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5 Things CanceledCon Taught Me About Virtual Events and Life

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At the end of February, I found out that an event I was looking forward to—Creative South—was getting postponed, along with countless others.

Not even a day later, Andrew Hochradel, the emcee of the event, came up with an idea for a free, online creative conference. Let’s just say it was well received, and CanceledCon was born!

Hochradel got it together in two short weeks, and with over 30 speakers it was unlike any conference I have ever been to or heard of; CanceledCon was honest, casual, and so much fun.

Thanks to CanceledCon, I was still able to indulge in my annual creative event by tuning into the full 12-hours each day. It was not only a distraction from a recent breakup, and the pandemic but I learned more than I ever thought I could in a virtual event. And even more so, I was able to gain insight into hosting virtual events and connecting with people remotely.

Here are the top 5 things I learned about virtual events (and life,) from attending CanceledCon.

1. Plan for technical difficulties (they’re inevitable)

During the event, Hochradel was streaming 12+ hours each day (major kudos to him), so something was bound to go wrong. However, he handled the various technical glitches like a pro by reacting quickly, stalling for time, and turning up the charm. 

Mute: Now that we are all on some sort of teleconference tool, we are familiar with the phrase “You’re on mute!” Each time that happened during the event, Hochradel just rolled with it. He either had the speaker repeat their intro or just summed up the information nicely and moved on. Smooth. Really smooth. 

Stall: Sometimes Hochradel needed to look into something on his end, so he had entertaining pre-recorded content from sponsors and short live drawing clips from one of the speakers to keep the viewers attention while he sorted things out. It felt, for the most part, seamless.

Charm: If all else failed, Hochradel just kept talking, using his natural emcee skills, keeping the audience engaged while he worked out whatever issues occurred. This is a key skill when hosting or speaking at an event. If you can keep the audience engaged through anything, you win.

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2. Use multiple platforms to enhance the experience

In real-life events (remember those?), speakers wait backstage, sometimes in a greenroom, until it’s time for them to go on stage. Usually they get cued to appear. 

Hochradel kept this experience alive by setting up a Zoom room for the speakers to join when they were “up-to-bat”—a virtual green room! He streamed their video to the YouTube live stream where the event attendees were watching and interacting through chat.

The use of multiple platforms gave us viewers a sneak peek into the behind the scenes and maintained that sense of camaraderie that helps speakers deliver with confidence.

3. Learn the magic of Open Broadcasters Software (OBS)

I watched the YouTube stream in complete awe over how smooth the transitions were made to look.

Hochradel was able to move between the full screen Zoom feed of the speakers, his full screen view, a split screen of both views with added captions under the videos for the speaker titles, all while maintaining control of the event and making a great emcee. 

I thought this was some sort of sorcery, but it’s actually, OBS, a free, open source video recording and live streaming software.

It makes perfect sense that this could and would be used for a virtual conference. It looked seamless to me and it didn’t take a whole production team to make happen—though there was a team of chat moderators, too making sure things in chat weren’t missed and links were sent out as they were mentioned in the stream.

Watching this event made me feel that OBS is worth learning to up-level the production value of similar small virtual streaming events. It made this event feel like something highly produced and something I’d pay for in the future (like in the summer when CanceledCon returns.)

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4. Lead with empathy by embracing the casual

The “new normal” of events going virtual will probably continue to be a thing for a while.

That being said, we need to embrace one of the biggest aspects it brings: casualness. Going virtual allows us to see people that we may have only seen on stage in a new light. We are now viewing them eye-to-eye or screen-to-screen, having conversations with them, seeing their homes and maybe even their families.

Embrace the casual! Some of the people that I saw over that two day period are people that I had met at Creative South the year before. Some of them I saw speak, some I took workshops with and from, but I saw them all  in a new light during CanceledCon.

The speakers who were able to embrace the casual were the ones who really shined the brightest to me. Even if they presented using slides, they used the slides to guide the conversation, not as a teleprompter. 

There were speakers that put their design skills on the back-burner and took another approach to creativity by showing us baking skills, fly tying skills, and even BBQ sauce making skills.

5. Interact with your audience to keep their attention

It seems daunting to interact with an audience that you can’t see or hear.

During CancledCon, there was a 20 second delay in chat, but Hochradel worked around that. He made the chat box feel like part of the show, calling out specific names or handles to address comment and questions.

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Throughout the virtual event there were also giveaways. There was one with hand letterer, Lauren Hom, who, while she was mural painting and talking about her craft, gave away a mural class. She did this by having attendees call out their dream mural client in the chat window. See above.

Another giveaway was for a year of access to Adobe CC with illustrator, Ben Stafford. He asked the chat to share a name of someone they would reach out to and say something super nice and encouraging to later in the day.

These types of engagements kept the interactivity flowing so it was never just a one-sided conversation.

There were Q&A’s held throughout the day at CanceledCon that helped keep the chat engaged, too. During talks, the speakers would respond to questions asked in the chat, or task a moderator to respond for them. This made it sure that viewers always felt seen and heard. 

CanceledCon gave me the opportunity to attend a creative event but also gave me the chance to really dive into the world of virtual events and think about ways to make them better. My recommendations would be to plan for tech malfunction, lead with empathy, and remember to interact with your audience.

Taking part in this creative virtual event was such an inspiring experience and has shown me that with just a little change in thinking, and using what we have around us, we can create a virtual event that has its own benefits and strengths. 

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Illustrated by Haley Rich