For many years, I’ve focused on in-person Fail Festival sessions. Either as big events onto themselves, or as the keynote presentation in an annual conference or signature event.
I love the humanity of connecting presenters to their audience in real life with every participant feeling a keen sense of connection with the speakers and each other. The casual conversations after Fail Festivals often bring forth new and exciting connections, with people saying things like:
- “Oh my God! I am living your presentation right now – failing in a key project. How can I turn our program around?”
- “Wow, I think I’m about to start an activity that looks just like the one you spoke about. What can I do to change our trajectory?”
- “You were speaking the truth in your talk. I’ve done that exact failure at work, but I’ve been too embarrassed to talk about it for years now. Thank you for giving voice to my experience.”
Virtual Fail Festival Events
Recently, I was challenged by Philea, the Philanthropy Europe Association, to create a virtual Fail Festival for their team.
Philea is a pan-European platform for foundations, philanthropic organisations and networks to share best practices across the continent. The foundation is based in the Netherlands. Their team works across Europe. I am based in the USA. An online event was our only option.
This was not my first virtual Fail Festival. I’ve done online events for years now – starting well before the pandemic. However, I do want to share how the concept of learning from failure has universal application, regardless of location.
This event was a success even over video collaboration software.
4 Lessons Learned from Failing Online
Online events obviously have a different experience than in-person events. There are also many guides on how to do a successful virtual event. Therefore, I’m going to focus specially on the four lessons learned for Fail Festival events.
1. Create a Clear Agenda and Objectives
I always meet with the failure presenters multiple times before an event – its one of my key services – and this is even more important for online events where speakers often don’t directly communicate with each other just before speaking.
Participants also need to know the detailed agenda, the Fail Festival objectives, and how they are expected to act and interact during the session. Specifically to be attentive, stay focused on the speaker, and show both by keeping their camera on.
2. Promote Interaction and Engagement
When participants are looking at their screens for an online event, there is great temptation to multi-task if the presenter isn’t captivating – and sometimes, even when they are!
Three tricks I employ to keep participants engaged is to:
- Ask them to turn off notifications and email alerts, the worst offenders to deep concentration. Best if they can close all their applications expect Zoom, Teams, Meet, etc.
- Be sure that speakers build audience participation into their talk by doing pop quizzes, open questions, and good jokes. Nothing makes people tune in like hearing everyone laugh and not knowing why.
- Call on people to share their experiences that are similar to the presenter. This needs to be coordinated in advance – I don’t like putting people on the spot – but when done right, it makes all participants listen harder, thinking they might be called on too.
3. Ensure Diverse and Inclusive Leaders
I always design Fail Festivals to be organizationally diverse, bringing in staff from different levels and backgrounds so that each participant can see themselves in at least on presenter.
When going online, its even more important to ensure geographic diversity to show that each region is engaged, and not just headquarters.
This also means that not everyone may be comfortable in the same language, even if it is the official language of the organization. I take extra care working with non-native English speakers to ensure their terms and expressions will translate to native speakers as they intend.
4. Incorporate Social Time
One of the most effective team building tools during Fail Festivals is to simply allow the teams to spend time together. This is harder over online platforms, but still possible with good facilitation.
Especially when the CEO, Executive Director, or Board Chair has presented their failure first, creating psychological safety for everyone else to be honest about failure.
Once “the boss” shows that failure is indeed an option, then other staff feed embodied to share their own challenges and mistakes, helping the team improve their work as a whole.