The DNC’s High-Stakes Experiment

Five takeaways from the country’s first digital political convention.

Author: Barbara Palmer       


Emmy-winning director Glenn Weiss, barefoot at right, oversees the DNC production from his Los Angeles home. (Janis Friedlander Svendsen)

Last week’s 2020 Democratic National Convention (DNC) made history for being the first time a national political convention was held online. And for those in the meetings industry, it was a historic opportunity to watch and learn from a massive, all-or-nothing experiment in capturing audience attention and engagement.

Politics aside, here is a look at some of the big takeaways from the DNC.

1. Reinvention creates opportunity. Rather than trying to recreate the look and feel of a traditional convention — minus the crowds — the DNC flipped the script. Some speakers appeared on stage sets, particularly high-profile ones, but most others contributed videos that were recorded everywhere from their kitchen tables to classrooms to backyards to front porches. It gave viewers the impression that the event was meeting the audience on its own ground.

And it literally was, in the way it reimagined one of the most traditional rituals of political conventions. The roll call typically is a cheering-filled spectacle conducted on the convention floor as representatives from delegations call out the number of votes they are awarding to each nominee. The DNC created something entirely new — a visual roll call which traveled to 57 states and territories and featured delegates reporting from their own home turfs.


Rhode Island Democratic state party chairman state party chairman Joseph M. McNamara delivers the vote count at the DNC roll call accompanied by chef John Bordieri and a platter of fried calamari, a state specialty.

2. Digital can be emotional. It may be counterintuitive, but a digital experience can give a viewer a feeling of personal connection that is as emotionally compelling as a live experience, a phenomenon that speaker and consultant Sara Ross first pointed out to Convene. Every viewer at a digital event is a VIP, Ross said, with a front-row seat. At the DNC, one of the best-deployed strategies was having speakers look directly into the camera, Jari Hietanen, a professor at Tampere University, in Tampere, Finland, told Fast Company. “Eye contact can impact your attention, your emotion, and even how you evaluate someone as trustworthy or intelligent,” said Hiatanen, who researches the effects of eye contact on human psychology and physiology. “If I see someone is paying attention to me, of course, at a very basic level, it’s a positive thing. I have a possibility to communicate and be together.”

That effect is strongest if there is a possibility of two-way conversation, but eye contact still affects our thinking when it is streamed one-way through a screen, because gaze impacts our attention, Hiatanen said. “In the case of the DNC, this unbroken eye contact draws our attention and likely makes it harder to ignore the speaker or look away from the screen.”

3. Awkwardness makes it real. The DNC had superstar talent and credentials behind its programming — it was overseen by event producer Ricky Kirshner, the nine-time Emmy award-winning founder of RK Events, who plans both the Tony Awards and the Super Bowl half-time shows. But unlike those from glamorously scripted extravaganzas, most of participants recorded their own videos, with predictably mixed results. Those moments, rather than detracting from the event, gave it authenticity, argued Christopher Grobe, a scholar of performance studies and Chair of English at Amherst College, in The Washington Post. “Awkwardness imbues an event with the sense that what we’re watching is happening live,” he wrote, “even when it has been prerecorded or carefully produced. … And liveness, in turn, lends the event the feeling of authenticity, which is exactly what presidential campaigns need most of all.”


The VOTE necklace Michelle Obama wore during her DNC speech was a big hit on social media.

4. Details can go big. The letters that spelled out VOTE in a necklace worn by Michelle Obama were very small — barely 5 millimeters tall — but they had huge impact. Even before Obama finished speaking, orders for the necklace, made by a Los Angeles jeweler, were flying through the roof. It was a detail that no one at a live event could have seen, even if they were seated in the front row, but carried a powerful message on the small screen.

5. Digital has a long life. One of the lessons highlighted by the meeting industry’s recent immersion into video is that digital content can be extended online far past its initial broadcast. The DNC created a bank of pre-recorded speeches and other content that is ready to be distributed across multiple networks in the weeks to come.

The roll call mentioned earlier, for example, filled media and social-media accounts for days afterwards (with many giving Warwick, Rhode Island chef John Bordieri and his platter of calamari top honors of the evenings).

Speeches by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and former First Lady Michelle Obama have gotten millions of views in the days since the convention. One of the most-viewed clips was a two-minute video of 13-year-old Brayden Harrington, whom Biden counseled about stuttering. It had been seen by more than 8 million viewers on Twitter last Friday, the day after the convention ended.

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

RELATED: 3 Takeaways from the Republican National Convention

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