Although online events have opened up a wealth of possibilities through platforms and technology, there is one underlying challenge many virtual event planners face: How do you keep the audience engaged for one, two or eight hours at an online event?
It is too easy for your audience to tune out of your event. It is competing with email, social media and Netflix to provide an engaging 'screen' experience. All three have compelling reasons for harnessing our attention, what’s yours?
Content will always be a key differentiator. But how the content is structured and presented regardless of technology can have a massive impact on audience engagement. This is where the principles of storytelling can play a pivotal role in engaging audiences at online events.
Storytelling has held a mystical power over people for thousands of years. Its magic drives people to think, feel and act in predictable ways.
But creating story magic is complicated. You need character, purpose and conflict tell an effective story. These elements need to come together in a plot that is emotive and provides a satisfying resolution. All of this whilst delivering your message.
We tend to think of business storytelling as a customer testimonial, case study, anecdote or the origins story of the company. But this is a very narrow perspective. All business communication can benefit from an understanding of the principles of storytelling including virtual events.
Usually, an event is a series of content pieces stacked on top of each other. Engagement tactics and touchpoints are introduced along the way inviting audience participation. These could be polls, panel discussions or gamification devices driving the audience to experience different aspects of the event. Whilst this may produce satisfactory results, storytelling principles provide a deeper understanding of how to structure these various elements to get the most out of them.
Have you ever wondered how storytellers can bring all the pieces of a story together in a neat resolution at the end? The answer is simple: they start at the end and work their way back to the beginning.
This technique is most apparent with mystery stories where clues, red herrings and plot twists provide an engaging experience. However, this technique stretches back to Shakespeare and Aristotle before him.
The power of storytelling is based on the fact that stories are designed to produce a predetermined cognitive response in the audience. This can be anything from an emotional response to expressing a moral, ideology or an idea. To do this, storytellers start with the end in mind and reverse engineer the desired response. The same tactic can be applied to an online event.
By asking what you want your audience to think and feel by the end of the event, you can start to design an experience that builds to this outcome.
Typically, you want your audience to be changed in some way after having experienced your event. An event is a call for change in some way. Some new piece of information or a new strategy needs to be communicated.
So how do you go about doing this? There is a story blueprint that event planners can use to reverse engineer a feeling of hope, inspiration and motivation to accept change and take action.
The hero’s journey
If you want your audience to feel motivated and inspired after having received a new piece of information or by a change the business is implementing, then this is a story blueprint you can adapt for your online event. You’ve probably heard of it before as many great stories, films and books are based on it. But you may not have considered how events can take advantage of this structure.
To illustrate how this can be done, let’s consider an example where a company needs to communicate a change in its strategy and needs to get staff to align with it.
The first step in building your event around the hero’s journey is to define the five main components of a story: Story world, character, purpose, challenge and resolution.
This is the context within which the story takes place. It encompasses what’s happened before the event takes place and it has its own rules and conventions which influence how the event is experienced. Expanding from the centre outwards, it encompasses the company, its values, culture and people, industry, sector and location.
Character is the single most important element of a story. A story is defined as someone facing an obstacle in pursuit of a goal. If you want your audience to relate to you, then tell a story about a character they can relate to. Resonance with a character is a sure way to creating empathy – one of the most powerful human emotions that build connections between people. There are three main characters in a story: the hero, the mentor and the villain.
- The hero: The hero is the protagonist and the character the audience is most likely to identify with. The most important principle in understanding how to implement the hero’s journey is that your business is not the hero. Your audience is, whether they are staff or customers. It is their journey that the story is telling and that the event is facilitating. This is an important shift in perspective, as most businesses think of it as their journey.
- The mentor: The business is the mentor. Their role is to guide the hero through the challenge. So, if a business has a new strategy it needs to communicate, the story is not about the new strategy. The story is about how the staff is going to accept and implement the new strategy with the help of the business as their guide.
- The villain: In business storytelling, the villain is usually not directly depicted as a character, although it could be a competitor or partner. More often, the villain is seen as the challenge that the hero needs to overcome. More on this below.
Who are the characters at your event? Is the audience represented as one hero or do you need to segment it? Who are the speakers and what role do they play in the overall narrative? How will you represent the villain?
This is the hero’s purpose. A customer’s purpose might be to solve a problem they are experiencing which the business can help them with. For staff, it might be anything from building a career to maintaining their position in a company, to putting food on the table for their family.
The purpose of the business is to provide the framework and opportunity for staff to achieve their goals, whilst it pursues its own goals. Using our example of a company change, the purpose of the story (the event) will be to get the staff to accept and implement the change in strategy.
This is often referred to as conflict and without it, there is no story. In business storytelling, we tend to think of conflict as a challenge, a problem or obstacle to overcome. Companies typically solve problems for their customers.
Therefore, the customer is the hero, and the company is the mentor helping them solve the problem. In our example, what are the obstacles to implementing the new strategy and what resistance will there be from the staff in accepting it? There may be more than one and they may range from the innate human resistance to change, to the practicalities of applying change within the business or accepting new roles and responsibilities.
Whatever challenges there are, it is essential to recognise them at the event, as they will be a focus in structuring the story. Being able to effectively represent the challenge at your event is key to creating the desired cognitive result at the resolution stage.
This is the end cognitive result of experiencing the story and event. In our example, we’ve identified this as acceptance of the new strategy and feeling motivated to take the appropriate action. It is where the hero returns after having overcome the challenge with the help of the mentor, to see a new way forward.
Implementing the hero’s journey
How do you use these elements to structure your event? You use the process of reverse-engineering the hero’s journey back from the resolution.
There are five stages relevant to structuring the content and experience of an online event:
- The resolution: Start with the resolution – the desired result of having experienced the event. You can’t tell your audience to feel inspired by change, it is the cumulative effect of having experienced the event. It is also the return for the hero from the special world of the event, back to the “normal” world as a changed person.
- Overcoming challenges: The key to feeling motivated by change is the associated feeling of having overcome a challenge. It is a reward for conquering an obstacle. Finding ways to surmount them is the golden ticket to the resolution, the desired result. The scale of the challenges the hero has to overcome is directly related to the depth of the motivation felt at the resolution stage. Given the events of 2020, this should not be hard to achieve.
- Meeting the mentor: The mentor needs to provide answers to the questions of how and why? How can the hero overcome the challenge to get to the resolution? Traditionally, the mentor gives the hero a gift. Something that the hero can use when facing the challenges. This could be a new insight or in the case of business, a plan of action to help the hero through the challenge. The mentor also needs to answer the question of why? Why is this happening and most importantly, why should the hero push through the challenge to get to the resolution? This relates to the purpose and is the underlying motivation for all action the hero takes.
- Introducing the challenge: This is a vision of how things could be. It is the first inkling that things have to change, that there is a new way of doing things and that the hero is about to embark on a journey. Also known as the call to adventure, it signifies a disruption in the way things are and that something is going to change. This is often met by resistance from the hero who refuses the call. Ultimately, the circumstances will force the hero to take the journey. This also introduces the special world of the event and the experience the audience is about to take.
- The way things are: This is the current status quo. It is the world the audience is familiar with. It is important to orientate the audience with the way things currently are. This could be from a global, regional or the company level. Doing this provides a starting point for them to begin the journey.
When depicting the hero’s journey graphically it is typically represented as a circle because the hero returns to their normal world changed by the experiences of the journey. However, events are experienced linearly, and it is more helpful to stretch the structure out according to a timeline.
It’s important to remember that when building this story experience, it is done in reverse, but when the audience experiences it, it is forwards. This opens up a wealth of opportunities to take your audience on an engaging and enlightening event experience.
This illustrates how you can use the structure of the hero’s journey and the process of reverse engineering to layout the experiential journey your audience will take at an online event. It provides a deep level structure to an event that draws on the power of storytelling to build engagement and deliver the desired resolution to the event.