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Technology can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

Simon Clayton, Chief Ideas Officer, RefTech, illustrates his point
More than 500 million hours of videos are watched on YouTube each day but only a fraction of these attract the millions of users that are needed for something to be classed as ‘going viral’.


The other day I watched a video showing a guy taking his first trip on a hang glider in the Swiss Alps, but with a twist. He wasn’t actually clipped on to the hang glider and so, when it took off, he was left clinging on for dear life as it soared over the landscape. His instructor quickly realised what had happened and helped him to hold on and, of course, tried to land it as quickly as possible. Fortunately, it ended well, with him suffering just a fractured wrist. However, for the whole three minutes you are on the edge of your seat egging him on and praying that he doesn’t fall.

At the time of writing, the video has only been online for two days, but it has already amassed over 6.6m views. It has led me to think about what we can learn from this and how we should apply it to our events.

There’s pretty much no rhyme nor reason behind why a video goes viral; if it was an exact science then the advertising agencies would be laughing all the way to the bank. Even some of the big budget Hollywood films don’t get it right. On paper they seem to have all the right ingredients - a stellar cast, stunning locations and squillions spent on special effects - but then completely flop on their opening weekend.

What set this video apart was that it showed a genuine story, one that was compelling and gripped the audience until the end. I defy anyone to watch it and not see it to the end to find out how he landed and whether he was OK. A conference session should be as compelling as this. It should always be based around a great story; a narrative that is interesting, captivating and relevant to the audience.

The video that I watched was filmed on a simple action camera, with little or no production values with a simple set of text added to it by way of an introduction and to conclude the adventure. It didn’t need to be filmed on an expensive camera, with a flashy backdrop or in an expensive studio. The story was amazing and that’s all it needed to catapult it into the viral stratosphere.

I’ve seen the simplest of TED Talks completely enthrall an audience with the power of a story - without a slick PowerPoint presentation shown on a top-of-the range 4K projector and with very little support from the AV crew. But I’ve also had to endure the very dullest and mind-numbing of presentations that have been ‘jazzed up’ by throwing every conceivable type of whizzy technology at it.

Great content will result in a great conference session, but if you don’t have great content then no amount of slick production and expensive technology will ever turn a lacklustre story into something more compelling. You simply can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear – even if you cover it in glitter…

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