In March of this year the speaking industry was devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As lockdown and social distancing measures were introduced, live events became an impossibility. What started as a few early cancellations soon got much worse and my days of working from home were almost entirely about managing cancellations, postponing events only for them to be postponed again months later as the lockdown measures continued, and discovering that perhaps we need a better understanding of what constitutes force majeure during a global pandemic. Revenue for speakers dried up and the horizon seemed bleak.
However, although changes to the speaking industry have certainly been severe, they have not been without opportunity. Online video communication platforms have not only become a tool for office meetings, but a vital lifeline for speakers and event organisers, so much so that the immediate landscape of our speaker bookings is almost entirely virtual.
Online events award greater flexibility, audiences can attend talks that they might not otherwise have been able to if they had been held in-person, and what was once a local stage is now a global one. Speakers can now reach audiences around the world as talks are live streamed from the comfort of their own homes. Additionally, with the industry embracing these platforms, we have the added benefit that should we face a second wave of the pandemic, it can carry on without the same level of disruption it faced previously.
Of course, as important as these online platforms are, they are not without their challenges. Although speakers are no longer required to travel to venues, they have had to undertake additional preparation to tailor their talks to be delivered online. They have had to find ways of conveying their message with the same impact as at a live event and engaging their audience without being able to see or interact with them. Of course, such obstacles can be overcome, allowing speakers, event organisers and their audiences to reap the benefits.
It’s hard to predict what the future of the speaking industry looks like, but one thing that’s clearly missing from all this is the audience’s ability to network as they could in a live events space. So, as time goes on, I expect we’ll see a greater number of events taking place which allow audiences to attend in-person when it is safe to do so, as well as incorporating an online element for virtual attendance. Those who benefit from such an event are threefold as the speakers, event organisers and the audience enjoy greater engagement and reach.
Yet, despite all these changes, there is one thing that remains the same: the value of speakers and their message. The shift to virtual events leaves the role of the speaker entirely untouched as they continue to inspire and inform audiences. Whether it’s experts who warn us of major threats posed by disinformation and what we need to do to protect ourselves; emergency physicians who use their experiences to teach businesses lessons in leadership; or politicians and economists who share insights into the future economic climate, speakers continue to offer their unique, and often urgent insights that individuals, businesses and entire sectors can learn from. This is where the value lies, regardless of whether the talk is on stage or on screen. The value is not decided by the method by which that talk is delivered, but by how audiences benefit from the insights offered and the lessons shared. And now, as we move through times of uncertainty, event organisers have the opportunity to utilise this expertise on a much wider scale as we further explore this new frontier of virtual events.
So, as we move forward, let us embrace the changes that have been brought upon the industry, seize the opportunities that they bring and celebrate the fact that even when we are kept apart we are able to come together, perhaps more than we ever have.
Tom Copson is Northbank’s speaking agent, working with world-class key note speakers for a wide range of conferences and events.