Virtually the Same - Or Is It? 

09.06.20 05:12 PM By GAOLF

As festivals whose dates are later this year or early next, decide on the shape their events might take what’s to be learned from those first movers who were forced to become the ‘early adopters’ of the latest tech?  We asked Julia Wheeler, Former BBC Gulf correspondent and literature and science festival moderator to share what she’s learned so far.


I’ve chaired a variety of online events in the last couple of months – everything from psychology to poetry, memoir to military survival, crime fiction to cyber security – and watched so many others.  At times it’s felt like a Continuing Professional Development assault course.  Here are some thoughts on what seems to work – and perhaps more importantly what doesn’t.

For a recorded conversation 30 minutes might well be enough, 40 minutes is plenty.  As perhaps we’ve all found, it’s hard work concentrating on a webinar for much longer.  If the event is live, then 45 minutes to an hour feels sustainable with ‘in the moment’ audience questions. 

As expectations are raised by what some well-connected festivals are able to achieve, I wonder if live events will draw the biggest audiences.  That ‘appointment to view’ with the sense of joining with others there and then is, after all, what makes a lit fest so thrilling.  There’s jeopardy too – when Peter Florence’s mic went down at Hay Digital and Anne Enright took the initiative by reading from ‘Actress’ the live chatterers loved it.  And Anne E became the patron saint of festival chairs everywhere.

When the conversation is recorded in advance, I encourage the author to imagine it’s live – unless there’s a disaster, don’t stop the recording.  It raises everyone’s game – and makes for fewer headaches later for whoever has the joy of editing.  Tempting as it may be to get interviews ‘in the can’ weeks in advance, try to resist.  So much is changing just now – the news, the mood, the restrictions – and it adds to conversations more than ever to be able to delve into an author’s psyche without the danger of a conversation feeling dated.  

It’s more important than ever that chair and author ‘meet’ ahead of the event – ideally beginning with an e-intro from the festival.  In this virtual world there’s no chance of perfecting chemistry in the Green Room over a cup of tea and a piece of cake.  A telephone call or, if it’s a panel, perhaps a pre-event Zoom meet a couple of days ahead, puts minds at rest and allows participants to get a sense of one another. 

It’s also useful if the technical person has done a trial run with the author – checked the likely broadband speed, the mic, headphone set-up, ambient noise, sunlight and the all-important, non-distracting, background.  (Sidebar: check out ‘Bookcase Credibility’ @BCredibility on Twitter, which is heading towards 100K followers.)   

There’s always the option of a fake background which might help with branding (think beach or marquee) but that can make your authors look less real, more avatar. And perhaps a glimpse into an author’s home is part of the deal these virtual days.   

This is a different deal for your chairs.  It’s somewhere between a Breakfast TV sofa and their actual sofa.  There’s nothing of the energy and buzz that walking onto a stage with a clapping, expectant audience, excited about seeing a favourite author brings.  Instead, perhaps they’ve opened a laptop in the least messy part of their kitchen or walked upstairs to a spare bedroom to give themselves the best chance of not being interrupted by family.  They need to ‘perform’ in a different way to being on stage and staring down the barrel of a webcam can feel more intimidating than a full-to-bursting 1500 seat marquee.

If it’s possible to reduce the number of things you need chairs to remember to say – sponsors, website, crowdfunding address, bookshop, etc. – especially at the beginning of an event, they will love you.  And so will the audience: even more than at an onstage event they are there to hear what the author thinks, but now other entertainment is only a click away.  Captions and graphics can be used for essential information and again, borrowing from telly, branded ‘bumpers’ at the top and tail of each event make for clean starts and stops.  A simple static logo can work or, even better, a brief ‘festival feel’ film of last year’s highlights.  

The tech offers some great fun stuff – written Q&As of course, but also simple polls on specific questions that can inform the live discussion.  If you want to get fancy, there’s a way of audiences being divided and transported to separate ‘breakout’ rooms with a panellist. 

Having a Q&A sifter on hand to identify insightful questions and dismiss any nonsense is a huge help for a chair juggling the final minutes of a conversation: anything to minimise balls in the air.  

If you’re using live chat do consider being there with the lit fest handle to answer any technical or admin questions before there’s misinformation or frustration brews.   

Just one more thing. When it’s done and the mics are no longer live do please stay on the line, be that clapping audience as author and chair metaphorically make the long walk from the stage back to their individual green rooms. Thank you.    


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