What have we learned from a Year of Virtual Conferences?

Yes, I miss the buzz of face-to-face meetings. When you can actually see the audience, and they can view all of you, not a disembodied voice coming from a Zoom window.

Having said that, it’s all worked much better than any of us might have anticipated. True, it’s harder to trigger that endorphin rush of inspiration through a digital medium, but provided you follow some basic rules it’s by no means impossible. From my experience of delivering keynotes, facilitating strategic team discussions and one-to-one coaching online, I offer you my essential learning points.

Be short, succinct, stimulating and interactive. Here’s why, and how:



It’s clear that attention spans are truncated online. If ‘the medium is the message,’ the message we receive from sitting in front of a screen is that we have the power to change channels at a moment’s notice, or to simply click on, as when pursuing a YouTube rabbit-hole. It’s simply harder to grab and keep peoples’ attention.

So however long you intended to speak for, don’t – see if you can at least break your talk up into, say, 10 minute chunks. After which you can pause, respond to the chat box messages, use or similar to gauge the audience response or break to something different: a pre-recorded video, interview format or whatever.

Another method I’ve used to cater for limited concentration spans is to do a ‘sandwich.’ Which means: input, followed by the team going away and reflecting. That’s the honey in the sandwich.

Then come back later in the same day, or even the next.

(One of the joys of virtual communications is that it’s so easy to schedule a meeting.)

Look-audiences do have good attention spans, for instance when they are binge-watching Game of Thrones or Queen’s Gambit. Great TV is now your syllabus for learning how to rivet a crowd, and the most obvious lesson is that listener’s tune in when there is change and variety to hold their minds. Get this right and your talk won’t appear to be too long, but at the same time be ruthless about cutting your own material. Ouch! It can be hard.



Get to the point! Encode the DNA of your talk into a few crisp sentences, and make sure this is heard 2 or 3 times, though possibly with slight variation to maintain interest.

Storytelling is one of the speaker’s most powerful weapons, but rambling anecdotes that might work with a physical audience simply don’t cut it online. Less preamble – unless it’s a mind blowing story – more cutting to the chase.

Think of your succinct summary as the chorus in a song. You probably forget the other lyrics, but retain the repeated lines, often forever. Without sacrificing depth, how can you fine-tune your message to be as catchy and emotionally resonant as the chorus in a famous popular song?

(Note: I recommended this in my book, Rock Your Presentation. I’ve found that the skills of capturing attention are even more necessary online, not less so.)



Being in front of the camera’s glass eye seems to lull many speakers into everyday conversational mode. After all, you probably can’t see the audience, so there’s no need to get too excited. Wrong! What’s required is to hold not just a conversation, but an animated one. You may not see them, but they certainly can see you - and will judge how much emotion and oomph is behind your words.

You may prefer to stand, and with certain limitations you can use your body and hands to express yourself. Or even walk out of screen to make a point, or to leave the group to a break-out. Or come closer – move out of your slides and switch to the full image of yourself when you want to address people more intimately. It draws them in…

Always rehearse with the platform being used, but not just as speaker- switch perspectives and see the view from the audience. I’m amazed how many speakers haven’t checked this out, and you’ll be surprised what a subtle difference it makes.

Take all you know about presenting – I still have an aversion to that label ‘presentation skills’- and double down harder on the essentials. Like great storytelling (though make them shorter and more succinct), change of voice tone, emphasis and volume, using your body as a visual aid and so on.

Above all it’s your content that has to be stimulating. Find that essential, core message that

will stir the audience to think, learn and remember. Don’t be afraid of going a bit deeper than you expect them to be interested in: your passion for a topic is the gateway to others finding you stimulating, especially if you are brave enough to challenge and even disrupt their expectations.



Given attention spans are shorter, that you need to compress your meaning into tighter sound-bytes and put your content over in a compelling way, the last of my tips – more interaction - logically follows. When we’re more active, learning by doing, we’re more energised and engaged.

Does this mean you should do lots of breakouts online? I think the jury’s out on the effectiveness of this method. In the physical world it always takes time for a syndicate group to socialise and get used to each other, even before someone says, “Er..what are we meant to be discussing?” 

It’s harder to get small teams to work virtually. I don’t know exactly why, but I’ve noticed peoples’ awkwardness here more than in a traditional setting, where they can move around, make the breakout room their own setting for creativity and generally break down barriers in subtle, non-verbal ways.

Just as importantly, the time it takes for people to settle into a useful working pattern seems stretched out when working virtually. We expect everything to happen with the swiftness of a click or scroll, while human conversations (especially the creative kind) tend to evolve in a more roundabout, analogue way.

I’m not saying don’t use breakout rooms, but I suggest also adding the kind of interaction that occurs between the neurons of the viewer’s brain. In other words, get them to think. This can come from a provocative question; two of my favourites for strategy talks are, “Why do we exist?” and “Who would notice if we weren’t here?” Great interaction often follows…

Or use audience engagement devices like Some favour the polls on this kind of technology, but I prefer its ability to capture audience ideas and suggestions. Recently I asked a group of 80 to come up with their ‘beautiful question’ which, if answered, could transform their business. The profundity and creativity of the suggestions knocked me out, and there was enough productive material to have an intense plenary discussion. Don’t be afraid to use the chat box, even if there’s a time delay on you being able to scan the inputs. In fact it’s good to come back to this list at intervals, as it’s a great way of reviewing earlier parts of your speech, but as more of a dia- than a mono- logue

Traditional Q and A doesn’t work too well online – rather give people fair warning to reflect on and respond to your provocations and questions. Then group a few of their comments so as to include the wider group, not just the immediate questioner.

Finally, as with the sandwich idea above, you can ask them to go away and consider their questions and comments. Then start the next session with full on interaction, designed around their thoughts as well as yours. This is the kind of thing I mean when I talk about the real interaction that goes on in your viewers’ brains.



SSSI -short, succinct, stimulating and interactive – is also an acronym in the UK for a Site of Special Scientific Interest. A wood or water meadow, for instance, with  unusual and interesting flora and fauna. Expect to see more scientific interest in the ecology of the brain experiencing online learning. If not already being studied, these are some of the beautiful questions to which we’d all like to hear answers:

*What’s happening neurologically when we pay attention virtually as opposed to a physical space?

*What enhances learning and memory spans online?

*How do we touch each other emotionally and intellectually at a distance?

*What are we missing? and

*What are we gaining?


I’d love to hear yours!

The big question anyone involved in putting on and delivering live events is this:

“Will physical meetings and conferences make a comeback?” (The supplementary question being, “If so, when!?”)

Whatever happens with the pandemic, I would sadly suggest that it’s unlikely. Or, as one sage client prophesied, physical conferences will be rarer, and so will need to be all the more precious. Amen to that! In the meantime give your events the SSSI treatment: obvious lessons from pandemic times, but I trust you’ll find them valuable.


Nigel Barlow January 20th 2021