Expanding the Models of Virtual Engagement: The Variety Show

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Expanding the Models of Virtual Engagement: The Variety Show

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One joy I’ve discovered during the COVID-19 pandemic is Elliott Masie’s empathy concerts on Friday afternoons. It took me a while to summon the energy to attend one because by 4 p.m. on a Friday, I’m exhausted and ready to be offline. However, I’ve learned that this “variety show” format is very energizing.

I’ve called this model of virtual engagement “The Variety Show” because it evokes memories of shows like Ed Sullivan or Flip Wilson that I used to watch as a kid. For younger people, my daughter says it’s like Saturday Night Live, without the focus on comedy.

The Empathy Concert

In a nutshell, this model includes a variety of short activities, such as discussions, interviews, presentations, polls, and Chats, with engagement and entertainment built in to hold the audience’s attention. Elliott is the Ed Sullivan of this show, and he speeds the hour along with performances by Broadway stars, from their bedrooms and living rooms to ours. The Broadway stars talk about what empathy means to them and explain how to take on another person’s perspective. Then there are interviews with learning leaders talking about what their organizations are doing to adapt in the pandemic. The hundreds of people in the audience participate through polls and entries into Chat. A slightly abridged version of the overall format looks like this:

No activity lasts longer than a few minutes, and the audience is engaged at all times through the polls, Chat, and especially the music, which allows us to interact by singing along and dancing.

While the activities vary, the theme of empathy keeps the event focused. This theme is reinforced directly via the interviews and discussions and indirectly via the lyrics of the songs, as well as Masie’s generous donations to the actor’s fund.

An Airbnb Experience

Another virtual “variety show” that I recently attended is a wonderful Airbnb experience called Sangria and Secrets with Drag Queens. Some drag queens in Lisbon, whose show was cancelled due to the pandemic, created this engaging format for an online show, in which they sing and tell jokes while teaching people around the world to make Portuguese sangria.

We gathered our ingredients ahead of time. Then at the appointed time, we joined some 30 other people, located all over the world, on Zoom. The event started with some introductions and people sharing the events they were celebrating—birthdays, anniversaries, graduation, even Mother’s Day. Then there was an interesting surprise. Our hosts told us that we weren’t nearly glamorous enough to participate. So, we had one minute to run around our homes and find some things to spice up our look. Did you notice that? They got us away from the screen briefly and used our own environments as part of their show. We also spent time standing at our own stoves, cooking up a simple syrup. We chopped and mixed at our kitchen tables. Meanwhile, our hosts transitioned seamlessly from teaching to entertaining to encouraging participation, even with something as simple as a hand gesture to demonstrate our excitement.

So, the next time you host a webinar, consider:

  • How can you break activities down to short, meaningful segments that keep people’s attention?
  • How can you embed music?
  • Where is the opportunity to add in a little fun?
  • What can people do in their own environments, away from the screen, to add their own individuality?

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