The Virtual Stage: Approaching Virtual Events Like a Theatre Performance

| By Vivien Hudson

The Virtual Stage

Virtual Gurus’s own David Smith talks about virtual events being likened to that of a stage production or performance, an analogy I find myself frequently referring to. 

When you think about it, there are a lot of similarities! 

The three elements of the performance include the actual set, the choreography and the performers. 

The idea of the performance is to engage and captivate the audience. We should be aiming for the same goals for our virtual presentations.

In our virtual presentations we can overlay the same 3 components - the platform and what we put in it as the set, the choreography being the way our virtual event flows, and the presenters as the performers. 

If we look at a stage performance, planning is required with many things to consider including:

  • What is the performance about?
  • Who is our audience?
  • Who needs to be involved?
  • What are the design elements needed?
  • What expectations do we have?
  • What is the flow?
  • Do we have the right performers?
  • What is the backup plan?
  • How do we want to leave our audience?

Let us take these elements and apply them to a virtual presentation, training or meeting. For the most part I will refer to presentations, as this is the one that is most like a dedicated performance. Of course, many associations can be overlaid to meetings and virtual training.

What is the Performance About?

As with a stage presentation or production, there is a central story or message that is being conveyed through the words and actions of the performers. This is what leaves the audience with something that they can take home in their head and/or heart.  This is no different when a webinar is presented. If an audience is expected to sit through 60 minutes of someone talking, the information must have value for them. What is the message or takeaway you want for your audience? 

Who is Our Audience?

A theatre production will be created and targeted to suit a style or genre. Whether children, family, comedy or drama as examples.  When we consider our virtual audience – who are they? What will engage your audience to sit through your presentation? If your audience is a selection of senior executives you may have a different take on your presentation to that if you have an audience of upcoming entrepreneurs or an audience of new recruits.

Who Needs to be Involved?

In the planning for a stage production, there are many people involved from writers, to set and costume designers, choreographers, directors and of course the performers. A virtual presentation can have many as 8 different stakeholders – organisational, technological, producer, presenter, coordinators and designers among them.  They will be responsible for anything from visuals and content, ‘selling tickets’, setting the stage and ensuring technology is working and accessible for all.

What are the Design Elements Needed?

The audience and content will dictate to some level the complexity of a set and the amount of animation needed to captivate an audience. In a virtual presentation, we want to minimise the desire for our audience to begin multitasking. If they begin to multitask, then chances are they may not re-engage in the content of the session, nor listen to the replay! 

When we go to the cinema, we are reminded not to use our phones due to the distraction to other movie goers which helps remind our social conscience it is not just about us. In a webinar situation, we do not have that same big brother that could name and shame us for not paying attention.  Engagement is key! Our audience will rely on visuals, movement on screen, opportunity for interaction and by no means least, the presenter to keep them captivated.

Deciding what content to deliver will depend on the type of presentation, the complexity of the information and message. If you are presenting highly technical information, how can that information be repurposed to create a more engaging presentation? 

Presentations can be interspersed with polls, opportunity to add comments to chat and Q & A.  With live, online training, (different from a webinar), the content is best designed to be highly interactive - engage with the audience every 3 to 5 minutes. This level of interaction helps reduce or avoid multitasking and creates an enjoyable and engaging experience for all those involved. The only way this can be achieved is through thoughtful design and familiarity of all the platform tools that are available.

What Expectations Do We Have?

Expectations are always important in helping people work to a standard. As you have noted already, there can be many stakeholders in a virtual session.  When people know what is required of them, they will work to achieve those goals based on their skill set and tools. For example, a production that is created as a fun summer holiday entertainment production to amuse kids for 30 minutes at a shopping mall will be vastly different from a Broadway theatre production. Much of the process will be same but the final product can be quite different. 

Expectations will need to be set with course designers, the organisation, the presenters, the tools and the audience. Those involved in delivering the content must be prepared and familiar with the toolset of the platform. This is paramount to the success of an event.

I mention audience expectations because to help them engage, we must allay any technology fears they may have. We can help them get comfortable with platform tools, get their audio right and encourage them to get onto the event a few minutes early to ensure everything is working so they can interact.

Since fear and uncertainty can block learning and thinking, the presenter and producer must be familiar with the content, the platform tools and the expectations they have for each other. This is ESSENTIAL to the success of the event.

As a presenter – expect to be prepared. When you go online, you are essentially on stage! Your brain suddenly fills with the focus of needing to be in that moment and delivering the performance.  With adequate preparation, you don’t have to second guess yourself when the curtain goes up. 

Ask yourself:  What expectations do you have for your performance?  What expectations do you have for your audience? Now use those intentions to guide you!

What is the Flow?

In a stage production, there is flow to the creation, rehearsal and final presentation of a performance. All these elements are thought through and practiced and none of this can happen with just the performers alone. A director or stage manager helps with the process.  A virtual presentation is no different. Other people and roles must be involved to ensure smooth delivery.

First comes the content design where the message, audience and toolset need to be considered.  We want to make sure the story or message flows. Think about what elements can be brought in to add interest, intrigue or even fun!

The producer role in a virtual event, allows the presenter to get on with delivering the content and is considered best practice. A producer enables smooth transitions and the dropping in of different elements into the session such as polls and whiteboards all while they manage the technology and contingency plans. Without a producer, we could relate this to an actor having to drag a new set on stage while they are finishing their lines from the last scene. A producer lightens the cognitive load for the presenter. This enables the presenter to focus on their lines and the audience.

Some presentations will have moderators that help with audience interaction and collation of questions. A producer and/or moderator can be one and the same. This person can help with the introduction of the presenter, set up audience expectations and assist with the technology. Our audience can be unfamiliar with platform tools and how to best interact in a virtual session. A producer can help disperse some of these fears from these uncertainties.

A well-staged presentation will include a script. Typically, a ‘script’ (facilitator guide) includes all the notes for the ‘set’ – polls, breakout activities, additional files, video or documents to be shared.  It will also include the script for the presenter so they are not making content up on the fly. Timing is of utmost importance in a webinar as inevitably the audience will have an allotted time schedule to abide to. Too much side-tracking can quickly result in incomplete delivery of the allotted content. Rehearsing will help familiarise the content, the transitions and detect any anomalies or uncertainties that could happen when the ‘curtain goes up’. 

What is the Backup Plan?

When we have leading performers, there is usually a double that can play the role should the lead fall ill or not be able to perform. 

Contingency plans should always be at the forefront when we think about virtual presenting! We all know technology is GREAT when it works …. But when it doesn’t, it can turn a calm person into a Mr Hyde. In a virtual presentation, we are placing a high level of confidence on the platform, our audio, internet, electricity and video working.  When any one of these fail, COMPLETE panic can occur if you are not prepared! 

On a stage, it could look something like this: the audience is seated, the performers are ready and then the curtain won’t go up. Maybe the speakers or microphones are not working or the mechanics of the set fail. When you are in the spotlight, it can be hard to think what to do and leave you feeling literally, like a deer in the headlights.

Back up plans include having back up audio options, back up computers, back up internet, back up presenters and more. Going through the contingencies with your team prior to the session will help everyone know what to do in the event of a glitch. 

How Do We Want to Leave Our Audience?

At the end of a show, the audience should have a level of satisfaction in the time they spent, did they feel entertained, have a takeaway message and could they even be wanting more? Ask yourself:  ‘How would you like to leave your audience?’

I recommend always have a great ending.  People will often remember the first and last thing you say and not so much of the middle. Rehearse your ending especially.  Know what you want to say and how you want to say it. If you have a Question and Answer segment at the end of the presentation, have a second short and to the point ending prepared. 

Most of your audience will be ready to jump off your session immediately at the top of the hour due to other commitments so make sure you have your ending on cue! No one likes a presenter that runs long. Timing and delivery are key. 

Next time you are presenting or preparing for your virtual event, think of it as a performance and see how that changes your perception, and perspective as a performer!

Author: Vivien Hudson

Vivien fell into the virtual world around the time she moved from Australia to the US in 2013. She has a diverse past from working in healthcare as a pharmacist and business owner to sales, coaching and brain fitness. She has led a national remote team and now works with Virtual Gurus developing virtual mastery and presence.  In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her family of 3 kids, nature where she can unplug, cooking and reading anything that relates to EQ, connection and self-leadership.

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