I’ve never before sat down to watch “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” — it comes on at 11:35 p.m., which is a little late for me, even if I wasn’t too impatient to sit through a whole talk show. But I’ve become a fan of watching clips of “The Tonight Show: At Home Edition” on YouTube ever since the pandemic grounded New Yorkers and Fallon started filming from his 19th-century farmhouse in Sagaponack, on the East End of Long Island in New York.
In New York City, Fallon was regularly filmed in front of a live studio audience at Rockefeller Center, where he sat behind a desk in a suit and tie, conversing with a stream of celebrity guests. When he began filming from home, he might have chosen to replicate the look of the live event as much as possible — putting on a jacket and staying behind a desk in his home office. His guests could have appeared with him in a split screen, and with the addition of the show’s regular graphics and applause and laughter tracks, it might have seemed familiar to both the host and guests.
Instead, Fallon is seizing the opportunity to crack the format wide open, finding new ways — daily it seems — to turn the change of venue and medium into an advantage. And with seven out of 10 planners shifting an event to virtual as a result of the pandemic, according to a recently released PCMA survey, it strikes us that there are lessons here worth learning.
Here are five takeaways:
Don’t just shoehorn a live event into a virtual space. There are innumerable things about live events, from the way that sunlight fills a room to the clink of glasses and china, that engage our attention. Without that built-in engagement, virtual events need to find ways to amp up the experience. “You need more presence and more charm online,” I heard last week during the session, “From Live to Virtual: Designing an Optimal Experience,” part of PSAV’s Global Virtual Events Day (GVED).
Maybe the most important thing that Fallon does is simply get out from behind a desk — he has delivered his monologue perched in the branches of a tree in his yard, from a cramped nook beneath the stairs in his house, and in his shop, in front of a set of screwdrivers. With many event organizers expecting to offer virtual event options even after travel restrictions are limited, could you livestream from a rooftop or a garden in your meeting destination to make the experience more engaging? How can you mix live and pre-recorded segments together to add more visual and sensory surprises?
Have some fun. Another insight from the PSAV session: “When we have fun, we learn more. So bring some fun into the experience.” Fallon is pretty much about having nonstop fun, calling up comedian Tina Fey to play a game with Alexa and painting and swapping portraits with singer and actor Demi Lovato. Virtual business events also can give viewers a break by injecting a light touch here and there.
Remember that everyone has a front-row seat. At live events, the front-row seats are often reserved for VIPs. “But the beautiful thing in a digital world,” leadership strategist and emotional intelligence expert Sara Ross told Convene, “is everybody gets a front row seat.”
It is counterintuitive, but intimacy can be created much more quickly digitally, “believe it or not,” than in person,” Ross said, particularly when there is interaction. “We often have the opportunity in digital platforms to ask questions anonymously, and that anonymity can create a positive connection,” Ross said. “People don’t have to posture; they don’t have to compare themselves to one another. They can actually just let down their guard and ask questions and interact in a really vulnerable and authentic way.”
Perfection is boring. Fallon is a parent, and his young daughters, Franny and Winnie, are at home, like many millions of children around the globe. They have become part of the show, kicking off their rain boots at the door, and then advancing slides for Fallon, or operating sound effects. They only sometimes do what Fallon asks of them. That helps inject a “live” element to the show — it’s clear that Fallon never quite knows what to expect from his daughters and neither do the viewers.
I tuned into a TED Connects talk a couple of weeks ago, and there was a 20-minute wait while the TED team scrambled to sort out the technical issues, eventually improvising a solution. Given that this is the organization that revolutionized conference keynote streaming, I found it reassuring — maybe it’s okay that I screw things up from time to time. Chris Anderson, TED’s chief and the host, wasn’t the least bit embarrassed. “Well, that went well,” was all he said.
Engage sponsors in meaningful way. Every day, Fallon uses his show as a vehicle to raise money for a different charity that is actively helping people affected by the pandemic (see video above). The charities are often suggested by his celebrity guests; his daughter writes the URLs where people can send donations in crayon, and a sponsor matches the donations weekly up to $200,000. I can’t remember the name of all the charities mentioned, but I could tell you the name of the sponsor, and probably will never forget it.
In addition to Fallon, other late-night talk show hosts are broadcasting from home, and their ratings are going up by the double digits. And just like many meeting professionals, they miss their people. “I miss the laughter,” late-night host Conan O’Brien told late-night host Stephen Colbert. “I miss the joy.”
If you’ve noticed other innovations that would transfer well to live events, please let us know!
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.
PCMA has created a COVID-19 resources page to help event professionals find reliable information about the pandemic and to share events industry-related resources to ensure they are prepared now and in the future.