GETTING ON THE VIRTUAL HIGHWAY

By; Doug Hall, D. Advocate & Associates | Artlicle from 2020 Fall CLT Magazine

I’ve been getting a lot of calls lately. A lot of calls. Some calm, some frantic, and some outright out of their mind, but nonetheless, a lot of calls.

In 2015, after I officially accepted a VP position at an early stage start-up (later dubbed The Virtual Experience Company), I had never even participated in a video call, much less sold them. My first Zoom was a week into my role with a team of people specifically assembled to build a company that would offer two-way video conversations with professional speakers, experts and celebrities. I’m pretty sure, at that time, the team’s experience with two-way video had been as deep and robust as mine. However, that wasn’t so strange in 2015. Not that many people were using video conferencing or even video calling, for that matter. Skype dominated the vernacular, but user experience with their video platform was still pretty limited. Webcams were looked at by many as, shall we say, for more risqué purposes. At the very least, they were considered the tools of internet geeks or for corporate fancy-pants conference calls. No more than 2 years after my first Zoom call, I witnessed my 5- and 3-year-old nieces facetime with my 93-year-old grandfather. That’s how fast things changed.

Bringing it back to 2020, back to the chirping sounds of my smartphone. A mere three weeks after I had stepped down from my Executive VP position at that same and now successful start-up, the COVID-19 pandemic gained momentous traction in the United States. My recent experience in taking corporate offerings virtual (coupled with over twenty-years in live events, entertainment, and nightlife), catapulted me to the top of everyone’s speed dial. I was happy to help.

When I could provide insight or advice, I would. From plug and play webcams to platform rollouts, I offered my assistance on one single condition: I’ll show you how, but I won’t do it for you. The condition itself garnered me a few humorous monikers from friends and colleagues. I won’t get into all the variations, but if you take any virtual conferencing term and put it before something that describes a spiritual guide or coach, that’s my soap opera name. One stood out to me however. After explaining my one condition, a colleague responded, “So, you’re like a Livecast Crew Chief?” Let’s be clear, I know nothing about NASCAR, and I have nowhere close to the technical skills in virtual production or engineering that a NASCAR crew chief would have in their respective field. I’ve met virtual producers that one could equate to a professional crew chief, and I’m not even worthy enough to hold their tire irons. I’ve watched these technicians do things with codes and cords that I couldn’t even dream up on my best days. I joke that I know just enough about virtual communications to be dangerous. The reality is, I know what I need to know and I have failed at it enough times to garner the experience necessary to navigate it.

Have you ever watched a movie or tv show with flying cars? Ever wondered how all those cars manage to commute together without crashing and falling out of the sky? Just over a hundred years ago, people were riding horses wondering something quite similar about the automobile. Here you are a hundred years later tuning your satellite radio, talking through Bluetooth via satellite at 60mph. Perspective is always more powerful than position.

Of course, If your position is currently the same as mostly everyone else, then you are mired with a lot more to figure out than taking your students, events or programming virtual. And the idea of stopping to learn, plan and strategize a virtual offering (of any kind) while managing your existing responsibilities during trying times can seem unimaginable. For my friends and colleagues on the other side of those calls, it certainly seemed unimaginable. Under these types of conditions, it’s unimaginable for most people. I’m not asking you to do all that right now. At some point, you very well may have to. But for right now, we’re going to focus on getting you behind the wheel. We can worry about getting you on that highway in the sky in another article. Now let’s get you driving. Below is my seven-step guide on engaging virtual and a few ways you can implement these steps within your campus programming initiatives.

STEP 1: TAKE A FEW RIDES.

While I am sure there are people out there who had not been inside a car until they needed to learn how to drive one, for most of us, the idea of driving was adopted through many years of watching someone else do it for us. We developed a desire to do it ourselves. For most of us, it represented freedom. Let’s start with you riding in the backseat. Sign-up, audit, participate in and enjoy a few virtual engagements until you get a taste for the ride. Here are a few ways.

  • Watch and follow YouTube channels about virtual as it applies to your needs and skill set.
  • Join discussion groups with peers facing the same challenges. Read their posts and suggested links.
  • Sign-up for newsletters from authorities in the field.
  • Watch virtual event recordings and VOD (video-on-demand).
  • Register for live webinars and other virtual events on topics specifically about virtual communications.

STEP 2: BACK THE CAR OUT OF THE GARAGE. EXPECT TO HIT AT LEAST ONE TRASH CAN.

It’s time to turn on the camera, check your audio and start making video calls. Start with family and friends and then move on to colleagues. Use the apps on your phone or the programs already installed on your laptop or tablet. They’re there if you look for them. Facetime, Messenger, Meet, Hangouts, Snapchat, Houseparty, Zoom, with anyone you can. The point of this exercise is for you to notice the glaring similarities between the applications as well as their unique differences. It will also help get you comfortable with glitch. From professional broadcasters to video calls with your family, glitch will happen. The more you experience it, the more confident you will become at managing it.

STEP 3: BE A STUDENT DRIVER

Host regularly scheduled video conference calls with your student leadership team. However, instead of having every meeting on Zoom, mix it up and try a few different platforms and calling applications. Start every meeting with a conversation about what everyone likes and dislikes about each platform. Mess around with the controls and make it fun. You’ll have a few “fender benders” and a lot of experience in handling them as a team.

STEP 4: START TAKING THE CAR OUT ON YOUR OWN.

Use social media to do a few live streams by yourself and about yourself. You can post an Instagram live video of your favorite spot on your daily walk, do a Facebook live update from your desk on student affairs and campus activities, or an early morning conversation with your cat on Snapchat Stories. Even the most introverted can utilize private groups and restricted friend lists to keep their audiences exclusive and contained. Going through this exercise not only helps you get even more comfortable with live video, it will help you appreciate the value of virtual engagement and experiences even more.

STEP 5: GET YOUR OWN CAR.

I’m giving you permission to geek out a little bit. The great thing about all the gadgets and tools out there for virtual is it doesn’t cost as much as owning a car. For less than $40 you can get yourself a better webcam, headphones, or lights. Whatever it may be, set yourself a budget and do some online shopping. Not only are you (and the people with whom you communicate) going to start to notice a difference in the quality of your personal video calls, you’re going to learn a lot about the technology just by reading different reviews.

STEP 6: GIVE YOUR FRIENDS A LIFT.

Produce something. It can be anything as long as you are the person behind the wheel. Whether it’s a Zoom lunch and learn, a Facebook live AMA with faculty or a campus entertainer, or a Google Meet and Greet for incoming freshmen, do something simple, fun and engaging. Program it the same way you would an in-person event. Create a schedule, build an event team with specific responsibilities, and manage your audience expectations through pre-event messaging. And when the event starts, make sure everybody knows to buckle up, because they’re in the car with a new driver.

STEP 7: HAVE A FEW WRECKS.

A man once told me there are two types of motorcyclists; those who have put down their bikes and those who will. Needless to say, going virtual is not nearly as physically dangerous as getting on a motorcycle. But you are inevitably going to put your proverbial bike down. As I mentioned earlier, glitch happens. It is inevitable that something is going to go wrong and it is likely going to happen at the most inopportune time. I often told my team to expect the best but prepare for the worst. The same advice holds true to you. The more you practice, the more you do, the more you fail, the better you will be. And before you know it, you’ll be begging for the car keys just so you can go joy riding on the highway.

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