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Transitioning to Virtual Events | Robbie Samuels

Transitioning to virtual events | Robbie Samuels | 388

How to take your in-person business into the digital realm.

An interview with Robbie Samuels about adapting as a keynote speaker and networker in the virtual space.

76% of people say networking is the top driver for attending an event, but the amount that have a plan to achieve that goal is much smaller. With many events having moved to a digital platform, networking has become harder – and yet, even more critical to success.

To help understand the problem, and find some answers, we’ve invited Robbie Samuels to join us. Robbie is a networking expert, consultant, and advisor. He is also the author of Croissants vs. Bagels: Strategic, Effective, and Inclusive Networking at Conferences and Small List, Big Results: Launch a Successful Offer No Matter the Size of Your Email List, plus, he is the host of the podcast On The Schmooze.

The arrival of the pandemic meant the end of in-person conferences, but as restrictions are loosening, we are starting to see these events return. We discuss what the post-pandemic conference scene will look like. Robbie explains that there is still great importance for in-person events, but they will have to be more thoughtful and meaningful than ever before.

We also discuss the undeniable value of virtual events. Robbie explains that many of the tricks of the trade used by keynote speakers in person simply don’t work on a small screen. He compares in-person speaking to a theatrical performance, and virtual events to a television show, where production and delivery is very different. Robbie gives examples to help speakers make changes to their delivery and connect with the audience in either style.

Lastly, we discuss how the virtual environment has changed business models. No longer can keynote speakers rely solely on big conference gigs. Robbie discusses the diverse platform you need to deliver content, and how you can continue to provide in-person value – digitally!

Robbie has a special offer for our listeners! Click HERE to get The Big Results Toolkit for Free!

Three Key Takeaways:
  • Thought Leaders need to have a clear plan to achieve networking goals at both in-person and virtual events.
  • When delivering thought leadership content virtually, consider changing the pace every seven minutes to keep the audience engaged.
  • Don’t rely too much on one method of income for thought leadership. By diversifying your business model, you’ll increase revenue and protect yourself from future disruptions.

If you need a strategy to bring your thought leadership to market, Thought Leadership Leverage can assist you! Contact us for more information. In addition, we can help you implement marketing, research, and sales. Let us help you so you can devote yourself to what you do best.

Listen on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts!



Peter Winick And welcome, welcome, welcome, I’m Peter Winick, I’m the founder and CEO at Thought Leadership Leverage, and you’re joining us on the podcast today, which is Leveraging Thought Leadership, and today my guest is Robbie Samuels. Robbie is really interesting. He’s sort of a new friend. He is an author who’s a podcaster. He is a consultant. He is an advisor. And here and he is with us. So without further ado, welcome aboard, Robbie.

Robbie Samuels Thanks so much for having me.

Peter Winick Yeah. So if you and I would have bumped into each other 10 or 15 years ago and I said, Hey, where are you going to be? And now – you would have nailed it, right? You would have predicted exactly what you’re going to be doing and who you’re going to be working with, right?

Robbie Samuels 100 percent. Not at all. No, not at all.

Peter Winick Hundred percent. Not at all. Or zero percent accurate.

Robbie Samuels So so.

Peter Winick I had it all. I’m always fascinated by this. So how did you get here? How did this happen?

Robbie Samuels Well, years ago, I fell in love like thirty years ago with event planning. OK, not with the event planning part, but with the idea of bringing people together. I was always sort of the thing I love to do even before that. And so I got jobs doing that and then realized that that was something I could do in non-profits. And so then I was running non-profits and like running their fundraising events. But I wanted to meet more people like minded, and so I started running this community group, a meetup group that grew to thousands of members. We ran it for 11 years. I think it was there that I started to realize I had skills around networking. And then I spent a decade becoming known for my expertise in the world of networking, and I wrote a book about networking at conferences and then the pandemic hits –

Peter Winick Like conferences or conferences. Refresh my memory. It’s been a while. What would it be?

Robbie Samuels Remember we’d get on planes? Right, right? Like getting on planes?

Peter Winick Planes?

Robbie Samuels Yeah. So people, maybe –

Peter Winick Just coming back there. Yeah. Yeah.

Robbie Samuels Not just for that concept, but they used to get on planes for the possibility of meeting amazing people. And that was what the intention was. But our follow through was pretty dismal. So I was working in a space of trying to help close the gap between what people set their intentions around networking at conferences and then actually achieving results. So a book, a TedEx, you know, podcast, all those things, basically everything I know how to do is not useful in the world of March 2020. And so –

Peter Winick But, let’s stay there for a minute, because I too was guilty of going to far, too many events far too often, et cetera, and then copied heads and you’re going, OK, well, why was I doing that? Right. So on the one hand, it’s the content. Somebody made it really easy to put everything I’m interested in in one place for three days. But there’s also this community piece like part of the reason and people don’t always – I don’t say they’re dishonest, but they’re not as upfront about it as they might be like, Hey, Robbie lives in one city. Peter lives in another. I know once a year he’s one of 10 people I like to see at the APEC Coe event. And it’s partly why I go. So now that things are, well, sort of opening reopening. Where do you see it going? Because I, you know, on the one hand, I don’t see it going back to 2019, but I don’t see it going to zero. So where does it? Where does the dust settle?

Robbie Samuels Well, I had set a prediction years ago that we were going to realize how important in person was and that the organizations that designed really engaging in person events were going to succeed with these, these younger generations, which the younger generation sort of hadn’t seen the need for in person because they are very wired in. And I still think that’s the case. I think some organizations are going to really now – a thoughtful in-person event. It’ll be more meaningful than it was in 2019 for people to come together. People will realize it’s a privilege.

Peter Winick So the bar has been raised. So, so, so stay there for a second. This the other the other thing that I recall. You know, all these events going to how many people went without and I don’t want to sound, you know, whatever, but without an agenda, why are you going to this event? And to me, if you didn’t go with the sense of intent and deliberate, this doesn’t mean you don’t leave yourself open to serendipity and randomly bumping into someone or making a new friend. But like, these are the people I want to meet. I’m going to set those up, set up the coffee, set up the cocktails, hosted dinner gatherings. A lot of people, quite frankly, were pretty poor conference attendees, if you will, which is probably the gist of your Robbie 1.0 or whatever.

Robbie Samuels No, that was exactly that. There was a study by the International Association of Exhibitions & Events found that 76 percent of people surveyed said that networking was a top driver for why they chose to attend an event. But I don’t think 76 percent of people going to events create a plan for how they’re actually going to achieve their networking goals, right? It’s like all these amazing intentions like, Oh, that’s the reason I want to go. But in reality –

Peter Winick What are you doing about it, right?

Robbie Samuels Yeah, that’s what I mean by I think that the people who do choose to go into in-person events going forward are going to do so much more thoughtfully with more purpose. But I also think the value of the virtual space is now undeniable.

Peter Winick Going back to what I was saying earlier, you know, people go for content, people go for community, people go for connection. And you know, the content is pretty easy to do virtually. Right. And we can even do that asynchronously. We don’t need to have one of these three day summits or whatever. I haven’t seen yet. I’ve seen people making really good tries and different a lot of creativity being applied. I haven’t really seen anybody crack the code on. This is the best way to create connection and community in a remote world. You know, going way back to early 2020, it started with the virtual cocktail hours. Let’s all sit here and get drunk together. OK, well, that sort of faded out, but what are you seeing that’s really cool and innovative that you think might stick?

Robbie Samuels Well, one thing I have to sort of note is that on March 13, 2020, I started hosting a virtual happy hour. My reaction to the pandemic was to try to show up and add value. I’ve actually hosted that weekly event that became the No More Bad Zoom Virtual Happy Hour every week since. And it is not about getting together with cocktails. It is a community that is developed like hundreds of people have come through. Businesses have formed, people are connecting. So I think that there’s a space for those kind of community driven events. And then when I work with my clients is a virtual event design consultant and executive Zoom producer. I’m trying to help them think about how to bring their events online with less stress and greater participant engagement. If you don’t do it thoughtfully, you will end up with the formula of 45 minutes of a presentation or 15 minutes of Q&A, which is the like old style webinar format. That was never a great format, but no one questioned it. It was sort of bonus content. Now that virtual events are synonymous with events, we have to do better at creating the engagement piece online and breakout rooms and coffee conversations and free reads like there’s a lot of things that people are doing, I think are very creative, assumes a great platform for it. But it’s not just Zoom. There’s just about how do you intentionally bring people together? And I think that’s the piece that has to shift, whether it’s in-person or online.

Peter Winick Yeah. So I – I agree, and I think that even redefining an event because he used to be beginning middle end, Oh, we open on Tuesday morning and we do the plenary and then, you know, and then everybody leaves on Thursday, whatever. I also started right around. I don’t know if exactly the same time from YouTube, but I would think within a couple of weeks, in March of 2020, I had a lot of friends and clients and colleagues and such reaching out to me going, Oh my God, the sky is falling, the sky is falling. And as a consultant who’s used to having the answers and being able to help people. It was a really weird place for me to be, to go -geez. Listen, I wasn’t around in 1918. I don’t know how the sucker is going to work out, so I took some inventory and said, Listen, I have two things. I have a really good network of amazing people that are interesting and helpful and generous, and I’ve got the whatever it’s called the turbo Zoom $40 a month account. Voila! Right, let me put that together, and we too did a every Tuesdays at one o’clock and we ran it for a year and a half. We just went to every other Tuesday now. And what’s interesting in in the beginning, there’s a lot of folks that would poke in and poke out and sniff it around, you know, like, like anything else. But there’s this really interesting core of about 25 folks that show up almost religiously. There have been three books that have been written, a business that’s been launched, similar things that you were talking about. So I think you have to also have some patience and let people realize what’s there. And I think there’s a sense of not being on like the first couple of weeks, there’s a little bit of the chest pounding and look how great I am or whatever. But letting it down, like, Hey, I’m scared, like, I don’t know what’s going on. Like, 50 percent of my business just went out the window. I’m vulnerable. You know, how can we help each other? And I think that takes some time and trust to form.

Robbie Samuels I mean, you’re talking about all the storming norming forming, right?

Peter Winick Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Robbie Samuels Had to kind of groups form. I think it happens online at a different pace than in person, but it does happen with that intentionality behind it. I also I think that a lot of people were scared of the online. They I’ve had clients who have hired me knowing what I do, then say we’re going to do a Zoom webinar and we’re gonna turn off chat and we’re going to have questions coming through Q&A. But only people can see only their own questions. They can’t see anyone else’s. And we’re going to pre write the questions we’re going to make. OK, so basically you’re putting bags over people’s heads and muzzling them as they come in.

Peter Winick Yeah, that sounds like

Robbie Samuels You do this in person. Right, right, right. Right, right? And it’s like they’re so nervous about it going off the rails and, you know, someone grabbing a mic in person. This would happen to, you know, like you’d have an open mic.

Peter Winick But with all due respect, Robbie, I mean, event planners, I mean, that’s basically Latin for control freak. I have several friends that are event planners, and every successful event planner is a micromanager and a control freak. And I mean that with all due respect, because we don’t want those people to be like me that are sort of big picture people and it’ll all work out. It’s like, no, you know, at 12 o’clock, 300 people are expecting lunch, you know,

Robbie Samuels Totally get it. Totally get it. I just think that they’re not being innovative and creative. And, you know, it’s not about replicating what we did in person. It’s about reimagining using a mixture of virtual and digital and also even analog tools. So I think that, you know, once they see the possibility and now you know what? It was fine in-person. Sorry, what was fine online in like, I don’t know, May 2020. I remember Peter. In May 2020, I went on a call. Someone was going to show us how to use various aspects of Zoom, including breakout rooms. But the trainer was using someone else’s Zoom and that Zoom did not have breakout rooms enabled. So we had to all leave and come back in and as we were leaving, she said. OK, so what I learned last time this happened is you have to spend 30 30 seconds before coming back in. And all I heard was, “This happened before”?

Peter Winick And you didn’t fix it, right? I heard like, right, right? You know, like this is if I don’t say that when they’re crashing, right? Like the last time -.

Robbie Samuels The professional speaker walking into Marriott and saying, Oh, I was going to have slides, but I forgot to ask for a projector like so now, a year and a half later, that is, you know, the bar of what’s OK has really, really risen. And there are organizations that

Peter Winick That bar has risen. So, so in the last year and a half or so at first, we gave people a lot of leeway, like, Oh yes, that might be your laundry in the background. Oh, your lighting might be crappy or whatever. Now it’s like, listen, it doesn’t cost any money. I mean, marginal couple of dollars to like, get a good set up to look professional, et cetera, et cetera.

Peter Winick If you’re enjoying this episode of Leveraging Thought Leadership, please make sure to subscribe. If you’d like to help spread the word about our podcast, please leave us a review and share it with your friends. We’re available on Apple podcast and on all major listening apps, as well as at Thought Leadership Leverage dot com forward slash podcasts.

Peter Winick I want to go back to something you touched on a moment ago. I think if you look through history, any time we’re shifting technologies and modalities to the next level, we bring a lot of the old with us. Right. So when silent films went to talkies, they basically pulled live theater, right? And it was just awkward, right? And then, you know, even when film came about, it was sort of vaudeville without the sound until it found its own way. Right. So people need the dust needs to settle. So I want to talk about some of the business implications of this because one of the things that we’ve seen is not, I mean, I’ll paint with a broad brush here, but the days of the keynoter going in, flying in, getting there 30 40 K for 45 minutes of wonderfulness and ending in a standing ovation that doesn’t translate to Zoom. Or I’m using Zoom as a placeholder here and all the things that made that keynoter great in the ballroom at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in front of a thousand people. They actually have to undo that, right? So you know what made a great keynote a great day to have the stage presence. They know how to work the room. They know how every moment from when they walk in the music, the experience, the slides, the drama, you know, being a little bit over the top because they’re this little dot to most people. So they have to be like, you start to do that in a zoom when we’re all the same size box and you’re like, Whoa, take it down a notch and lay off the Red Bulls. So, you know, I’ve seen people recalibrate there, and I don’t know where the market has settled or will settle. With regards to fee structure, I know that a lot of people were really hungry, desperate, stupid to some degree. All of a sudden, taking 10 or 20 cents on the dollar to do something remotely. And anyway, I want to get your thoughts on the business side of it and then sort of the craft and how it has to modify and adjust itself.

Robbie Samuels Around May 2020, there was a great article in Fast Company by Microsoft’s Global Events Director and he was talking about how in-person events are theatrical and online events are cinematic. And so it’s just like you said, you know, you know, if you’re really big online, you’re actually out of frame. It doesn’t work, right? What we’re comparing ourselves to online is Netflix to TV. And so the better produced virtual events are really thinking that way. And I think about an episodic way, like every seven minutes, according to brain science, we need to, as adult learners have a state shift. So there’s this idea that, you know, we can’t just be a talking head for 40 minutes. We have to show a slide. Take a question from Chad. We need to run

Peter Winick Shake people out of their trance, right?

Robbie Samuels Use our body, move up, move our hands, move our body, like energetically modulate our voices. So some of the things that worked on stage work. But you’re right, it’s a very different filter. And a lot of people who were amazing keynoters had lousy stage presence virtually first because they didn’t have great setups. They didn’t understand the medium. They were not practiced in this. I was fortunate that I had had a lot of experience facilitating virtually, and I didn’t even realize that that was a thing that I knew how to do. My first virtual happy hour, we just went around the room like all those ones did, but I know how to keep things on time and not interrupt online. I know how to like, say, who’s coming up next? So there is there was a rhythm to it, and I got to the end. Everyone was like, That was amazing. And I said, You know, y’all were just happy to see someone you didn’t have to feed. The bar set pretty low here, but I’ve never, but I think format again.

Peter Winick You know, I think there’s a lot of truth in what you say in that certain things are invisible. So great facilitation in a room. You don’t leave that room and say, Wow, Robbie is a great facilitator. You say, Well, I had a wonderful experience. Now, if someone asked you when they double click on you, you go, Yeah, actually. Yeah, there weren’t any pauses. Actually, the conversation flowed, but it’s invisible. And I think bringing that invisible to a virtual environment is harder because, you know, there’s a whole bunch of sticky tricks that that Key Noters can do. Can I get a woo woo, light up, you know, everybody stands up, you know, like all that sort of silliness, right? We can’t. I guess we could do that remotely. It would be sort of absurd.

Robbie Samuels Here’s the thing that I do. So I I wear many hats, as you know, business growth strategies. I produce virtual events when I’m producing a virtual event, like when I’m probably the speaker or running things. One of the things I do is I call people’s name. So if I see someone have a reaction, I’m like, Oh yeah, Peter gets it. And then if you give me a bigger reaction over time and I might develop four or five people in the audience that I’m consciously saying their names, they’re constantly giving a lot of light. People are people are waiting to hear their names called. You asked for the reactions, you asked for the hand raising, the ASL.

Peter Winick Yeah, yeah.

Robbie Samuels So I mean, how you film it, whether you show gallery view, whether you show like, there’s definitely choices to be had. There’s the fact that you engage with people. I can’t tell you how many speakers ignore chat until it’s time for Q&A, and I’m like. But the point of being live and not a canned video is that if someone has a question about that slide, you don’t just ignore the question. So how do you work with the chat moderator or producer? You kind of have that moment of introduction like, hey, wait, could before you move forward.

Peter Winick So it’s now that Cleveland has an interesting question.

Robbie Samuels Yeah, exactly. I think that if we again forethought, planning intentionality followed through action. I’ve had a really good time online and I’m a I’m a huge outgoing extrovert. I mean, I don’t know, it doesn’t come across on air, but I love people.

Peter Winick You’re starting to come out of your shell, Robbie, I can tell.

Robbie Samuels Yeah, I have met more people and developed deeper relationships in the last 18 months than the prior three years.

Peter Winick Yeah, I think that I think that’s true for many of us, and we were also open for it, right, because we’re literally in a bubble, we’re locked in our house. There’s only so much Netflix you can watch and Tiger King, you know, whatever. Right? And we missed some of the connections that we had that we might not have expressed the appreciation. Oh, the lady at Starbucks, oh, you know, I can see the faces of all the other folks that I would see very often at the Admirals Club at JFK that I wouldn’t consider them friends or family. But there’s a familiarity, right? There is a how you doing, how you like? There’s a lot of that that’s missing. I want to end with sort of the last piece of any of your thoughts on the implications on business models. So be that for speakers and their fees, people putting on events, you know, because I don’t know that we know yet what people are willing to pay for. How much where does their time go? What is their money going with? That’s where that’s going to settle any predictions or thoughts or insights there. Yeah. Well, pressure, but we’re going to go back and potentially embarrassing you in a year or two.

Robbie Samuels I’m totally OK with it. My predictions are actually on the coattails of Dorie Clark. So, I feel OK about it. Dorie Clark wrote a book called Entrepreneurial You, and it’s about having multiple revenue streams. She didn’t write it with this in mind, depending on your mind. But I knew a lot of people prior to the pandemic who were very proud of the fact that they were only keynoters. There was like an “only keynoter club.” Well, they were the ones who were least prepared for this disruption. And I think.

Peter Winick No portfolio diversification.

Yeah, exactly. That’s all they did. So, my friends who used to rely on keynotes, which required a lot of travel are now developing courses. They’re working directly with companies that are creating their own courses, are doing LinkedIn live courses, they’re doing group coaching and masterminds. And one on one coaching and in developing a much more robust way of delivering value. And I think that that is the business model for all of us to consider that the keynote I have one thing in the arsenal,

Peter Winick so we have always, always, always said it. You know, in fact, part of our model of working with our clients is you’ve got to generate five to 10x your revenue in non-keynote generating in keynote related activities because otherwise, even if you’re doing a million a year in keynote, that’s all fine and dandy. But it is just the opener. It is paid. Business development is whatever. I agree with what you’ve said, a little twist. That is what I would say is those that were already there or partially there or had some of those things and had pauses. And maybe they weren’t paying the attention it needed because they had other things had a huge advantage than those that were literally caught flat footed going, Oh my God, I just lost two years’ worth of revenue. I’ve got nothing coming in and I’ve got to basically start all over again and figure out how I will be valued in the marketplace, which is a scary place to be when there is, you know, time clicking away out there.

Robbie Samuels Because they’re given the time to reflect on that and those. I think there was also, Peter, you and I both know there were some entrepreneurs and speakers in particular who hit the break and some gas and some hit the break, saying This is only going to be three months. This is only going to be three more months, is going to be three more months, is a year and a half. It’s going to be. And I think others like myself, I mean, within days I was like, well, OK, you know, let me just throw this other stuff together. And I I mean, there’s lots of things I tried in 2020 that didn’t work, but I built a six-figure business in eight months, so some things did work, and it’s just about piloting and testing and research calls. I think that the more we get better as entrepreneurs at those quick innovation moments, seeing opportunities test them out, building up new revenue streams, that, yep, that would really help all of us.

Peter Winick I think there’s a window and it’s closing now. It’s not closed, but it’s not as open as it might have been six or eight months ago where you were able to say to a client, Hey, listen, I’ve never done it exactly this way before, but let me tell you what I’m thinking and why. Whereas before? Wait a minute, Mr. Miss Keynoter, you’ve done this a hundred times before. Don’t tell me like that. I don’t want to hear that’s why you’re paying the big bucks. But let’s hold hands and let’s do this together. I’ve put some thought into it. I have experimented, but you’re also saying without saying it and it may not work as well as we planned. But I’m telling you because you know, hey, nobody’s lived through this before we’re all living there. I think that windows starting to close a little bit where people are going to take the level of risk and, you know, and such that they did even six months ago, it’s not closed, but I think the opportunity was to take advantage of that period of time.

Robbie Samuels Yeah, there was this moment where it’s easier.

Peter Winick Yeah, this has been awesome. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your expertise and your extroversion is appreciated as well. So thanks, Rob. Good to get to talk to you today. Thank you.

Peter Winick To learn more about Thought Leadership Leverage, please visit our web site at to reach me directly. Feel free to email me at Peter at and please subscribe to Leveraging Thought Leadership on iTunes or your favorite podcast app to get your weekly episode automatically.

Peter Winick has deep expertise in helping those with deep expertise. He is the CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Peter on Twitter!

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