Prepare Your Presenters to Give Their Best Performances at Online Events

There’s no one way to host an event, whether that be in-person or in cyberspace. As such, there’s no one way to deliver a talk anymore, especially if it’s geared towards a virtual audience. Thankfully, we’ve had some time now to learn about the options that are out there.

As we began work on Vito in March, we started our own series of online events and, as part of that, we’ve since worked with a host of different presenters with different styles, opinions, experience, and backgrounds. 

We quickly learned that presenters are treading in uncharted waters when it comes to what organisers want, the creative freedom they have, and what’s expected of them ahead of virtual events. And all of that can make them less empowered to do their jobs as best they can if we as organisers don’t give them the information they need. 

As such, I wanted to use this post to share some questions we’ve received from our guests and some additional pieces of useful information that can hopefully help other organisers understand what sort of communication they should be prioritising for their guest speakers and presenters. 

Over-Explain the Event Format

Public speaking is a notoriously nerve-wracking experience. While the pressure of an in-person crowd has been taken out of the equation, rest assured that your presenters will be intimately aware that they’re still performing for discerning viewers. 

Some of the questions that race through a speaker’s head are still very much so relevant in a virtual-first world. 

When it comes to your event format, here’s a sample of what they’ll likely concern themselves with: 

  • Who will they be speaking ahead of in the schedule? 
  • Who will they be speaking after? and
  • What are the other presenters going to be producing?

These are just some of the things that most speakers are eager to know about. Knowing the flow of the talks enables your speakers to refine their topic and avoid any overlap. This will benefit both your audience and your presenters to enjoy themselves and make unique points related to the theme of your event. 

Even if you don’t have the full talks available from the other speakers on your roster, you can still give some insight by sharing proposed titles. Essentially any information you have, whether it be a little or a lot, is likely to benefit your presenters more the earlier you can give it to them rather then leaving them hanging until you have the full picture.

Think of Your Online Platform As Your New Venue

There’s something calmingly familiar about walking into a venue. Of course, organisers permeate these spaces with their own creative flair ahead of every show, but there’s a rhythm to how the proceedings go in general. 

Now that our industry has made the move to virtual events, it can be jarring to lose that, especially for speakers. While it may not seem like it at first, whatever platform you choose to host your online event on, that becomes your de facto venue. And with that choice will come questions from the folks on your line-up. 

Here are some to consider ahead of time: 

  • How will the speakers’ details be presented and showcased? 
  • What info do you need about your speakers? Do you just need a bio and a headshot or does your platform call for more?
  • Will there be an option to share links to their work?
  • How will they receive questions and will they have time to answer them? 

It may be helpful to also give them a quick tour of what your platform looks like so that they can fully understand what the audience will be enjoying.

With regards to our own platform for virtual events, Vito, we’ve opted to allow audiences to see some content from speakers before and after live shows, as well as during them, of course: 

Image Description: A Vito hub showcasing previous episodes in the left column, pages in the middle column including discussion tabs and details about “This week’s show”, and a welcome message in the third column on the right.

Allowing a presenter to familiarise themselves with these ins-and-outs can help them conceptualise what their work will look like to the audience and how they can best optimise what they’ll be presenting. 

Introduce Your New Team

By this I don’t mean that you need to introduce every stakeholder involved in the event to your presenter. Rather, it’s helpful to outline the specific people that your guest will be working with while preparing for the event. 

In our case: 

  • One or more members of our team will act as our MC and/or interview the guests and run the show from a technical standpoint, 
  • One or more will work on orchestrating the event from a conceptual and admin point of view, 
  • And we’ll also work with an editor who will polish the presentations into their final products. 

It’s important to give your presenter access to each of these individuals for different reasons.

Firstly, this set-up is different to what they may be accustomed to with live events where they’ll only be dealing with one or two people. It’s important to set expectations in this sense from the get-go.

Secondly, it speeds up helping presenters with questions that specific people will be able to answer while others won’t. 

And thirdly, in the case of the editor for example, there may be new functions in your team that won’t be familiar to your speakers at all due to the change from in-person to virtual.

It’s important in those situations to make the process as smooth and straightforward as possible to avoid placing any additional stress or uncertainty on your guests. 

Give Specific Timings

For in-person presentations, your deadline is straightforward: you have time to prepare right up until your slot in the programming. And, many of us (read: the person writing this post) will finish the final version the night before they’re due to present. 

With presentations having moved to online platforms, a speaker’s prep time is unclear until the producers and organisers make it explicit. 

It’s important, therefore, to calculate your editing, review and promotion lead-in times as early as possible and, from there, you can figure out when you want to have your presenter’s video file on your hands at the latest, and share that information with them. 

For example, if your team needs two days of editing time, plus a day to send the edits for sign-off to the speaker, and you need at least a week to promote their talk using teaser snippets from it, you’ll need their video file at least eight working days before the event. 

For the sake of transparency, it can also be helpful to explain why you need their video ahead of time to reassure them and ease the pressure that comes with an earlier deadline than they may have expected. 

Discuss Their Presentation Format in Detail

One question that’s been cause for both a lot of head scratching and a lot of creativity when it comes to online presentations is this: Do you, as an event organiser, even want a “talk” delivered by your presenters? 

You might be tempted to jump in with an “Obviously, yes” here, but let me explain. 

As you will have noticed, there’s a big difference between standing on a stage and speaking with the assistance of a PowerPoint presentation, and standing out online. 

Amidst our own events, we’ve had the pleasure of seeing our presenters produce everything from a deliberately badly edited video, to a multi-scene play-by-play of scrapping an event amid a pandemic that ended with a dance party, to a fireside chat with a storybook. 

These examples helped us learn that not everyone wants to simply give a straight-forward address to the camera with some slides alongside them.

Though that of course has its time and place and can be very engaging as a live-stream in and of itself, many presenters will prefer to go a different route. That might mean using many different shots, clips, references, images, and more to make their segment special and more engaging.

It’s important therefore to discuss the ideas that your speaker wants to bring to the table and to involve the people on your team who’ll be producing and editing the video.

It’s tempting to give presenters a green light and to tell them to do whatever they want, but that’s a lot like asking them to record a scene without a script.

As an organiser it’s now your responsibility to clearly communicate what’s possible with your lead in time, and available editing resources.

However, you also have the privilege of sharing examples with speakers when it comes to what your audiences have responded best to. Those previous videos can then act both as inspiration for your speakers and give them a tangible idea of what you would like to see from them.

From a practical point of view, here are some basic questions to answer when first engaging with your presenters about the format their talk is going to take: 

  • Will there be an editor? 
    • How involved will they be? 
    • How much time will the speaker get with them? 
    • How much direction do they need? 
  • Do you, the organiser, want the unedited version of the presentation too? 
    • Is light self-editing okay? 
    • What orientation is best?
    • Do you need timestamps about where to insert additional clips?
    • Do you have any stock footage available or does the presenter have to provide all images and sounds?
  • What standards have to be met in terms of lighting, audio and visual elements?
    • Do you have any tips you can share on the same?

I won’t pretend that there is any one way to ensure that the finished product is exactly what you and your presenters envisaged, but in our experience this has at least helped to steer speakers in the right direction.

Even if they’re not as experienced with creating videos as they are with getting up on stage, the key takeaway here is to help speakers understand what works and to help them familiarise themselves with the supports that you have available to help them.

Don’t Skimp on the Fundamentals

It’s important to remember that a lot of the standard questions that you’ll have received from speakers ahead of in-person talks will also apply for all of the above, so don’t ignore the basics.

It’s also important to cover common ground like:

  • How long should the talk be?
  • Who’ll be in the audience? What are they interested in?
  • What area of expertise did you reach out to the speaker about that you want them to present on?

Hopefully that gives you some insight into the kinds of questions we’ve been getting and the best answers we can give.

We wanted to share this post to provide a heads up about some considerations you may not have thought of, but if you’ve experienced any other changes that have helped your speakers, we’d love to hear from you on Twitter