Event Planning Lessons from the 2020 Un-Conventions

Event Planning Lessons from the 2020 Un-Conventions

This year has proved to be a challenge for event planners on every level, including those in charge of the Presidential Conventions.

Now I don’t know about you, but actually I found this year’s version was more intriguing than previous ones. Perhaps it was because I’m studying all kinds of virtual events anyway, but I think it was more because they were forced to innovate and re-imagine the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality that can be so ingrained in any organization.

So regardless of your personal politics, I invite you to set those aside while we simply focus on the strategies behind each of the conventions, and the experiences they created.

Event Structure

Each convention took a different approach. The DNC went almost entirely virtual, while the RNC chose to use a semi-hybrid model. But both incorporated a mix of live and pre-recorded clips.

The DNC featured a moderator each day to tie all the elements together and blend it into a cohesive story or theme. Although one caution when using celebrities, especially comedians: sometimes humor doesn’t work as well when there’s no live audience.

While the RNC chose to have most speakers present from the same venue (an empty Mellon Auditorium), the DNC speakers used a variety of locations to their advantage. The mayor of Atlanta spoke from the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, while a historian delivered his message with vintage posters on the wall behind him.


Both conventions included dozens of speakers, both live and pre-recorded. There was also a mix of professional politicians and average Americans.

And you know what? Some of the most powerful and memorable presentations came from the person next door – like the woman from Arizona who shared about losing her dad to the virus, or the 13-year-old New Hampshire boy who shared his heartfelt story in spite of his stuttering, or a woman who was pardoned after spending 21 years in prison.

On the other hand, just because someone is an old pro in front of a microphone doesn’t mean they’re so good at presenting when there’s no in-person audience to feed their energy. It can be a challenge for one who’s used to doing keynotes in front of a live audience – they may often pause waiting for a response. They may also come across as insincere or unprepared if they’re simply reading from a teleprompter.

Overall, most speeches were short (and those who ran long weren’t necessarily better), and some were even combined to save time. For example, instead of having all the Democratic primary candidates speak, they were combined into a panel, reflecting on their experiences with Vice President Joe Biden over the season.

Whether dealing with a pro or not, speaker prep is no less important. While we don’t know exactly what kind of coaching the speakers received, we do know that remote speakers for the DNC received DIY kits that included a camera, microphone, ring-light, and a WiFi boosting device. This helped conquer any tech challenges they might have had.

When it came time for the roll call of states, the DNC did it on location. Each state showed off a bit of personality with a video postcard from a memorable spot, like the bridge in Alabama where protesters marched in 1965, or in front of Biden’s childhood home in Scranton, Pennsylvania. (It’s also worth noting that this part was accomplished much quicker than in years past since there wasn’t any screaming or crazy costumed antics included.)

Audience Interaction

The DNC managed to showcase audience reactions by having living room feeds from people all over the country. (I wonder how those participants were chosen?) These feeds were then periodically mixed in with the main broadcast, as well as shown in the now-famous grid format on screen after the candidates finished their acceptance speeches in a nearly-empty auditorium (only a few press were in the audience).

Hybrid Elements

For Vice President Pence’s speech on heroes, he stood in front of the backdrop of Fort McHenry, where the Star Spangled Banner was written. During his talk, he pointed out specific live audience members, including military and medical heroes.

And even though the DNC went almost completely virtual, they did add a socially-distanced drive-in tailgate experience for the closing fireworks display.


So even though neither convention looked much like those in previous years, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Now instead of watching thousands of people gathered in an arena, we (the remote audience) were provided with a more personal, accessible experience. We got to see many of the speakers in their natural environments, and discovered they may not be so different from us after all.

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