Using Hollywood Tactics to Be a Better Storyteller for Virtual Events

June 23, 2020

Joanne Brooks

Joanne Brooks is president of Creative Impact Group, a full-service production company based in Northbrook, Illinois, that specializes in live, virtual and hybrid events. With an extensive background in show business, Joanne coordinates seamless events that bring together talent, technology, marketing and design.

At a trade show, we used to say you have three seconds to capture the attention of someone walking by your booth. But in a virtual event, engagement isn’t just earned once. You have to earn it again and again.

The past few months have reshaped the events industry, but now is the time to accept changes and retool. Virtual events might look a little different, but the goal is the same: to tell your unique story.

While most live events have exclusive access to their venues, virtual spaces are shared with a barrage of distractions. Between email notifications, news and streaming services, it’s no surprise the average attention span of a person sitting in front of their computer is only 40 seconds.

Screens can be distracting, but they can also be a source of deep engagement. Audiences prove this every time they push all those distractions aside to watch a movie or television series. While most companies don’t have a Hollywood budget, in a virtual event, you can build engagement by following the same principles of storytelling: plot, production, characterization, surprise and a dramatic conclusion.

Whether you’re hosting a small budget meeting or a large virtual gala, fundraiser or conference, this formula can ensure your event captures attention and keeps it.

Don’t Just Plan A Virtual Event, Plot It

In a virtual event, engaging the audience begins long before the first attendee logs in. Just as a movie director carefully studies the script before providing direction to the cast and crew, a seasoned event producer understands exactly what needs to be communicated and why. Consider the content of the meeting: What’s the overall story you’re trying to tell? Why would a guest be interested in sticking around for the whole thing? A film would never begin with a person reading from a slide deck. Instead, rehearse a cleverly scripted introduction that sets expectations and lays out the framework for the event. But keep it interesting. Plot your virtual event in stages so the audience is continually looking forward to what is around the corner. 

Consider the Production Value

Engagement isn’t only earned by what you say or do. How you visually communicate with attendees matters, too. We’ve all seen how a flashlight under the chin can reinforce a spooky story. Make sure your lighting and sound convey the right message to guests. While larger virtual events may be recorded on set, for others, Zoom might be the stage. Select the right platform for your needs. Make sure it’s easy to work with, but have a technical director on hand in case any sound or AV issues come up. And remember that what the audience sees matters: A well-designed backdrop or carefully chosen outfit can help reinforce a story, just as a movie set or costume conveys a specific style and tone. 

Cast Your Characters Carefully

Hire a professional moderator or celebrity host who is trained to engage and entertain. When the leader of an organization is the featured speaker, some attendees may feel they’ve heard this song before and tune out. Avoid Zoom gloom by engaging a professional who disrupts guest expectations. And work with an event producer who understands how to match the right speaker or performer with your organization's overall goals. With so many elements to juggle at once, an experienced producer can make sure all the balls stay in the air. Perform several trial runs with your talent. You can never rehearse too much!

Surprise Guests and Keep Them Laughing

People enjoy a good plot twist, a unique surprise or being challenged by a new idea. Novelty should be the guiding principle behind all communications. Feature an impromptu performance or surprise guests with a celebrity appearance. Incorporate tangible, hybrid elements into a virtual event whenever possible: from physical invitations that build buzz beforehand to an unexpected gift or meal delivered right to your attendees’ door. Comedy is also one of the best-kept secrets of engagement. A good performer or comedian knows how to keep guests on the edge of their seats. Punctuate your meeting with moments of lightheartedness so guests keep waiting for the next time they get to laugh rather than zoning out.

End with a Dramatic Conclusion

We’ve all been there: The movie or series that keeps you on the edge of your seat, then falls flat. Every element of a production should lead to one central moment that defines the event and rewards participation and engagement. This might be an exclusive announcement in a quarterly meeting, a big reveal in a mystery party or a surprise performer at a fundraising event. Audience members stick with a storyline for a simple reason — because they want to find out what happens next. Professional presenters continually remind guests that there’s something special to come.

Set your expectations high and keep them there. To earn your virtual attendee’s attention, you must convince them to clear the venue of all the other distractions. Use storytelling techniques that inform and continually entertain your guests. Just like watching a good movie, your participants will forget they are in front of a screen and follow your story wherever it goes.

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Partner Voices
Less than six months ago, Lisa Messina joined the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) as the first-ever chief sales officer after leading the sales team at Caesars Entertainment. A 12-year Las Vegas resident, Messina is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and serves on MPI International’s board of directors. TSNN had a chance to catch up with this dynamic leader and talk to her about her vision for the new role, current shifts in the trade show industry, creating more diversity and equity within the organization, and advice to future female leaders. Lisa Messina, Chief Sales Officer, LVCVA With Las Vegas becoming The Greatest Arena on EarthTM, what are some of the things you’re most excited about in your role? Our team was at The Big Game’s handoff ceremony earlier this month, and I couldn’t help but think, “We’re going to crush it next year!”  These high-profile events and venues not only drive excitement, but also provide unmatched opportunities for event planners. Allegiant Stadium hosts events from 10 to 65,000 people and offers on-field experiences. Formula 1 Grand Prix will take place in Las Vegas in November, after the year-one F1 race, the four-story paddock building will be available for buyouts and will also offer daily ride-along experiences that will be available for groups. And, of course, the MSG Sphere officially announced that it will open in September, ahead of schedule, with a U2 residency. It’s going to be the most technologically advanced venue as far as lighting, sound, feel, and even scent, and it will be available for buyouts and next-level sponsorships inside and outside. There’s no ceiling to what you can do when you’re doing events in Las Vegas.  Allegiant Stadium As the trade show and convention business returns to the pre-pandemic levels, what shifts are you noticing and how do you think they will impact the industry going forward? Our trade show organizers are very focused on driving customer experience. Most of our organizers are reporting stronger exhibitor numbers and increased numbers of new exhibitors, with trade shows proving to be almost or above 2019 levels. Now our organizers are really doubling down on driving attendance and focusing on the data to provide that individualized, customized experience to help attendees meet their goals and get the best value. Some companies continue to be cautiously optimistic with their organizational spend when it comes to sending attendees, but I think it will continue to improve. As the U.S. Travel Association makes more progress on the U.S. visa situation, we also expect a growing influx of international attendees. What are some innovative ways the LVCVA helps trade show and convention organizers deliver the most value for their events? We focus on customer experience in the same way that trade show organizers are thinking about it. We got rave reviews with the West Hall Expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC), so over the next two years, we will be renovating the North and the Central halls, which will include not just the same look and feel, but also the digital experiences that can be leveraged for branding and sponsorship opportunities.  Vegas Loop, the underground transportation system designed by The Boring Company, is also a way we have enhanced the customer experience. Vegas Loop at the LVCC has transported more than 900,000 convention attendees across the campus since its 2021 launch. Last summer, Resorts World and The Boring Company opened the first resort stop at the Resorts World Las Vegas , with plans to expand throughout the resort corridor, including downtown Las Vegas, Allegiant Stadium and Harry Reid International Airport. The LVCVA also purchased the Las Vegas Monorail in 2020, the 3.9-mile-long elevated transportation system that connects eight resorts directly to the convention center campus. This is the only rail system in the world that integrates fares directly into show badges and registration. For trade show organizers, these transportation options mean saving time, money and effort when it comes to moving groups from the hotels to LVCC and around the city. Also, the more we can focus on building the infrastructure around the convention center, the more it supports the customer experience and ultimately supports our trade show organizers. Scheduled to debut in Q4, Fontainebleau Las Vegas will offer 3,700 hotel rooms and 550,000 square feet of meeting and convention space next to LVCC.  What are some of the plans for advancing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) within your organization? We’re currently partnering with instead of working with a leading consulting firm, to lay the foundation and create a solid DEI plan and be the leader when it comes to DEI initiatives. The heart of that journey with the consulting firm is also talking to our customers about their strategic approaches to DEI and driving innovation in this space.  What are your favorite ways to recharge? My husband and I have an RV and we’re outdoorsy people. So, while we have over 150,000 world-class hotel rooms and renowned restaurants right outside our doorstep, one of my favorite things to do is get out to Red Rock Canyon, the Valley of Fire, and Lake Mead. Five of the top national parks are within a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, so there’s a lot you can do. We love balancing the energy of Las Vegas with nature, and we’re noticing that a lot of attendees add activities off the Strip when they come here.  Valley of Fire What advice would you give to women following leadership paths in destination marketing? I think it’s about being laser-focused on what you want to accomplish; building a team around you that lifts you and helps you achieve your goals; and being humble and realizing that you do it as a group. No one gets this done alone. Thankfully, there are a lot of women in leadership in this organization, in our customers’ organizations, and in this city that we can be really proud of. We’re a formidable force that is making things happen.   This interview has been edited and condensed. This article is exclusively sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. For more information, visit HERE.