A year ago, it was commonplace and maybe even charming to show up to a virtual event or meeting in sweatpants with your kids in tow. But as virtual and hybrid events become more advanced, questions of attendee etiquette deserve another look. BizBash has previously brought you best practices for virtual event speakers; here, event professionals around the country discuss the new etiquette rules for online attendees. (Quick tip: The mute button is your friend!)
1. Review the agenda and materials in advance. “No one wants to feel like they asked a ‘dumb’ question. Everyone wants to look cool, sound informed and positively stand out,” says Zach Wales, marketing strategist for Asheville, N.C.-based event firm We & Goliath, who recently shared more tips on his company's blog. “Knowing the subject matter and people delivering it is half the battle. Best part is, most people don’t do this. You will be part of the informed minority.” He suggests taking time well in advance to note any speakers you want to see and any questions you want to ask, to ensure you get the most out of the gathering.
2. Be on time. “As with any event, you should be prepared and set up to attend at the time of the invitation,” says Joseph Marini, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based event planner, caterer, host and the owner of At Home With Joseph. “That means having your computer properly placed and background and lighting set, and you are seated, centered, calm and ready to participate.” And have contact information for the host handy should they be delayed due to technical difficulties, he suggests. “Send them a quick note letting them know of your impending late arrival.”
3. Wear simple, flattering clothing. “It is best for participants at virtual events to wear solid colors that best match their skin tone,” notes Jennifer D. Collins, president and CEO of JDC Eventsin Washington, D.C. “Wearing clothing with large patterns or shapes can often be distracting to the audience. … It is also a good practice to stay away from black. This color can be seemingly harsh on camera, and often make the individual appear two-dimensional.”
4. And dress as you would for an in-person event. “The type of virtual event should dictate what to wear,” adds Marini. “You would not wear a tuxedo or gown to a garden party—and the same applies for a virtual event. If you are attending a virtual wedding or funeral, dress appropriately. If it is a virtual business meeting, proper business attire should be considered.”
5. Make sure your family or roommates know you’re attending an event. “Let’s be real—we’ve all had family members accidentally walk by in the background while the camera’s on. At least I have!” says Lilian Shen, the Las Vegas-based director of marketing for CORT Events. “This may seem obvious, but remind those in your household about an upcoming event. Then remind them again.” As for pets, “Make sure your computer isn’t in a precarious position where a tail or pounce may knock things over,” she adds.
6. Test your tech beforehand. “By arriving early, you can troubleshoot any problems with the meeting tool like testing the video, audio and background,” notes Sohini Mitra, VP of experiential services for Impact XM in Philadelphia. “If you are presenting, you have time to check your presentation to make sure there aren’t any glitches and errors.”
7. Make sure your internet connection is strong. Think through any potential internet issues beforehand, suggests Wales. “How much physical obstruction is between you and the router? The walls, appliances and other dense objects between you and your router can interrupt your signal,” he says. If you have satellite internet service, which is likely to experience latency, consider switching to a hotspot connection before joining the event. And “if you haven’t already, make a hardwire, cable connection between your computer and modem,” he adds. “This optimizes the likelihood of having no interruptions.”
8. Be transparent about any possible distractions. “If something has become an unforeseen, potential distraction on your attendee screen, take a second to warn fellow attendees of this possibility at the outset of your talking segment,” says Wales, noting that this may include a rambunctious dog, a rainstorm, a toddler who is unexpectedly home or loud neighbors. “It’s easy to get swept up in the formalities of an event. But the other attendees, speakers and organizers are people, too. Chances are they’ll forgive and respect you for telling them upfront.”
9. Make sure to look at the camera. “I know it seems very unnatural, but when you’re having a conversation with people you look at them eye-to-eye,” notes Collins, saying that the same concept should apply to virtual events. “This is accomplished by looking straight into the camera as opposed to looking down at the screen. You can place your laptop or other device on books or elevate in another way to help you raise it to eye level.”
Wales adds that this rule is especially important for people with monitors connected to their computers. “The tendency is to look at the screen with the most appealing display, which is usually the monitor,” he says. “But to everyone else, this attendee seems to be staring into left field because the camera is on the computer, not the monitor.”
10. Consider your background. When it comes to backdrops, “less is more,” says Marini, who thinks that when possible, attendees shouldn’t be pictured in their bedrooms or near a television. “If you are unsure, a clean white background or one of neutral color such as gray or cream will be acceptable. Do not sit with your back to a window that can reflect too much light into the camera.”
Collins suggests sitting in front of a bookshelf, a closed door, a neutral wall or a lightly decorated room with furnishings. “Virtual backgrounds can be used as needed, but they are not always the best option as they often show people ‘floating’ and can obstruct their overall appearance,” she adds. “But if you do not want to show your environment, then choosing an option that shows a blurred background or has minimal features would be best.”
11. Be nice to the speakers and organizers. “The people who organize virtual events and manage the run-of-show usually remain faceless. In the heat of frustration over a glitchy feed, for example, an attendee might feel emboldened to ‘let the organizers have it’ with an angry, all-caps chat message,” says Wales. “The organizers are people, too. They also have relationships with the VIPs featured at the event. No need to dirty these waters with vitriol.”
Lee Dyson, the owner of Los Angeles-based event entertainment company Hey Mister DJ, agrees. “Don’t talk sh*t in the chat window! Always keep it positive,” he says. “I can’t believe how many times I’ve seen attendees make negative comments in the chat during a keynote speaker, presentation or especially if there is a glitch. Virtual is all still fairly new, so let’s give some grace, space and understanding when attending a virtual event. Even if your point is valid, it may backfire and present you to the other participants as petty and negative.”
12. Keep your camera on as much as possible. “Have you ever given a speech or presentation to an empty room? That’s what it can feel like if you move into gallery view and see a bunch of black (off) screens,” points out Dyson. “Give the event producer and guest speakers the courtesy of seeing your face and being engaged."
Collins adds that when someone has their camera off, the assumption is that they are multitasking—and therefore not devoting their full attention to the event. “If you are attending an event in-person, you would be dressed and ready to participate given you would be seeing and talking with people live. The same type of sentiment should be considered for virtual events,” she says. “[I understand] there is fatigue, but the point is to be engaged and to actively participate and be available to interact with others attending.” However, she adds, if an attendee has to step away to take a call or deal another distraction, turning off the camera would be appropriate.
13. But mute yourself if you’re not speaking. “This is one of the most noticeable areas of interference for virtual events,” says Collins. “Once you unmute to speak, and then finish, you should return to mute. There is often feedback, reverberations or echoes coming from unmuted participants, so it’s best to stay muted when not speaking.”
14. Be careful with food. “The only time you should eat on camera at a virtual event is if it is a food-related event,” notes Marini. “But rules of etiquette apply here just the same as if you were at an in-person event. Take small bites, do not chew with your mouth open, do not speak with your mouth full, politely cover your mouth while you chew if it is something that requires labored chewing or is something crunchy. Rinse your mouth with a liquid before speaking.”
15. React to the speakers to show them you're engaged. “For virtual events through commonly used platforms, get familiar with the available reaction buttons and use and abuse them!” suggests Shen. ”Presenters may not see your physical reaction, but they will see the reaction emojis pop up. And if your camera isn’t on, using these functions is a must.”
16. Protect your sensitive information. “If you are sharing your screen while presenting to the other attendees, make sure you are only showing the intended information,” says Mitra. “Close unnecessary tabs prior to launching a video conference. Choose to share only one screen, tab or app instead of sharing your entire desktop. This can save you from a potentially embarrassing situation.”
17. Don't forget to mind your manners. “When a speaker asks that you raise your hand, do so,” says Greg Jenkins, partner at Bravo Productions in Long Beach, Calif. “Be mindful not to speak over each other or cross talk. In addition, limit the amount of time to address your points. Others also would like to comment or speak.”
Jenkins also suggests virtual clapping or saying thank you when an online gathering comes to its conclusion. “That's the natural response at an in-person event, and virtual events share the same rules of etiquette,” he says, adding: “Avoid using slang, profanity or comments that others might find offensive just because you're in the comfort of one's own domain and not in a ballroom filled with other attendees. The virtual platform is the ballroom, and other attendees are present.”