Virtual events: Distinction Communications

An era of change, full of opportunity

May 4, 2020

In our previous blogs, we have been exploring this changing era in virtual events. We were giving our insights on how to design in this ever-changing space. In this blog series, we wanted to make sure we were giving different perspectives. Silver Fox has many partners in the event space, and they, like us, have been evolving to meet this shift during this worldwide outbreak.

Last week, we interviewed Hilary Laney of Evia Events. This week, we chatted with Jim Endicott from Distinction Communication. We wanted to get his perspective on this changing event landscape and how his communications company sees the opportunity and meets the challenge.

How has Distinction Communication embraced a changing era in virtual events? It seems like there have always been corporate pioneers in the virtual events space. Still, their primary motivation has typically been to constrain cost, support a geographically dispersed audience or both. Now the current public health scare has suddenly introduced another consideration, and we suspect the desire to find virtual alternatives just got bumped up everyone’s to-do list.

Although some of our Fortune 500 clients have augmented their significant events with webcasting for some time now, there wasn’t much overt effort to embrace their virtual audiences other than to facilitate their ability to observe. So not surprisingly, our executive-level speaker coaching primarily has traditionally focused on working with clients face-to-face in preparation for live events.

But in more recent years, we’ve been seeing more conferences we support extend the event experience to virtual attendees, so our coaching model has had to evolve as well to acknowledge the complexities of catering to two audiences with somewhat different needs. But we believe the bottom-line impact of specialty coaching to prepare speakers for virtual audiences will serve both groups well through a focus on crisper and more concise content supported by an even more focused set of personal delivery skills.

It has been interesting to see how segments of the faith community have been out ahead of this for a while. Last year, we worked with the senior pastors of a large Phoenix-area mega-church who had to speak to a local audience of several thousand people while simulcasting to 6 other campuses representing another 30,000 attendees. So, we worked on some foundational large stage delivery skills but also some specific eye contact strategies that would acknowledge both groups.

Bigger picture, there are some events that are perfectly suited for an exclusively virtual audience. But when the current crisis is over, we don’t believe this will be an either/or decision (virtual vs. traditional) for most corporate events planners; it will be a both/and one.

What are the challenges with virtual events, and how does Distinction Communication solve for them? Presenters who have grown accustomed to the energy and excitement of speaking at a live event are in for a painful new reality when their audiences are virtual-only at times. Video cameras don’t laugh at your jokes. Those warm faces in the front row that got you through start-up jitters are no longer there, and you won’t be able to rely on your audience to amp up your energy level – that’s all on you now.  (Oh, and that 45 or 60-minute keynote talk? It will now need to align with much shorter attention spans.)

We believe our role as speaker coaches will be integrating more and more with events and corporate communication teams as they discover that just adding a video camera won’t be enough to keep and hold the attention of busy and distracted (virtual) audiences. It will take a specific toolkit of delivery skills that help them engage virtual audiences at a deeper level and messaging approaches to make their audience’s experience richer and more engaging.

This will no doubt mean more succinct content, stronger storytelling skills, the use of props and symbols, being able to create “moments” with their audiences, more seamless media integration, and making those important opening and closing segments even more effective.

What should our designers and presenters be mindful of when presenting or speaking at a virtual event? Does the approach change for webcast vs. online meeting? Probably the most obvious change for virtual presenters will be their audience’s distinctly shorter attention spans and an even lower tolerance for message complexity.  Disengaged audience members who were forced to endure long-winded presenters before, will now simply multi-task or walk away altogether.

Practically, we believe this dynamic will necessitate fewer, more meaningful visuals in presentations and presenters who will need to understand how to adapt their skills for a virtual audience. But the challenge will be that some of those executives attempting to learn new skills are the very same ones who have struggled the last 20 years to create simpler, less complex messages. They will no longer have a choice if they want to hold a virtual attendee’s attention to the very last moment.

Although there are some overlapping skill disciplines for virtual meetings, presentations, webinars, and webcasts, each of these settings will have their own unique application of them. Facilitation skills will need to be retooled for the virtual meeting to better keep attendees more deeply engaged and accountable. Customer meetings that once relied on a firm handshake to build trust will now need to find other ways to communicate those attributes like stronger (virtual) eye contact, passion, shared experience, and better listening skills.

Training for virtual communication will always be context-specific.

What excites Distinction Communication about the future and now of virtual content and branded experiences? Virtual events hold some amazing promise for greater inclusivity for those who couldn’t find the time or afford to attend an event.  From an event planner’s perspective, think how much easier it’s becoming to leverage the contributions of virtual presenters. And with this current swell in demand, platform developers will be highly incentivized to come up with stronger and easier-to-use virtual conferencing tools.

But with all this promise, we will need to better understand how to take a medium that is inherently less personal and not get lost in it.  We hope slicker production values in virtual events don’t replace the need for real human passion. We hope speakers never forget the camera lens represents hundreds or thousands of real people, people who can quickly default to being indifferent spectators if not engaged. There will no doubt be a return to live audiences at some point, but the financial adversity the world is feeling right now will forever motivate the decision-making of event planners to include a virtual option to complement or back-up their traditional events.

We are changed people. And those who will be successful going forward will be those who find ways to embrace this new, sometimes uncomfortable, normal.

Stay tuned for more blogs, pieces of training, and tutorials in the future around virtual events and how best to utilize Silver Fox and our design team. If you’d like to see our work, please visit our Work page.

Mitchell Derrey
Director of Creative Services, Silver Fox Productions
Mitchell Derrey
Director of Creative Services, Silver Fox Productions

Mitchell joined Silver Fox in 2008 as a freelance Presentation Specialist where he was able to merge his passion for design and mentorship, as well as rise to a leadership position in the company. His proudest achievements have been in training new designers and providing coaching as they grow into their careers. He has traveled all over the world to support executives for some of the most well-known brands of our time. His 14+ years at Silver Fox has enriched his life both personally and professionally.

Jim Endicott
Owner and President, Distinction Communication
Jim Endicott
Owner and President, Distinction Communication

Jim is the President of Distinction Communication, a presentation skills coaching company. Endicott has been a Jesse H. Neal award-winning columnist for Presentations magazine and content contributor to magazines like Business Week, Consulting, and Selling Power. Distinction’s client companies range from Fortune 500 senior executive teams to leaders and their communications teams in medium-size to small companies.

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