‘Playing a Guide Role’ in Unfamiliar Territory

Convening Leaders moderator Holly Ransom is preparing for anything and everything in her third year as emcee of PCMA’s annual conference, as it will be nothing like her first two.

Author: Curt Wagner       

Holly Ransom returns as moderator for Convening Leaders 2021, but this time she will be doing her duties remotely and in front of a green screen.

Convening Leaders 2021 will be Holly Ransom’s third turn as moderator and host of PCMA’s annual conference, but her first, potentially, as a hologram.

When Ransom, founder and CEO of strategic advisory firm Emergent, told a colleague that for her opening of the hybrid event she may be projected as a hologram on a stage in Singapore, he joked, “Did you say ‘Hollygram?”

“I definitely did not,” she told Convene, laughing. She has filmed in front of a green screen before — including when Australia was on full lockdown and she hosted an awards show with a green screen in her living room — “but I think doing it with holograms might be taking my experience to a new level in that regard,” she said. “Because I’m not sure exactly what you need even to execute that. I think it will be really interesting to learn all the intricacies — how much you’re allowed to move, and what works, and what doesn’t.”

Ransom will moderate from a studio in Melbourne, Australia, working with a mix of pre-recorded interviews and live filming, she said. At the time of this interview, the process wasn’t completely nailed down, which was fine with her.

“We’ll be in the studio at all sorts of weird and wonderful hours — but that’s exciting,” she said, adding that “people have gone to next-level adaptability in 2020” while trying to plan events. Ransom said she has grown used to working odd hours over the last year, as she has been pursuing a Master’s degree in public policy at Harvard online. When the physical campus closed in March, Ransom relocated back to Australia. “I’ve been adjusting to a new rhythm of doing night classes, then working during the day,” she said.

Ransom was on holiday break in Perth, Australia, when she spoke to Convene over the phone in mid-December. She shared how she plans to help guide participants through a hybrid Convening Leaders experience, Jan. 13-15.

This is your third year as Convening Leaders moderator, but your first doing it virtually. How is that going to be different for you, and how are you preparing for it?

Well, it’s an interesting one, isn’t it? I liked the way [PCMA VP of Knowledge and Experience Design] Tonya [Almond] characterizes it: “We’re not making theater now, we’re making TV,” she says. And I guess what that means is probably where you’re so used to, as a moderator and a host, a certain rhythm to how these things work in person, but now that the conventional format is broken, we’ve got a lot more opportunity to be creative and think differently. And that is exciting, because I think all of us find it really exhilarating to think about our audience, and about new ways to bring great content, stories, and people to life through these sorts of events.

A lot of this is still being worked out as we go. Whereas normally I’d have a real sense of, “okay, we’ve got three main stage interviews, we’ve got this and that,” it’s all still really in the process of being ironed out. With some people, we’re obviously working through the prerecording [process]. We’re dealing with different dynamics of which part of the world they’ll be joining me from, whether we’ve got multiple guests or not, and others where it’s looking like it’ll go live.

So there’s a whole lot of new possibility, which I think is really exciting. I hope it inspires our audience in the sense of us really wanting to push the envelope of what a digital event can look like and be, in terms of the quality of the production execution. And also, in continuing that promise I think we deliver on each year, which is to bring great talent to the stage, and really interesting stories and insights to the audience.

Do you see events going back to completely in-person again once the world gets vaccinated?

I think people have different views on this — whether what we’re experiencing right now is going to be an anomaly, and the moment we get vaccinated, we’ll bounce back to always having events in person.

I think there is so much of a hunger to meet, and to want to connect and network in the way that physical events give us the opportunity to. But at the same time, it’s going to be really interesting to see organizations and entire industries that stay in these hybrid models more. Whether it’s part digital, part physical — I don’t think these constraints are going to disappear overnight and there is the potential that they transform the industry permanently.

So I think learning to do digital delivery well is going to be business critical.

Thomas Friedman

Convening Leaders moderator Holly Ransom and keynote speaker Thomas Friedman share a conversation during a pre-recorded segment to follow Friedman’s Wednesday address.

Why do you think moderators are important? And are they even more important in this virtual environment than in a face-to-face setting?

I think moderators probably are more important in a digital event than they are in a physical event. I’m a big believer in the importance of moderators, full stop, in terms of allowing a flow of show, and being able to take people on a journey, and join the thoughts and ideas together into a coherent message or narrative. Depending on the brief of the event, [having a moderator can] … help people get the intended outcomes that whoever is convening a particular forum or event wants [them] to actually have.

Digital is really interesting, when we talk about how that impacts attention span — and how easy it is for people to just jump in and out, and therefore, maybe not to be able to understand a particular part of the puzzle. … and give them a sense of where this fits within a broader program or story, even if they might have missed bits, or they’ve been disjointed. I think moderators are probably more critical in these sorts of environments, because they’re playing a guide role even more actively than when you’re at a physical event. When you’re at a physical event, you have a set of expectations of what you’re coming for, or what you’re going to get from it.

Virtual events are still more unfamiliar, and so the moderator’s job is more important — that notion of setting people’s expectations, helping them navigate it, helping them understand how to get the most out of the new environment. And obviously, making sure speakers feel comfortable in a different context. Some speakers feel a lot more comfortable standing on stage, or at lectern, than they do being quizzed for 40 minutes via a video connection.

Being able to connect and build a rapport that flows, and there’s chemistry still, that’s a lot harder to do digitally than it is in person. I think the need for moderators [is stronger] — it’s funny how many leaders within the events industry have said that to me now. The emcee role, the host role, the moderator role has taken on a new level of importance … in carrying the event than arguably they might have had.

In part, too, that’s because the event in and of itself is a lot more of the hero of the show now. … Quite often, when we get to an event in person, we have night activities, we have networking drinks, we have all these other things that we wrap around a program. This time, people are coming for the program alone, stressing the importance of the quality of the production but also the quality of the show’s flow, and how well the interviews, the transitions, and all of that take place. I think that’s got a lot more riding on it in a digital environment than it does in an in-person one.

What are you hoping PCMA, and you in your role, are able to accomplish with this event?

I think for me it’s about inspiring. One of the things I think PCMA always has the responsibility for is pushing the limits, and inspiring new levels of creativity and innovation. And I think something [PCMA President & CEO] Sherrif Karamat has been really at the forefront of is that social purpose, and that connection to cause. And so for me, in this new world we’ve found ourselves thrust into by virtue of circumstance, I really hope PCMA can help people think outside the box — can help them think about the possibility of where they can take things and inspire creativity and experimentation. For people who are thinking about their programmatic decision-making for the year ahead, or are thinking about how to transport people, or are really struggling for even, “How could we still make this happen in a virtual environment?” Because some people are obviously still wondering whether events can go ahead. I hope we can really inspire some thinking, some optimism, and some excitement around what this new landscape can mean.

Curt Wagner is digital editor at Convene. This interview has been edited and condensed.