Moderating Virtual Events

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

I recently moderated a global virtual event for the first time — CamundaCon LIVE. Yes, I did have tech issues and looked like a total goofball, sitting silently grinning at the camera while I was actually live. But happily, my speakers didn’t experience any tech missteps, gave fantastic presentations and were able to connect virtually with a huge audience through dedicated Slack channels.

Seeing as online events are planned well into next year, I wanted to share some lessons I learned during this process, to help as you navigate online moderation and presentation in the tech world.

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?

The moderation-end of virtual events is exactly like a 1990s conference call — you have no idea how many people are there. And like a good old conference call, people are passing you silent notes constantly: “remind people about a webinar,” “there’s an issue with the link, we have to cut this section short by five minutes… can you just tell the speaker?”

Corralling speakers, your event teams and an entirely unknown audience is madness.

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.

Of course, we only discovered this issue when I was meant to be going live with my first introduction. Which leads me neatly into the next point:

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.

And you know what? It was hilarious! The playback was pure gold and something I’ll laugh about for years to come. And I wasn’t the only one with a seriously good blooper reel.

Goofball time — just keep smiling incase you’re actually live!

I’ve been moderating and public speaking for a few years, but my crash course in online moderation has taught me plenty of useful and painful lessons that I’ll be using for all upcoming events.

Here’s my key takeaways:

  • 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.

I thoroughly enjoyed moderating CamundaCon LIVE, but I missed having a physical audience. For me, there’s something special in helping a large group of people navigate a conference, especially when those folks are going to go on to make important connections, puzzle out emerging tools and trouble-shoot with their peers. Without their faces staring back from the black abyss of an auditorium, it was impossible to ‘read the room’ and know if my guidance was helping. But I was heartened by feedback from my speakers, who felt well equipped to deliver their presentations and happy to share a socially distanced and virtual beer with me afterwards.

Online moderation, and indeed presentation, is something I’m still working hard on. Is it something you also find challenging? Perhaps you’ve got some great tips you could share? Let me know in the comments.

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