Video and transcript from Caitlin Loos ‘s talk at Austin’s 3rd Annual Facilitator Summit, Control the Room

Recently, we hosted our annual facilitator summit alongside our sponsor MURAL, but this time, it was virtual. Instead of gathering in Austin’s Capital Factory, 172 eager learners, expert facilitators, and meeting practitioners gathered online for a 3-day interactive workshop. Our mission each year at Control the Room is to share a global perspective of facilitators from different methodologies, backgrounds, races, genders, sexual orientations, cultures, and ages. We gather to network, learn from one another, and build our facilitation toolkits. 

This year’s summit theme was CONNECTION. Human connection is an integral component of the work we do as facilitators.

When we connect things become possible. When we are disconnected there is dysfunction. When ideas connect they become solutions. When movements connect they become revolutions. 

Control the Room is a safe space to build and celebrate a community of practice for facilitators, which is paramount to learn, grow, and advance as practitioners and engaging in a dialogue that advances the practice of facilitation. We must learn the tools and modalities needed to foster connection and be successful facilitators in the new virtual landscape. 

“We must establish a personal connection with each other. Connection before content. Without relatedness, no work can occur.” —Peter Block

This year’s summit consisted of 18 expert facilitator guest speakers who presented lightning talks and in-depth workshops, where they shared their methods and activities for effective virtual facilitation. 

One of those speakers was Caitlin Loos.

Caitlin Loos, Director of Creative Services at Phase2 Technology, and Jordan Hirsch, Director of Innovation at Phase2, taught participants how they created a 7-hour zoom conference that was energizing, inspiring, & fun. The workshop explored how they turned their annual company conference — a deeply human, connected experience for 100+ people — into a Zoom call that lasted seven hours and spanned four time zones, but still worked. The group experimented and played with activities that helped turn a virtual event into a virtual experience.

Watch Caitlin Loos’s talk “7 Hours on Zoom…In a Good Way!” :

Read the Transcript

Caitlin Loos:

Thank you so, so much for the introduction, and I’m so happy to be here. Big thanks to all the amazing hard work of the Voltage Control team as well. This is truly an amazing event.

So let’s kick this off with a story about an annual all-company conference called P2Con that for the first time is going virtual. To set the scene, it’s October 21st, 2020, in the fall, mere months ago, and 125 employees sign in to a seven-hour Zoom. There’s a little trepidation. I’m feeling a little dread in the air and just the tiniest bit of excitement.

The day starts off with a poem to set the stage, a poem called An Ode to 2020. The fall is upon us with its chill in the air. Tis the season we love and celebrate with fanfare. But this year it seems is one of a kind. This year, 2020, was very poorly designed. Phew, what a year, the tumble off the charts. It has burdened our brains and certainly our hearts. But through it all, our spirits have endured. And we will be strong well after COVID is cured. So raise a pumpkin-spiced mug of something warm and cozy, and let’s toast this year, though it’s been far from rosy. Because 2020 has shown us a lot that is good, and we’re so excited to be here with you in this virtual hood. P2Con starts now, and we can’t wait to feel what wisdom and knowledge your big brains will reveal. Thank you for being here. Thank you for being you. And thank you for embracing yet another 2020 new.

So this is the introduction to Phase2’s virtual all-company conference back in October, but the same could really be said here today. Here we are, not at all where we expected to be, doing something new, and may I say after all these amazing talks, totally crushing it. So today I’m here to talk about virtual conferences, virtual events, and how they’re not all created equal, and not all seven hours Zoom calls are something to dread. As we continue deeper into this world of virtual experiences that were once in person, it’s time for us to stop talking about new normals and embrace real mastery of this medium.

Before we talk about the Zoom, a little bit of history. Phase2 is a digital agency, and we’re a distributed company working both in-person and remote from about 30 states across the United States. We’re also a company that thrives on relationships. So our once-yearly conference, where we all fly in for three days of solid bonding time and learning, it’s our oxygen. Our conference is called P2Con and it really fuels us throughout the year. Its always jam-packed schedule, full of TEDx style talks, keynotes, workshops, and truly a 24-hour social agenda, including our famous karaoke battles, horseback riding through the mountains of Utah, and most memorably, our own second line parade through the streets of New Orleans. So P2Con is a truly treasured experience at Phase2.

And then came 2020. I took this photo on March 12th, watching yet another event on my calendar be postponed forever. My dog Lincoln’s expression here was all of us around this time. And P2Con was no exception. Planning for our October event was already well underway, and it became clear that getting together in person was not an option. In addition, our business went through the challenges that I’m sure many of yours did as well, and spending the time and money that P2Con typically entailed was a very big ask in the early days of COVID. To say there was skepticism about doing a virtual event was an understatement, and we were facing a decision that a lot of organizations were facing at that time.

But for us, there was one thing that tipped the scale. Just one year prior at P2Con 2019, our CEO Jeff Walpole rolled out an important new vision for Phase2, a vision that we’ve all really rallied around and tried to create together: digital experience that advances human experience. While this vision is primarily meant to address the ways that we amplify our client’s digital experience, that means us, too. So when it came to virtual P2Con, there really was no other answer. Challenge accepted. So we tried a lot of things. Some worked and some didn’t. And I want to share with you some of the themes that we found the most valuable.

 One of the ways to create a truly enjoyable virtual experience is to intentionally engage all the senses in as many ways as you can. Spending too much time in front of screens is not something new to our involuntary virtual world, but it has made it more present. And while in-person events are a welcome fulfillment of the broad range of our senses, virtual meetings, risk being the opposite. There’s tons of science that tells us that engaging more of our senses is impactful to our experience and our memory. For example, physical mail requires 21% less cognitive effort to process and elicits a 70% higher brand recall than digital. The more we engage our senses, the less our brains have to work to process and retain that information.

So we’ll start with some of the fun ones, taste and smell. While you can’t create taste and smell experiences over a Zoom call, you can find ways to incorporate them into your virtual experience. For P2Con, we did a couple of things to engage these senses. About a week before the event, we let everyone know that we were adding a lunch stipend to their paychecks. But in addition to that, we crowdsourced our team members’ favorite fall recipes, and added them to this digital cookbook. Contributors included the recipe as well as their stories around it, notes about why they love it, and pro tips for making it. The idea was that everyone could get the groceries ahead of time, gather in groups, and make these meals and snacks and beverages during the breaks in the conference. In keeping with the season, we also mailed everyone a pouch of pumpkin spice seasoning with the instructions to bring something, anything, pumpkin spiced to our morning session.

So with a little bit of advanced planning, there are lots of ways you can engage taste and smell. We’ve seen so many amazing virtual tasting experiences popping up, from wineries to chocolatiers. I even saw a cheese tasting you can do virtually. And you can also keep it more simple and bring in a flavor related to the theme of your event. Even if you can’t mail anything and don’t know your audience going into an event, you can create taste and smell experiences. For those of you who are attending the workshop this afternoon, my co-presenter, Jordan Hirsch and I, might have up our sleeve for you.

Sound has a few layers to it. First, of course, make sure you’re creating a satisfying experience by making sure you have good sound hygiene. These are all the things we know: good microphone, managing your background noise, but also giving clear instructions to your audience on clapping and cheering and how they should handle those things in the virtual space. But beyond that, you can do some really amazing, fun things.

So remember the poem that I started with? We did that at P2Con for a few reasons, and one of which was to deliver an evocative experience, to create psychological and physical effects. Poetry, even bad poetry, triggers parts of the brain tied to reward, emotion, memory, strengthens overall cognitive health, and encourages self-reflection. And while my bad poetry probably didn’t give you the chills, it did engage the part of your brain that I was hoping that you would bring to this talk. There are so many ways that you could play with sounds, and we’re even seeing some really exciting applications of sound out there in the world. But for your events, think about the medium for your message and other ways that you can engage the sense of sound. For example, can you deliver information in song or rhyme? Can you incorporate music, create interesting sound effects? Maybe even get crazy and bring in some ASMR to create physical sensations.

So my second recommendation is to invite the home into your virtual experiences. We’ve heard this theme a lot throughout this conference. What I mean by that is that we’re all at home, and that looks and feels very different for each of us. So often we try to hide our homes. We set up perfect Zoom backgrounds, and we threaten our children and pets to be quiet while we’re on calls. But I really encourage you to think about the amazing richness and diversity you can tap into if you invite and engage these elements of the home into your virtual experience.

So a couple of examples for P2Con, we invited the home in in a few ways. First, we hosted a story time circle the night before the event for the littler kids. We had a few activities that were designed to show off your pets and houseplants during breaks and intermissions, got to see cute, snuggly animals and beautiful houseplants. And then we invited older kids to some of the more appropriate, fun activities, such as bookbinding and dance choreography.

This is an example of the wonderful and unscripted things that can happen when you let the home in and create an environment for it. One of our colleagues, Shannon, was doing a TEDx style talk about how the winery she owns had adapted to COVID and all the struggles that she and her family had faced during that time. She was talking about how incredibly proud she was of her sons for helping and contributing. And she got a little bit emotional about it. During that time, her youngest son interrupted her presentation, came and gave her a big hug. It was the most heartwarming moment of the entire conference. And it was such a privilege to see this moment that you never would have seen on an event stage. So of course you can’t guarantee the outcomes in your virtual event forever, but you can intentionally create conditions that allow for these outcomes to emerge.

Part of inviting the home in means you can use it to your advantage to create an experience. So the virtual welcome desk was also an opportunity to engage the home. This welcome packet that we mailed ahead of time included pumpkin spice I mentioned, a tiny pumpkin to create the fall ambience. We also of course used it as a prop for the conference. And a welcome letter really setting the intentions from our leadership team for the events. This package took advantage of our home environment and allowed participants to set the scene for themselves. We saw quite a few decorated pumpkins throughout the day. And just as an aside, this package provided an additional event planning benefit. It was opened at the virtual welcome desk that we asked participants to attend the day before. The welcome desk gave them a few minutes of social time with a random selection of coworkers, kind of like you would have at a real welcome desk, and allowed the event organizers to give instructions, set expectations for the day, and do important things like make sure everyone’s Zoom was up to date.

My third takeaway is to recognize that virtual events are not better, worse, or the same as in-person events. This is really hard for us to get used to. Virtual events are not just video meetings and they’re not the same as in-person events. Trying to recreate in-person events in the virtual space will ultimately just be a disappointment. Virtual events are really their own thing and they need their own plan. You have to control the narrative to avoid people assuming that they’re either just going to be in a Zoom call or a disappointing version of a physical event.

Communicating frequently through numerous channels in advance of the event will help your participants start to see a picture of the event. We created a simple website with information about the event and incorporated imagery and campaign-style graphics to create an ambience in the virtual space that we carried through all of the communications as well as the day itself. And then there was the digital karma wall. At Phase2, we use digital karma to give each other thanks and recognition on Slack throughout the year. And then in real life at P2Con, we have an actual karma wall where we would post notes to each other. This year, we created a virtual karma wall, and it allowed us to go a little gift crazy, posts some videos, and then we had a really fun, giant artifact that we were able to share around.

So all in all, we’re thrilled with the feedback that we received about P2Con, especially that it felt more energizing than a day off, did not seem like a long day of Zoom calls, and was an event with presence. And in my favorite quote, Ellie says we managed to maintain the spirit of P2Con, and that really felt like success.

She also talks about the ways we created dopamine hits, and I want to end my talk by talking about that. Here’s why a lot of this works. It comes down to your brain, which is constantly seeking reward. One of the best ways to find reward is to explore something new. Novelty is about newness, and we tend to wave off novelty as frivolous and less valuable, but in truth, it’s incredibly important to your audience’s experience, and it’s deeply tied to memory and learning. Dr. Emrah Duzel of the Institute of Cognitive Neurology explains when we see something new, we see it has the potential for rewarding us in some way. This potential that lies in new things motivates us to explore our environment for rewards. Further experiments around novelty and memory find that subjects perform best in memory tests when new information is combined with familiar information during learning.

A focus on novelty is important for all experiences you create for an audience, but in the virtual event space, it offers us even more opportunity. We’re all struggling with the same-iness of our days as COVID keeps us at home. And while we have really high expectations of novelty and reward when we go to in-person events, all too many virtual events fall short and become predictable. Now, of course, novelty sparks our attention. But once the brain learns that the new stimulus has no reward associated with it, it loses its potential. So novelty must be followed up with delight, with pleasure and reward for your brain.

Let me share an example. P2Con participants received a surprise package a few days before the event that said, “Do not open until P2Con,” and brains across the country were bursting with novelty-fueled [inaudible 00:14:03] dopamine hits, wondering if the contents of the box would create a delightful and rewarding experience. The day before the event, we instructed everyone not to open the box and that added a layer of mystery.

This is an area where we really leaned into the opportunities of a virtual event. If we tried something like this at an in-person event, there would be too many other stimuli for this to really be captivating, and likely, someone would have opened the packages and ruin the surprise for everyone else. But in the context of the virtual event, we were able to carefully plan each item and script its opening with meaningful content to help create that cycle of novelty, reward and memory-building. This is our team having a little bit of fun surrounding one of our items, which is a UV sanitizing water bottle. Enthusiasm for the unboxing provided emotional highs throughout the day, and the anticipation of the unopened packages really helped to keep the energy high.

So as a brand practitioner, being memorable is always the goal of creating impactful brand experiences. I can’t tell you how valuable and powerful this cycle of novelty, delight and memory is. It’s really the promised land of creating lasting impactful experiences and creating true learning. I also want to stress that novel experiences that you create can’t be random or meaningless. Novelty for its own sake that does not fulfill on being rewarding and pleasurable becomes a fleeting distraction, and it will lose your audience’s trust, but the journey that you’re taking them on is one that values their time and attention. But novelty really does open the door and it gets your audience’s attention and sets them up for a rewarding experience. So I like to say it really creates the moment for the message, which is so incredibly important for it to get through.

So thank you so much for all of your time and energy, and really hope that you all join us for our workshop this afternoon where you’ll experience and practice some of these strategies. And I want to leave you with a few ideas. Engage the senses, use the home and find simplicity. Help create a place of authenticity. Novelty makes memory and piles of dopamine. Use this awesome tool to make your event a dream. Happy planning, and can’t wait to see you at the workshop.