Five Things We Learned About Online Events

1. Be strategic.

We’ve all heard the joke about meetings that could have been an email. Those complaints ring especially true in the era of video meetings. Virtual meetings are more draining—both physically and mentally—than their in-person counterparts.

Coffee mug bearing the words "I survived another meeting that should have been an email"
We’ve all been here.

That means it’s more important than ever to think about what we want to accomplish—and whether a virtual meeting is really the best way to accomplish it—before we get people together via video conferencing.

For think tanks, “Let’s hold an event” competes “Let’s write a report” for the title of Most Popular Patellar Reflex Response to All Problems. We’ve not been particularly good about asking whether in-person events genuinely return value.

The COVID–19 crisis is an excellent opportunity to assess whether “put a bunch of people in a room together” really contributes to impact.

2. Don’t just replicate what you’d do in person.

It’s hard to over-emphasize this point: Online meetings are exhausting. They also present all sorts of opportunities to disengage. After all, that browser window is just sitting there waiting to have a new tab opened. Who’s going to know…

If you expect your audience to just sit and listen passively for 90 minutes, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

You’ll need to keep your session shorter.

And you’ll probably need to make things far more interactive than you would if you were in person. Sprinke your event with polls. Build in short bits of interactivity. Maybe even just make a formal pause for everyone to get up and stretch.

Passivity is the enemy of a good online event. THe more you can build in some degree of interaction, the more successful your event is likely to be.

3. Take advantage of being online.

Sure, some things work better in person than they do online. But let’s not forget that the reverse is equally true.

  • Chat functions make it possible to do individual introductions in events with 100 people.
  • Instant polls allow speakers to determine how much an audience knows about a topic and adjust remarks appropriately.
  • Twitter hashtags let us expand live conversations far beyond those who signed up for the event.
  • Virtual sticky notes make it possible to do real-time brainstorming with distributed groups.
  • Collaborative, cloud-based documents allow for asynchronous brainstorming and thoughtful decision-making.

4. Brand the experience.

There are lots of things that go into in-person events.

  • Backdrops or a lectern with your organization’s name and logo.
  • Professionally designed and typeset copies of books or reports.
  • Folders filled with speaker bios on your organization’s letterhead and fact sheets or brochures about your organization.
  • Business cards for handing out afterward.

Your online events should be every bit as professionally branded as your in person events. That means you’ll want things like intros and outros, a logo “bug” that appears in the corner throughout the presentation, namestraps that go on the lower third of the screen, and maybe some nice transitions.

Yes, those things require some up-front investment. But it’s a lot less than you might think—indeed, it’s probably less than the cost of flying in a participant or two for an in-person event.

5. Little things make a big difference.

Even if you can’t brand your event (and you really, really should brand your event!) there are still a number of simple things you can do that will significantly improve the quality of your online meetings or events.

Proper lighting—which can be as simple as a properly-mounted desk lap—goes a long way.

Photo showing proper lighting for online meetings using only a normal desk lamp
The Pixar lamp knows good moviemaking.

The camera on your phone is probably higher quality than the one built in to your laptop, so a tripod for your iPhone can also up your production values.

Relatively inexpensive semi-professional web cameras, lights and microphones—which can be had for under $100 combined—can go a long way toward bridging the gap between Middle School AV Club and Respected Think Tank.


Joe Miller is the Director of the DC studio of Soapbox, a design and digital agency that focuses on creative communications for ideas that matter. He has led digital strategy projects at Eastern Research Group, The Century Foundation, and the Congressional Budget Office. Prior to his shift to content strategy, we was a senior staff writer at, a copywriter with the Mack/Crounse Group and an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina—Pembroke and the United States Military Academy. He received his PhD in political philosophy from the University of Virginia, his MA in philosophy from Virginia Tech, and his BA in philosophy from Hampden-Sydney College.

Posted in breakfast club, Events

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