How to Choose the Right Virtual Event Formats

May 29, 2020

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You know the feeling…you’re in the thick of planning an upcoming event and need new ideas to engage and excite your audience. But a wrench has been thrown into the mix: this event is virtual. Now, you must consider what the right virtual format is for your event and how attendees will participate.

Trust us, you’re not alone. As the need for virtual events continues, planners are challenged to make memorable and engaging events that will be just as impressive as live ones. But don’t worry! It’s not as hard as you might think.

Shaking up your session formats for virtual events is arguably one of the most important aspects of ensuring engagement throughout your event. Not only are various virtual sessions an excellent way to get people’s attention and entice them to participate, but they are also a great tool to promote learning, career growth, and networking during your event. And, you have several format options!

Here are all the event format options you may want to throw into the mix to customize your event. We like to categorize our format options into the following: Presenter Formats, Thought Leadership Formats, and Collaboration Formats. This will come in handy when you are planning out the types of engagement activities for your events.

Presenter Formats

1. Keynote Presentation

Keynote presentations are typically a single speaker in front of an audience, often with the goal of delivering a key message or underlying theme. They establish the framework of your event and generate enthusiasm among your attendees. Choosing the right keynote is imperative for a successful presentation and kick off to your event. It is usually recommended to choose someone who is well known for his or her expertise in a particular field, or who has popular name recognition or accomplishments that are important to your audience. Overall, keeping in mind of the personality, presentation, and message of the keynote speaker in the selection process will result in an exciting kickoff to your event, full of inspired attendees.

2. Town Halls

Town hall presentations are typically run by one or more presenters in which political or other figures of leadership, such as executives or board members, answer questions from the public or a particular audience. They are best used as a tool for open dialog between leaders in the workplace or political figures and constituents or public servants to ask questions, address issues, and generate new processes. Even if your virtual event isn’t a political address, town halls are a great tool for sales summits, training workshops, and more to address the state of the company, new processes, and to welcome new leaders. Town halls can also be held at a regular cadence, such as monthly, for important company-wide announcements, award recognition or other noteworthy news

Thought Leadership Formats

1. Fireside Chat

Don’t worry, you don’t need a fireplace to produce an amazing virtual fireside chat. This event format is excellent for informal conversations between a moderator and your attendees. Switch up the predictable (and even boring) PowerPoint presentation by creating a two-way conversation allowing the moderator’s personality to shine through. This format also provides an opportunity for some of your less experienced speakers to deliver content in a way that feels more comfortable to them. The fireside chat format invites more audience participation, keeps attendees interested and removes the oftentimes unnecessary use of slides. This format is wonderful option for an audience who prefers less-formal, more conversational engagement with the speaker and is well suited to covering specific topics about a product, service, brand, etc.

2. Panel Discussion

Incorporating panel discussions into your virtual event is an excellent way to offer a moderated conversation between a host and multiple panelists who can offer differing viewpoints and expertise on a specific topic. It’s important to plan your panel discussion wisely and choose the right participants for the job. Having a coherent storyline thought out ahead of time alongside prepared questions that have been reviewed by the panels BEFORE the discussion is the key to a successful session. Panel discussions are a great virtual event format, especially when it is important for the audience to consider a subject from various perspectives or fields of study. They are often heavily moderated and attendee participation is asked for only for a specific duration.=The moderator will be your most important tool for guiding the conversation while keeping it lively and relevant.

3. Roundtable Discussions

Similar to a panel discussion, roundtable discussions are moderated sessions between four or more subject matter experts that discuss a topic or theme. This virtual event format is typically the most successful when the topic has been agreed on ahead of time and conversation is opened up with the interest of light debate. Each participant in the discussion is typically given the same amount of time to speak and share their thoughts on the topic, all while guided by the moderator to ensure continuity. If all goes as planned, roundtable discussions are typically incredibly valuable to attendees and can bring forward energy and fresh perspectives on topics that are important to them. This is a great option for those seeking to explore a specific subject from multiple vantage points.

4. Q&A Discussions

It’s as easy as it sounds! Q&A discussions are a question-and-answer style of discussion between a presenter and live attendees. Q&A discussions can be done either as part of your presentation or a stand-alone event. They are a fun virtual event idea for audiences to learn about the topic and can ask questions they may not normally have the time to ask. When you are planning your Q&A session, build in enough time to allow the discussion to flow for at least 10 minutes. If you’re worried about keeping things on track, use a moderator to ensure the questions that are being asked are appropriate and that the conversation keeps moving forward to new questions after a certain period of time. As a rule of thumb, always prepare a couple of “safety net” questions ahead of time in case the audience is hesitant to participate right off the bat. This format is a great choice around new products or processes that may generate inquisitive interest from your audience.

5. Fishbowl Discussions

Not unlike panel discussions, fishbowl discussions involve a small group of participants who sit together and discuss a topic while those outside of the “fishbowl” listen to what they are discussing. The fun part about this virtual event format is that when those outside of the fishbowl have something to contribute, they can enter the discussion and act as a contributor. This is an excellent exercise to promote contribution and listening amongst your attendees, as well as ensuring equal participation within a discussion.

Collaboration Formats

1. Breakout Sessions

The breakout session virtual event format is when a large group of attendees split off into smaller groups to engage in conversation on specific topics. Of course, all of these topics are based on the larger theme of the conference. To plan a successful breakout session for your virtual event, it’s best practice to prepare special team building activities ahead of time to encourage team bonding and active discussion. For the most effective breakouts, provide specific instructions, communicate what the session will entail, note if there are any team leaders, and say how long attendees have to complete their discussion. This will limit confusion, ensure organized thought and keep everyone on track for success

2. AMA Sessions

AMA or “Ask Me Anything” virtual even formats allow the audience to ask questions to a one or multiple speakers. They are a great way to present your attendees with a whole session experience that is dedicated to asking important questions. These sessions are highly successful for leadership figures to present themselves transparently to their staff and open the floor to answer questions their employees may have. They also provide also an opportunity to address concerns and resolve issues that may be occurring. AMA sessions are a fun virtual even idea and a great exercise to encourage candid conversations across peers and leadership, often resulting in a validated and more educated workforce.

3. Flipped Learning Sessions

Flipped learning sessions work best when learning material, such as videos, articles, or books, are made available to attendees prior to the session. Selecting this virtual event format allows your attendees to be well-versed in the subject ahead of time and come prepared with questions, thoughts, and opinions about the topic. In addition, this keeps the attendees from being passive and transforms them into part of the discussion as a thought leader.

4. Birds of a Feather Sessions

Birds of a feather virtual event formats are like breakouts, but they have one major differentiator: they do not offer a pre-planned agenda. Attendees are invited to gather in an informal atmosphere and group together based on shared interests. Once groups have formed, attendees can carry out discussions without the bindings of an agenda. They are an excellent networking tool and can offer a place where like-minded attendees can congregate and discuss issues, themes, or common questions. Like any session, they can be a tool to discuss hard topics, but they are oftentimes a fun way to deep dive on a topic without making the conversation too formal.

5. Themed Happy Hours

Staying on the trend of informality, themed happy hours are an excellent way to bring your attendees together in an informal environment to touch on important topics. Kick this fun virtual event idea off by stating the theme of the happy hour, what you would like to accomplish, and how long attendees have to discuss. Afterwards, simply allow attendees to mix and mingle with one another to get the conversation started. If the room is hesitant to get to talking, have a couple backup icebreakers to help attendees feel more comfortable.

Final Thoughts

No matter the virtual event, there are endless opportunities for you to incorporate engagement activities that attendees will find truly valuable. Remember, one size does not fit all, so mix and match the types of engagement activities you see here to create a great event experience for your attendees.

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