitan Opera (the Met) in New York City. You are one of nearly 4,000 people seated over six levels. Overhead hang 21 crystal chandeliers. On stage are opera singers, whose powerful voices fill the theatre without amplification. (That’s like standing in the lobby of a skyscraper and yelling at people on the second floor.) The singers wear makeup and costumes as loud as their voices. The stage depicts a mythical time and place.
Everything about the performance is vibrant and alive, majestic and imperial. You think to yourself, “There’s no way this could ever work on a laptop.”
A Dramatic Change
In March 2020, the abrupt transition to remote work was difficult to accept. People wondered how long it would last. The embrace of virtual communication tools, like Zoom, was grudging and indifferent.
One year later, remote work has become normalized and seems likely to outlast its pandemic imperative. “Grudging acceptance” has become “create urgency.” Now people wonder, “If we never go back to the office, how can we make meaningful connections with a virtual audience?”
You might be surprised to learn the answer’s been known for over a decade.
If the Opera Can Do It, You Can Do It
In 2006, the Met invested millions to livestream performances on movie screens and laptops. The program was called Live in HD, and the business case was straightforward. The Met wanted to increase revenue from its live performances, and there are only so many people who can fit into a theatre.
The Met’s challenge should sound familiar: how to make an emphatically live interaction engaging to a virtual audience. Bear in mind, too, that in 2006, Netflix was still shipping DVDs through the mail, so there was no cultural familiarity with streaming.
To almost everyone’s surprise, Live in HD has been a big success. In 2018, the latest year for which public figures are reported, more than 2 million people viewed Live in HD productions, generating about $25 million in incremental revenue.
As you envision your own future of virtual communication, here are three lessons you can learn from the Met’s experience.
WORLD CONFERENCE 2021
It’s About Time to … Celebrate World Conference: Recapping 3 Days of Interactive Virtual Education
Here’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to lessons learned from the virtual IABC World Conference 2021:
1. Virtual Performances Can Be More Intimate Than Live Shows
Livestream opera has the surprising effect of humanizing the performers. Watching the livestream affords everyone in the audience a close-up of the singers, which is something only people in the theatre’s front rows typically experience. For most operagoers, the virtual experience is actually more intimate.
Presenting over Zoom offers a similar advantage. Rather than one person presenting to many, a Zoom presentation is more like many one-to-one conversations. It’s often said that the best presenters make people “feel like they’re talking just to you.” Zoom and other video conferencing platforms do that automatically. Instead of lamenting the loss of physical presence, recognize the opportunity to speak directly to each member of the audience.
2. People Need Breaks
Every opera contains at least one intermission, where the audience can stretch, use the washroom or have a drink. Assuming your virtual event is nowhere near as glamorous or compelling as an opera, you should give the audience breaks, too.
If your session is an hour, it should have at least one break. Give people five minutes to stretch and check their email. If you’re leading a training session, give people many small exercises to complete and discuss rather than waiting until the end to take questions.
3. It’s Live and Virtual, Not Live Versus Virtual
A ticket to the Met opera costs about $300, compared to just $30 to watch that performance on Live in HD. So why didn’t everyone just stop going to the opera? The Met preserved its 800,000-person live audience while adding an additional 2.6 million virtual viewers.
It turns out there are many reasons people will pay more for live opera. Going to the theatre is a fun night out. You get to dress up and maybe have dinner beforehand.
Watching the livestream is not really better or worse — it’s just different. You save money and travel time, you get a better view of the performers and you can watch bonus content. For example, the Met livestreams interviews with performers during intermission.
As you think about your virtual presentations, recognize that a virtual audience can be additional to your live audience. If you’re worrying that people will skip your live event because video is just easier, that’s a sign your live event wasn’t compelling enough to begin with.
Think about how you can offer different benefits to each audience. Maybe the live audience gets better ambience (food, drinks, music), access to the speakers and structured networking with other attendees. Then, the virtual audience gets close-up views of presenters, off-camera interviews and a moderated online discussion forum. In either case, be clear about what each audience can expect for their ticket price.
You Can Do It
It’s hard to imagine a future where in-person interactions are predominate. Having spent most of last year mourning the loss of something familiar, you can spend most of this year focused on the opportunities created by virtual communication tools.
Take comfort in your ability to meet this challenge. If a 137-year-old opera company can figure out streaming, you can certainly do the same for your virtual offerings.
Chris Graham is the founder of TellPeople, a vehicle for teaching storytelling and communication to professionals. He is head of speaker coaching at TEDxToronto (Canada’s premiere TEDx event) and the Storyteller in Residence at Manifest Climate (a global climate technology firm). Prior to all of this, Graham worked at one the world’s top banking law firms (Sullivan & Cromwell LLP) and one of Canada’s top Aboriginal rights law firms (Pape & Salter LLP). He studied at Oxford University, University of Toronto Law School and Acadia University, and is a graduate of the stand-up comedy program at The Second City in Toronto. Graham's work is focused on helping people talk about their ideas in ways that other people can understand and find compelling. He does this work with individuals and groups across North America.