Moderating Virtual Events

Embrace awkwardness and riff like there’s still thousands of folks in the room with you

1. It will be strange without an audience

Remember when we all used to dial into conference calls on landline phones? And you never knew who was there, who’d dropped off and who was simply lurking in the metaphorical shadows but not introducing themselves?

2. You will have tech issues

It’s not an online event unless something crashes. And it’s absolutely not an event, online or otherwise, unless your live coding demo partially explodes. In my case, it was the video streaming — it turned out that we had to finish sessions completely and take them offline, before we could start the process of getting the next speaker live on air. This meant we had to wrap up Q&A at least two minutes earlier than planned.

3. Yes, you absolutely will look like a total goofball

My technical moderator told me we were having issues going live and would let me know as soon as we were on air. Of course, there was a delay in letting me know we were live (which was absolutely no fault of theirs), so there I was, sat on a live stream, grinning like a Cheshire Cat in complete silence…. With a couple of hundred people all round the world looking at me and wondering what was going on.

Goofball time — just keep smiling incase you’re actually live!
  • Don’t read your script word-for-word from the screen — the audience can see your eyes flicking back and forth. Plus, you won’t be looking at the camera. Script your notes, just as you would for a physical event. I always carry prompt cards with me on stage highlighting speaker names, the title of their presentation and the facts I’ll use to introduce them. And even though this event was entirely online, I still used my prompt cards.
  • Look directly at the camera — that tiny little blob is your audience now. To make sure I was looking in the right place, I recorded myself practising my speaker intros. I highly recommend doing this, so you can check that you’re not inadvertently looking off to the side of the screen.
  • Practice transitions with the tech team — and do this at least a week in advance so you can iron out inevitable issues. At CamundaCon Live, moderators had to make sure we turned microphones and cameras on and off at certain times, as well as running apps in the background to gather audience questions and push out feedback polls. Practising early meant we actually changed quite a few things ahead of time.
  • Collaborate with your fellow moderators to ensure a smooth experience for attendees — because virtual events are harder for attendees to navigate. There’s no floor-plan, no loud-speaker announcements in the main reception, and no bumping into friends in the hallways, so you need to put extra effort into ensuring your attendees can seamlessly navigate to where they want to be. This might be as simple as recording a “housekeeping” video, to point out where the agenda is located and how to ask questions during presentations.
  • Embrace the madness — live events are nuts. There’s no getting around it, whether you’re sitting in your living room or waiting backstage in a 1000-seater auditorium. There’s always a speaker who turns up late, there’s always a last-minute schedule change, you will inevitably be asked a question that you have no answer to. Embrace it and have fun!
  • Remember that the audience wants you to succeed — no matter if you’re moderating or speaking, they didn’t come to laugh at you, they came to learn from you. I have the fantastic Renko Pauwels, speaker and moderator extraordinaire, to thank for this insight, and I always bear it in mind before I go on stage. If you mess up your lines or your live coding demo crashes, don’t sweat it. Take a deep breath and carry on. Little slip ups pale in comparison to strong content and a solid learning experience.

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Charley Mann

Charley Mann is a recovering journalist, runner & wine lover, helping software developers unlock their writing potential & turning code into prose @ cmann.dev