Columns > Published on November 20th, 2020

It's Time To Change the Virtual Event Game

We’re all goddamn sick and tired of virtual events. And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but they're not going away anytime soon. 

Let’s talk about how you make your virtual event suck less.

Why It Needs to Change

Unlike a live event where people sit down and they’re trapped, your virtual event is in direct competition with everything else on the internet. Everyone at your event sits in front of their window to the world, and there is absolutely nothing preventing them from doing other things. If you want people to pay attention, you have to be better.

And then there’s the audience’s side of this. People spend their time and money on you and your books, and you owe it to them to provide something of value. Don’t just take what you do normally and do it in front of a computer. Nobody needs that.

Truth be told, the event game has needed to change for a long time. There's room for it to be more fun. Take this as your opportunity to make the change. Make it an EVENT, damn it. 

Get Your Shit Together

You know how at a reading you’d see an agent or a publisher rep, usually a lady dressed and done up a lot fancier than everyone else in the room, and she always seemed nervous and was running around, trying to make everything perfect? That’s you now. You’re that person AND the performer.

I know some of us are laid-back, chill artist types who figure everything will work out, but if you’re not sweating the details a week out from your event, you’re missing something, and your audience pays the price.

Sign in 30 minutes early, get totally set up, and then just put a title card in place letting people know you’ll be there at start time. If 100 people show up for your event, and if they wait 15 minutes for you to figure shit out, you’ve just wasted 25 hours of collective time.

Before Your Event

The last thing you want is for your event to feel like work.

Tell everyone to come to the stream with supplies. Send them on a quick scavenger hunt that is related to what you’re doing/reading. You can even email attendees a couple times in the days leading up, telling them about a small task. That way you’re reminding them about the event, exciting them, and making the event more than just a single hour.

Break Out

Everyone sits in front of the same godforsaken screen ALL DAY doing the most mundane crap. Get attendees to change the environment. Tell them: Change the lighting, use a candle, dress up like you’re going out, prepare a meal, watch from your bed, do something to make this different from what you’re doing every damn day.

The last thing you want is for your event to feel like work.

Disable the Computer

Have attendees lay a blanket across the keyboard and mouse, just create a small barrier to checking email, working, whatever. Tell them to wear gloves.

Tell everyone to come with a messy snack. Seriously.

Whatever it takes, discourage scrolling around, clicking around, anything that's a distraction from the event.

Connect To Bodies

In a virtual space, you don’t have that feeling of bodies. There’s an energy that doesn’t translate. So, see if you can incorporate that into your event, see if you can connect everyone’s body to the story.

Chuck Palahniuk’s “Guts” connects to bodies so perfectly:

Take in as much air as you can. This story should last about as long as you can hold your breath, and then just a little bit longer. So listen as fast as you can.

It sounds cheesy, but see if you can do it. Add scents to your story, common ones. Prep the audience to collect spices from their kitchen, and as you go through the story, framed with a recipe, you have them smell cinnamon, cardamom.

Have them open something carbonated, and have them feel the fizz in their mouth.

Have a character in your story light a match, and stop and tell your attendees to do the same. Let them feel it in their fingers.

If your event is in winter, read a story that uses cold, and have people watch from the garage.

Is it a gimmick? Sure. But you’re a writer. Since when are you above gimmicks?


The format can be a lot more fun than you reading a sheet of paper.

Give some stuff away at different points. Simple swag. Homemade bookmarks. Sign and send a printout of the story you read. Get a damn button maker and make some buttons. Make your signature into a stencil and then people can have their books signed. Make something that fits in a normal envelope and send it out.

This can be a secondary way to try and get people to do the prep. Let them know giveaways are only going to people who are clearly in the garage, freezing their balls off.


Look at other types of events, outside the world of readings. Can you replicate them?

A progressive dinner moves from place to place. What if your event starts as embedded video on website X, then moves to Y? What if people have to solve some kind of small puzzle to progress? What if the material is only available for a limited time, so there’s pressure to solve the puzzle quickly?

An escape room requires people to work together. What if your audience has to work together to solve a small puzzle for the event to continue?

What if you read a piece, then before the next piece, you post a scavenger hunt with point values assigned to different items. Items have to be displayed in webcams, and once a certain point threshold is reached, you move on?

The format can be a lot more fun than you reading a sheet of paper.

Audience Fade

When you go to a live reading, the audience has three phases: they are individual and noticeable people, they are nonexistent, and they are collective.

In the noticeable people phase, we’re talking about the beginning of the event and the Q&A. During these phases, you want to allow audience members to have more of an identity. So, to make this happen at your event, open the chat at the beginning, before things start. Tell everyone to come with a quick something, to type in their name and a favorite candy bar, a favorite sandwich, whatever, just avoid a favorite book or author because that shit doesn’t lend to conversation. Give them a springboard. Get them talking to and noticing each other.

In the nonexistent phase, imagine the part where the lights go down on the audience. People are discouraged from using phones or talking with each other. This should be similar in your event. Shut down the chat. Don’t display other people on webcam. Audience is nonexistent.

The collective phase is the hardest, live and virtually, but it’s what separates great events from forgettable whatevers. People will like your event more if it makes them feel like something larger than themselves. So in this phase, the audience needs to feel like they’re front and center, but as a group rather than individuals. Santa Cons are a good example of this. If everyone is Santa, then no one is more special than anyone else, and everyone is part of this larger thing. Tell everyone at your event to dress as Santa. Or to make a paper bag mask. Or to sit next to a lit candle. Or to have some kind of uniformity going on. That way, when you do something like open up for questions, everyone can see the other attendees are part of a collective. They’re having a connected experience.

Get Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment at Amazon 

Get Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society by John Law at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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