How to run a virtual conference that DOESN’T switch people off!

Blink if you’re tired of staring at a screen. Now blink twice if you want to be rescued from it!  In today’s virtual environment, where almost 70% of home workers are reporting signs of mental exhaustion, asking someone to attend a virtual event feels like awarding the winner of a sausage-eating competition the delectable prize of…more sausage.

Given the lack of safe and practical alternatives however, the number of virtual company conferences will keep increasing as the level of engagement plummets.

Maybe it’s time to address the elephant in the virtual, 3D, interactive ‘meeting room’:

No-one ever really attended a conference for the fancy slide show – or to hear the CEO unveil this year’s strategic stroke of genius. Most face-to-face meetings relied on social pressure to keep people ‘present’: a captive audience tends to behave! (Who hasn’t perfected their ‘resting interested face’ while praying for the pastries to arrive?)

No surprise in this virtual world, where everyone’s attending from home (cue pets howling, kids wailing, emails pinging) many delegates start to check out the second they’ve confirmed their ‘registration’. And what a crying shame!

With remote work feeding an ever-growing empathy gap, and people feeling increasingly isolated, the need for us to come together, connect and collaborate has never been greater.

Try these thought experiments to help create a virtual event that truly engages, energises and inspires:

Let go of the past (and your old event format)

You can’t shoe-horn ‘old school’ physical conference formats into a virtual space, and expect them to work.

Experiment  Put yourselves into the shoes of your attendees. No matter how shiny your technology (branded landing page and ‘broadcast quality’ graphics anyone?) if the thought of sitting through a jammed  conference agenda makes you want to poke your eyes out – then guess how everyone else will feel?

Forget the idea of ‘audience’ and think of everyone as a participant

Nobody wants to be a passenger any more. Just as no-one ever really wanted to be stuck in a conference hall watching you paddle through your Powerpoint.

Experiment  Look at every item on your meeting agenda and ask yourself these questions:

  • It is helping people make meaningful progress around something they care about?
  • Does it help build relationships, and create a sense of trust and belonging?
  • Does it have an intrinsic value that comes from being experienced ‘live’?
  • Is it making every participant feel ‘a star of the show’?

Turn presentations into conversations

You can call your speech a ‘keynote’, and buff your slides till they shine, but people know an information dump when they see it.

With attention spans shrinking, stop trying to broadcast content – start a conversation instead.


  • Need people to understand and internalise your message? Let them consume it at their convenience. Spend the time you do have together discussing the ideas, and getting their perspective.
  • Einstein said “the only source of knowledge is experience.” How can you help your participants get their hands dirty around your ideas and content – trying it on for themselves?

Make it about the people

 The more technology is used to connect us, the harder we have to ‘work’ to be human!  Relationships, rapport and social connection don’t happen by accident in a virtual environment.

Physical events could trade on the proximity engendered by a nice hotel and a free bar: The crucial business of forging links would happen round the edges of a conference. Now delegates can’t chat over coffee in the breaks, or hatch ideas over dinner (and get to know the people behind the job titles) we must build connection into the conference itself.


  •  Are you putting the social experience into the centre of your event?
  • Have you designed practical, thoughtful steps to help people relax, and get to know / trust each other?
  • Are you being authentic and human? Or are you hiding behind a shiny and professional veneer?

Shake off the shackles of an ‘old school’ schedule – enjoy the freedom of the virtual space!

When travel and accommodation budgets went out, so did the need to cram stuff in to justify the trouble delegates took to get to you (they’ve not even left their desk! At most, they’ve adjusted their swivel chair).


  • Can you ‘thin slice’ your agenda with shorter, focused sessions that require everyone to participate?
  • Can you create space between ‘at screen’ sessions to give people time and space to reflect and do their best thinking?

Embrace the inclusivity that digital allows

Why exclude people from the guest list when you no longer have to think about costs and practicalities in the same way? Digital was made for diversity – you can invite anyone in the world! Be greedy, and tap into the full brain power available to you.


  • Now everyone from industry titans to cost-conscious consumers can join you, no matter where in the world they’re based. Who could you ask to attend who you’d never normally have considered?
  • When the only ‘limit on numbers’ is the value people can bring to you (and attractions your event can hold for them) why shorten your guest list?

If this approach sounds like more effort, you’re not wrong! But if we care about connecting people, and fostering the sense of inclusion we all crave right now, maybe it’s worth an experiment?

To find out more, check out what we’ve been doing at The Culture Experiment


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