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Top tips for hosting a virtual conference

Michelle Mannering
Developer Relations | Hackathon Queen | Community Manager
・5 min read

In this COVID-stricken world, virtual conferences have taken to the skies. Everyone is online, hanging out in a digital world. With all the Zoom fatigue and video conferencing calls, how do you break through the noise and host an event that is engaging and fun?

One of the things you can do is have engaging hosts which are the backbone of your live stream. Having just come from hosting GitHub Universe, lots of people have been asking my top tips for being an ace presenter. Here are some of my tips for being an inspiring, appealing, and amazing host.

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Be yourself

Everyone says this all the time, but just be yourself. People come to see people. They want to see real people. Don't try and put on something you're not. Let your personality shine, tell people a little bit about yourself, drop inside pieces of information. The more people know you, the more they will like you. Authenticity is one of the best things you can do when hosting an event. Especially in this digital age.

By being authentic on camera, people will feel more and more like they are at a physical event. Some people might say "but you have to be better". But that's not the case. If you be yourself, then people will love you for who you are.

Add your own take to speakers

If you know inside information about particular features of the event, or speakers, call this out. People like to listen in to conferences for "Ideas you can't Google". Is there a cool back story about one of the talks? Are there Easter Eggs in one of the speakers' presentations?

Try and get your audience to interact in different and unique ways. Ask them random questions; like "how many Octocats can you find in my background?" Speaking of backgrounds, you want to ensure you have a really good setup for presenting.

Get your setup in order

This isn't just for the hosts, but for all speakers. Hosts however are the people stringing the whole event together. You want to ensure your camera, microphone, and background are 100% on point. If people can't see or hear you, they'll quickly tune out.

You want to ensure you have high quality audio, great video, and a fun background. This is what my scene for hosting GitHub Universe looked like:

Day 3 Mish4

If you want to check out some of the tech that went into this setup, or get some ideas for creating an epic background, read my post below.

Be "backstage" organised

Your setup shouldn't just look amazing and work well on camera, if should also work well offscreen. Ensure you have plenty of room to have everything you need for hosting and organising the event.

For example, I had two keyboards and mice; one always ready as a backup in case one died. I also had lots of space on my desk for things like water, snacks, tea, paper, pen, and items I want to show on camera. Don't forget having a close up camera means you can be a little bit intimate with your audience. Show things like stickers, SWAG they can purchase, snacks you have on your desk; anything to draw the audience in.

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Check out my backstage setup. You'll also notice I have three screens to show everything I need; live stream, OBS recording, Twitch chat, script, Twitter, Tweet deck, notes, snipping tool, and Slack/comms

Whatever you have in your backstage kit, be prepared as much as you can before you go live. That also means testing everything before you go live - test your camera and microphone. This means testing it every day you go live to. If you are hosting for multiple days, make sure you are testing it every day. Don't assume it will still work the second day. Test, test, test!

Engage in real time

One of the challenges with online events is videos are often available on demand after the conference. So you need to encourage people to engage with the event live. People who are watching live should get something a little extra than simply watching the recording.

One of the things you can do live are questions from the audience. Where can viewers ask questions or talk to the speakers? If you can set this up you'll go a long way to engaging your audience.

Can you respond to your viewers in real time? Do you have a Twitch chat, or Twitter tag, Instagram feed? Anything you can do to encourage your audience to tune in live is fantastic. As the host, encourage people to jump on board with others who are watching, and create that community vibe.

If you have the multi-tasking capabilities, try and keep and eye on social media and chat channels as a host. If you can talk to your audience in real time, do it! They'll love you for it.

Practice

We say you need to test your tech and your gear, but you also need to test your hosting skills. Practice, practice, practice. Practice really does make perfect. You might not need to practice everything, but practice generic pieces which are key to your conference; handovers, shout outs to sponsors, social media channels, etc. If you know these main points you can always come back to them when you need.

Make sure you know what graphics you have to play with; ie. stingers, advertisements, opening scenes, and more. Ensure you have eyes on all these graphical assets so you know what they look like, and how long they go for.

Final thing you need to practice is filler time. One of the unfortunate things about digital events is things can (and do) go wrong. Technical difficulties or speakers not showing up. Make sure you have some things in your back pocket to be able to fill time if you need; social media shout outs, stories about the event from IRL times, background info on a talk or speaker, or just something completely random.

Get excited and have fun

Final piece of advice: just have fun! If you're having fun, everyone else will have fun too. It's almost impossible to watch people having fun on screen and not be able to have fun yourself. So be yourself, practice, and just have fun!

Good luck for your next virtual conference. Do you have top tips for hosting a conference? Let us know in the comments below.

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