From In Person to Online: What We Learned from Our First Virtual Event

May 5, 2020 | Texas

just couldn’t hear that awful word one. more. time. The c-word.


Not ‘COVID-19’, though that term has become like a curse word to me.

No, my 2020-inspired C-word is ‘cancelled.’

It was the label plastered across nearly every event from early spring into mid summer, and the thought of the CDF-Texas 20th Anniversary Celebration being branded with it as well made my stomach churn. Our planning team had worked too hard and our Beat the Odds honorees had overcome too much to just throw in the towel and give up.

What to Do?

Our other options were slim: postpone until Fall and share a Thursday night with every other spring gala/wedding/ceremony of any kind OR … or … do a virtual event? Um, I barely know how to operate Microsoft Word. Where would we even start?

But with the support of our event-planning experts and the adept skill and can-do attitude of a videographer-turned-technical director, we decided to take the plunge into the Zoom Webinar world. And boy am I glad we did!

The result was a Zoomfest like never before. The roughly 50-minute live event was a sincere attempt to honor 20 years of advocacy and action for Texas children and to recognize the inspirational accomplishments of our Beat the Odds honorees, and it was met with encouragement and positivity and grace. Even the few awkward transitions or Internet glitches were almost endearing as we tried our best to present something from the heart. You can see for yourself here.

What We Learned

Taking on this format change was difficult, but entirely worth it. We also learned a great deal about how to do virtual events. The fantastic ready-for-anything videographer I mentioned was Rolando Guajardo of Constell Media. (If I could clone him, I would.) This was his first rodeo when it comes to virtual events, and he really stepped up to the challenge. He wrote up a great synopsis of what we learned from a technical standpoint in this blog post.

Here are my key takeaways:

  • You can’t run/write a virtual event the same way you would a live event.
    • The logistics are totally different. You don’t have people walking to and from a podium, instead you have one person running the show to bring people on camera at the right time. Your transitions must be like lightning to keep things smooth.
  • Event should last about 45 minutes — definitely under an hour.
    • The goal is to leave people wanting more, not checking their phones and watches and wondering when it’s going to end.
  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
    • Recommend at least three run-throughs: the first about a week out, the second about one to two days before, the third the day of the event, if possible.
    • Have people in all roles during run-throughs: host, panelist, attendee.
    • Recommend having one machine signed in as attendee so you can see what they’re seeing at any given moment.
    • Practice everything, especially transitions, which is where you stand to lose the most time.
    • If you plan to have multiple speakers, make sure the hand off is distinct and the new speaker’s greeting is brief. No need to do a “warmup” or rehash anything that’s already been said.
    • Script everything, keep it tight and encourage all speakers to stick to the script.
  • Utilize interactive elements: poll, chat and Q&A, if appropriate.
  • Know your audience.
    • Use the proper voice and tone; streamline as much as possible.
  • Don’t overuse PPT slides; limit screen-sharing transitions.
    • Have someone other than host run the computer controls/navigate Zoom.
  • Plan for the worst.
    • What would you do if: someone’s Internet connection goes out? A speaker misses their cue? The video doesn’t play when it’s supposed to? Consider these things and have the host ready to roll into something new to keep the program flowing.

Additional thoughts:

  • If you’re playing videos, put them into one file for fewer windows to switch from when screen sharing.
    • Rolando added a progress bar to the intro screen of the video, so viewers would know the video was rolling and not frozen. Everyone should have a Rolando.
    • Rolando also added captions to each video in the event of an audio hiccup.
  • Facebook Live — free admission?
    • Consider what you’d like to “charge” to let people in to the virtual room. It may be beneficial to make it free or extremely low cost to buy a ticket, then encourage folks to support the cause with an additional donation, bundle purchase or however you raise funds.
    • Zoom connects very easily to Facebook Live and a couple other platforms so if you’re looking to expand your reach, go for it!
  • Download your recording promptly.
    • Be aware that if you only purchased the webinar license for a short time, once it runs out, you won’t have access to your cloud recordings, so grab it quick!
    • Consider light edits to create a shareable version that can stand alone for posting to social media, etc.
  • Maximize your Wifi.
    • Use a hotspot to connect any additional devices, like for “attendee” view, so you can direct all bandwidth to machine that is running your webinar presentation.

And one more, very important thing: lean on your team. At CDF we are very fortunate to have some very intelligent, innovative minds who are willing to help when we ask. Special shout-out to Emily Gardner, Teri Hatch, Ben Dawson, Anourack Chinyavong (AC), plus the entire CDF-Texas staff for being willing to jump into this and offer tips and ideas. And the presence and support of the entire CDF staff was felt throughout the presentation. So many good vibes. God bless you all for being there and cheering us on. I would consider it a privilege to do the same for you, so if you’d like to know more, feel free to reach out to me directly as I’m happy to offer whatever insights I gained to help you troubleshoot or problem solve.

And in All Things, Gratitude

I’m really grateful we didn’t give up when we were met with this seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Though I still cringe when I hear the c-word, now I know there are feasible alternatives that with a little extra effort and the right motivation can bring about not only a memorable experience, but also an opportunity for growth. These are strange and unprecedented times, and yet, there is always much for which to be grateful.

Best wishes in all your future events — in any setting!


Clarissa Webb

Youth Programs Coordinator

Children’s Defense Fund Texas