Key Decisions the National Speakers Association Took for a Successful Virtual ‘Experience’

‘Never waste a good crisis’ was the association leaders’ mantra, as they sought to remake an annual event into a virtual experience — not a ‘conference” or ‘hybrid’ — and introduced initiatives that will last into the future.

Author: Michelle Russell       

live experience

Facilitator Sarah Michel (upper left) speaks during a Velvet Chainsaw webinar. NSA President & CEO Mary Lue Peck (clockwise from top right), NSA Board of Directors President Anna Liotta, and Sylvie di Guisto, who served as co-chair of NSA’s conference program for INFLUENCE 2020, participated.

There has probably been no environment for event organizers more fraught for decision-making than the current world we live in. Added to the fact that the timeline for the end of the pandemic and economic crisis remains unknown, uncertain, and in flux, decisions need to be made about digital and hybrid events in a compressed timeframe with no historical data.

Participants in a Sept. 9 Velvet Chainsaw Consulting webinar got to hear how the National Speakers Association (NSA) wrestled with many decisions leaders faced following the move of its 1,200-attendee INFLUENCE 2020 national annual convention scheduled for the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, Aug. 1-4, to an all-digital event.

The webinar was facilitated by Sarah Michel, Velvet Chainsaw’s vice president, professional connexity, and a longtime NSA member, and featured the “brains behind the design” of INFLUENCE 2020: NSA President & CEO Mary Lue Peck, NSA Board of Directors President Anna Liotta, and Sylvie di Guisto, who served as co-chair of NSA’s conference program.

It was evident throughout the one-hour webinar that NSA’s leaders painstakingly considered each decision. Case in point: All keynoters’ presentations were prerecorded to minimize the risk of tech glitches, except for one speaker who wanted to be broadcast live for an interactive session. In the event there was a problem with the livestream — which there was — a backup plan was ready. When the speaker’s connection dropped, producers immediately plugged in a re-broadcast of a popular keynote session from a previous NSA convention in the live speaker’s place. Michel, who was an INFLUENCE participant, said that the move was so seamless that she thought the re-broadcast was planned all along.

That kind of thinking follows what decision-making experts recommended in a recent Quartz at Work article: doing a “premortem,” described as a highly effective tool in which “participants explicitly imagine that their decision turned out badly,” according to the story, which “forces them to consider information and perspectives that they may have unconsciously discounted.”

Here are some highlights shared by the panelists during the webinar of how their decisions made INFLUENCE a success.


In a somewhat controversial move, NSA set the registration for all participants — regardless of whether they were an NSA member — at $499, half of the cost of the in-person event. Peck said she had seen other associations charge $99 for a virtual event. “What we found is those models seemed to pull people in with a lower rate and then upsell them,” she said. “For example, one conference started at a $99 rate, but several of the attendees ended up spending nearly $2,000 after all the upgrades.” That was not the kind of pricing approach they wanted to take. “For us, around pricing and strategy,” she said, “transparency is really important.”

Peck said she received some criticism for charging the same amount for members and nonmembers, which wasn’t a strategy to convert attendees to members — there were only a handful of converts, she said. Rather, it was to make the content affordable (considering the in-person event would cost upwards of $3,000 with travel and hotel costs) to the largest possible audience of professional speakers who had been hit hard by the pandemic. “Our industry needed us,” Peck said.

While there was some dissatisfaction over the same cost for members and nonmembers, there was no negative feedback about the ticket price itself. “The overwhelming majority” of participants ended up commenting, she said, “that just one of the breakout sessions … was worth the price alone.”

An ‘Experience’

Even before INFLUENCE was forced by the pandemic to go virtual, NSA had planned to make the event less of a one-time thing, by providing registrants with valuable opportunities to learn and connect before, during, and after the event — the “BDA factor,” Liotta said. “The moment people registered, they started getting value.” References to the event as a “conference” were substituted with “experience.” “Language and framing matters,” Liotta said. “We started talking about the four-month experience of INFLUENCE 2020, and we know that this is something going forward that we will need to continue to incorporate. We did away with the word ‘hybrid’ as soon as possible because the current and future reality is there will always need to be that experience around [the event].”

NSA “pulled all of the event’s breakouts forward” and “we transformed the content of those breakouts to meet the moment,” Liotta said. Registrants had access to event content three months before — and then 30 days after — the actual event.

Online Learning

As it turned out, the timing for the launch of NSA’s online learning portal, Digital Vault, was less than ideal: It had debuted at the end of February, right before the COVID-19 crisis. To get members used to using the platform, it was decided that INFLUENCE attendees would need to access it in order to view the breakout sessions. “We opened up a pathway for people who were registered for INFLUENCE to go into the Digital Vault,” Peck said. “They were able to see how our online learning system is laid out, how it’s intuitive, and easy to use.”

Using the ‘Frame’

Two “beloved” ceremonies take place each year at NSA’s convention, di Guisto said: Those who earned their CSP (Certified Speaking Professional) certification that year take the stage to be recognized, and up to five new inductees are named each year to the Council of Peers Award for Excellence (CPAE) Speaker Hall of Fame at a gala.

Rather than simply trying to replicate the in-person experience in the digital event, di Guisto said, “we tried to embrace the frame” of the screen. Members of the CSP class recorded themselves holding their certificate and then “handed it off” to the next new CSP, who would then reach up to the end of the screen’s frame and share their certificate on the screen.

A CPAE Red Carpet Pre-Show & Awards Banquet (video below) was emceed by two longtime and accomplished NSA members, Patricia Fripp, CSP, CPAE, and Simon T. Bailey, CSP, CPAE, and featured stills of past and new awardees dressed up against a gala background thanks to “a little bit of Photoshop magic,” di Guisto said, in a fun spoof.

‘Hallway Hugs’

“One of the things about our members is they love the hallway hugs, as we like to call it, those moments in the hallway when you meet somebody,” Liotta said, “and sit down next to somebody at a meal … and have this extraordinary conversation. So we wanted to make sure we kept the intimacy of those moments woven through the experience.”

Two ways NSA solved for that networking challenge online were breakout Zoom rooms where people could “Meet the Pros” and chat with established and recognized professional speakers and Digital Dine Arounds (video below), where people could sit around a virtual table in Zoom rooms with NSA luminaries for casual conversations.

Brainstorming Solutions With Sponsors

Peck said that NSA is “very, very fortunate that we have longstanding partners who’ve stuck with us.” When she first spoke with sponsors about the virtual INFLUENCE event, those who had participated in virtual trade shows, Peck said, did not give a lot of positive feedback, so she decided to go in a different direction.

“We worked with our sponsors to brainstorm some other ideas with the goal of creating some meaningful connections or meaningful moments,” Peck said. Instead of a virtual exhibit, the event featured “product placement” opportunities, “embedding” sponsors “into the program,” she said, where it made sense. For example, if a session explored e-learning, session moderators would reference an e-learning vendor who would be on hand via chat to answer any questions.

Adapt to the Medium

You might expect professional speakers to be just as compelling on stage with a live audience as onscreen. Not so, all three agreed. “It pains me in the middle of my body to say it,” di Guisto said, “but the reality is that … we’re amazing on a stage,” but many speakers need to figure out how to translate that skill to the digital space. You’re more likely to find the best presenters on YouTube, TikTok, or Instagram, because they’ve been working “in the mediums that are very restrictive with the frame” for years, she said. “They know how to engage somebody through the lens.”

To educate all of the speakers on how to present in a “changed environment,” Peck said, everyone had to participate in pre-production calls.

Mix Things Up

INFLUENCE varied the formats so that there were never two of the same kinds of sessions held back to back — mixing panels with interviews and videos, and using facilitators to tie the sessions together. And the facilitators, Peck said, were key. She acknowledged that an event about professional speaking for professional speakers is in a class of its own, and that most virtual events feature subject-matter experts in specific fields, not professional speakers. And that, she emphasized, makes it even more critical for planners to consider “having professional facilitators and moderators — if you want to make this an engaging experience.”

Michelle Russell is Convene‘s editor in chief.

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