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Digital conferences: asking the right questions

If you had a big event or conference planned for the first half of this year, chances are you’ve gone through a series of stages over the past month or so.

First, you were probably in the determined optimist category: any COVID related disruption would be very short-term and face-to-face events would be back to normal relatively quickly, well before your event.

Then, as the extent of the outbreak became clearer, you may have gone through a much more pessimistic period, thinking there was no option but to cancel your event.

But hopefully you’re now in a much better position and, like others, asking how you can digitally deliver the event you’d planned, in a world where so many are working from their living rooms.

Starting from the right place

This is the point where it’s tempting to look at your event programme, and ask what a digital version of each aspect looks like. So you had a drinks reception, dinner, two keynote speakers with Q&As, a networking session over coffee, and lunch? All you need to ask is how to do a digital drinks reception, digital dinner, digital keynotes and Q&As, digital networking session, digital coffee and digital lunch. Right?

This is where it’s very easy to end up. But asking how to do your face-to-face event components digitally is the wrong question. This is where it’s helpful to take a step back, and follow the Simon Sinek principle: Start With Why (if you haven’t seen his brilliant TED talk, it’s 15 minutes well spent).

Instead of starting with ‘what’ – the face-to-face event you’d planned – it’s helpful to go back to ‘why’: what was the purpose of your event in the first place? It may have been to have nice coffee and drinks (in which case, fair play to you). But for most of us it will have been for bigger objectives as part of our work: perhaps to help people collaborate on a project; to introduce people or build relationships as part of a team; or to share important findings.

Achieving goals

At Kaleidoscope we’ve been using digital events to deliver goals for a while, and we’re pleased to receive positive feedback on those. More than 90% of participants would recommend our digital events, and in particular people often describe our events as interactive, engaging and accessible.

We’ve been building on that in recent weeks, planning digital conferences to achieve the goals that would have been achieved with face-to-face events. We’ve looked at the details: from how to maximise interaction opportunities in an effective way; to how to make content engaging; to how to ensure that any events are based on what participants have told us they want to discuss.

I’m excited by the possibilities in designing digital events – which have also helped me to see some of the limitations of face-to-face events.

For instance, when there’s lots of video content, rather than having everyone sit and watch it at the same time, give people a chance to watch it ahead of the event. That way, the events themselves can focus on interaction, discussion and debate.

Like many people, I was tempted to feel a real sense of loss when it became apparent that we weren’t going to be able to do face to face events for a while. But now I’m excited by the possibilities in designing digital events – which have also helped me to see some of the limitations of face-to-face events.

For example, how many Q&A sessions have you sat in where you’ve barely had time to even process your thoughts and questions before the session is over? With a digital event, by making content available in advance, it gives people a chance to process, reflect, do further research if necessary, and come to a live session much better equipped for a nuanced, meaningful discussion.

I’d encourage everyone to try and make this shift in mindset. This time is not about trying to use technology to compensate for the different things you could’ve done in a face to face event; it’s about seeing what opportunities there are to use technology to achieve those same goals.

Asking this question and designing programmes accordingly has been a source of encouragement in a rapidly changing world, reminding me that Kaleidoscope’s goal remains unchanged and unhindered. In a digital world of remote working, we’re continuing to bring people together to improve health and care.

Andrew Grey7 April 2020


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