Using Hollywood Tactics to Be a Better Storyteller for Virtual Events

June 15, 2020

Joanne Brooks

Joanne Brooks is president of Creative Impact Group, a full-service production company based in Northbrook, Illinois, that specializes in live, virtual and hybrid events. With an extensive background in show business, Joanne coordinates seamless events that bring together talent, technology, marketing and design.

At a trade show, we used to say you have three seconds to capture the attention of someone walking by your booth. But in a virtual event, engagement isn’t just earned once. You have to earn it again and again.

The past few months have reshaped the events industry, but now is the time to accept changes and retool. Virtual events might look a little different, but the goal is the same: to tell your unique story.

While most live events have exclusive access to their venues, virtual spaces are shared with a barrage of distractions. Between email notifications, news and streaming services, it’s no surprise the average attention span of a person sitting in front of their computer is only 40 seconds.

Screens can be distracting, but they can also be a source of deep engagement. Audiences prove this every time they push all those distractions aside to watch a movie or television series. While most companies don’t have a Hollywood budget, in a virtual event, you can build engagement by following the same principles of storytelling: plot, production, characterization, surprise and a dramatic conclusion.

Whether you’re hosting a small budget meeting or a large virtual gala, fundraiser or conference, this formula can ensure your event captures attention and keeps it.

Don’t Just Plan A Virtual Event, Plot It

In a virtual event, engaging the audience begins long before the first attendee logs in. Just as a movie director carefully studies the script before providing direction to the cast and crew, a seasoned event producer understands exactly what needs to be communicated and why. Consider the content of the meeting: What’s the overall story you’re trying to tell? Why would a guest be interested in sticking around for the whole thing? A film would never begin with a person reading from a slide deck. Instead, rehearse a cleverly scripted introduction that sets expectations and lays out the framework for the event. But keep it interesting. Plot your virtual event in stages so the audience is continually looking forward to what is around the corner.

Consider the Production Value

Engagement isn’t only earned by what you say or do. How you visually communicate with attendees matters, too. We’ve all seen how a flashlight under the chin can reinforce a spooky story. Make sure your lighting and sound convey the right message to guests. While larger virtual events may be recorded on set, for others, Zoom might be the stage. Select the right platform for your needs. Make sure it’s easy to work with, but have a technical director on hand in case any sound or AV issues come up. And remember that what the audience sees matters: A well-designed backdrop or carefully chosen outfit can help reinforce a story, just as a movie set or costume conveys a specific style and tone.

Cast Your Characters Carefully

Hire a professional moderator or celebrity host who is trained to engage and entertain. When the leader of an organization is the featured speaker, some attendees may feel they’ve heard this song before and tune out. Avoid Zoom gloom by engaging a professional who disrupts guest expectations. And work with an event producer who understands how to match the right speaker or performer with your organization's overall goals. With so many elements to juggle at once, an experienced producer can make sure all the balls stay in the air. Perform several trial runs with your talent. You can never rehearse too much!

Surprise Guests and Keep Them Laughing

People enjoy a good plot twist, a unique surprise or being challenged by a new idea. Novelty should be the guiding principle behind all communications. Feature an impromptu performance or surprise guests with a celebrity appearance. Incorporate tangible, hybrid elements into a virtual event whenever possible: from physical invitations that build buzz beforehand to an unexpected gift or meal delivered right to your attendees’ door. Comedy is also one of the best-kept secrets of engagement. A good performer or comedian knows how to keep guests on the edge of their seats. Punctuate your meeting with moments of lightheartedness so guests keep waiting for the next time they get to laugh rather than zoning out.

End with a Dramatic Conclusion

We’ve all been there: The movie or series that keeps you on the edge of your seat, then falls flat. Every element of a production should lead to one central moment that defines the event and rewards participation and engagement. This might be an exclusive announcement in a quarterly meeting, a big reveal in a mystery party or a surprise performer at a fundraising event. Audience members stick with a storyline for a simple reason — because they want to find out what happens next. Professional presenters continually remind guests that there’s something special to come.

Set your expectations high and keep them there. To earn your virtual attendee’s attention, you must convince them to clear the venue of all the other distractions. Use storytelling techniques that inform and continually entertain your guests. Just like watching a good movie, your participants will forget they are in front of a screen and follow your story wherever it goes.

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