Every once in a while I come across a good piece of academic research that has great potential for application in our industry. Drawing from Sam H. Ham’s TORE™ model, I walk you through a simple process for creating a theme for your virtual event, organizing the content, and making it relevant and enjoyable for your audience.
This methodology in this article comes from the work of Dr. Ham, a communications scholar and expert in environmental interpretation. When we use the word interpretation in this instance, we don’t mean interpreting between two languages but, rather, interpreting a sight or object for an audience who would not understand it just by casual observation. A skilled interpreter helps the audience to understand what they are seeing and, consequently, to better enjoy the experience and learn something.
Freeman Tilden, a founding thinker in the field of interpretation, defined interpretation as “an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather then simply to communicate factual information”(Interpreting Our Heritage, 1957).
Good interpreters are not just reciters of fact. They weave storytelling with facts to contextualize the sight and reveal meaning and relationship.
This matters a lot to virtual events.Too often nonprofit virtual events fail to engage and inspire audiences because they don’t follow the basic guidelines of successful interpretation.
• They dump too many facts onto the audience, overwhelming them with detail.
• They lack a clear theme or focus, instead meandering across a sea of topics and ideas.
• They fail to illustrate how the information shared in the virtual event is relevant to the audiences.
• They don’t have a clear call to action, leaving the audience confused and wondering what to do after the event.
Those of us running virtual events would do well to think of ourselves as interpreters rather than event planners, implementers, speakers, or facilitators. As interpreters planning for our next virtual event, one great resource we can use to define the content and outcomes of the event is Sam H. Ham’s TORE™ model.
TORE stands for:
Here is what is looks like when you apply the TORE™ model to your next virtual event.
All virtual events should have a theme. A theme is not a word or phrase, such as “renewable energy” or “racial equity and environmental justice.” Those are topics. A theme is a sentence with a verb. A theme has a point. A theme has a purpose.
A theme for an event around “racial equity and environmental justice” could look like one of these:
“Attention paid to race, gender, culture, and class is critical to ensuring that those who are hardest hit by pollution can access opportunities, participate in policy decisions, and benefit from investments.”—Deeohn Ferris, Nonprofit Quarterly
Now, a couple things a theme is not.
A theme is not your mission statement. A mission statement seldom has a point—it is a statement of what your organization does. The theme is not just a statement of doing, it provides some insight or reasoning for the doing.
Take for instance this mission:
“We empower local communities by providing access to clean, renewable energy.”
That’s a great mission, but it’s not a theme. A relevant theme for that mission might be:
“Renewable energy is not just ‘good for the environment’—it is a powerful catalyst for economic growth and social change.”
A theme is also not an ask. It does not include a request or suggestion for how the audience should behave. (That comes later.)
For your virtual event to be successful, it is very important that you start with a theme. One way of arriving at a theme is to answer the questions:
What do we wish people really understood about our work?
What would solve the problem we are trying to solve—besides more money?
Once you determine a theme, you must think about the content that needs to be conveyed to support the theme.
Unaware of how to make a compelling case for their theme, many folks rely on fact sharing to do the heavy lifting of inspiring people. It seldom works. Imagine the difference between telling a single powerful story that connects the past to the present and drily reading dates on a timeline: “In 1971 this happened; then in 1982 this happened…”
Friends, we are not making a legal case, and volumes of evidence are not necessary to get people to care about your theme.
To establish organization, you need to think of three sub-themes that support your main theme and provide the audience with a complete enough understanding of your point. The sub-themes can be facts, ideas, or stories, but there are only three of them. Much research has been conducted to investigate the recall (memory) people have after an event. Most people can only remember three things (some studies say as high as four, some as low as two).
By having a theme, you have already narrowed down the scope of what you want to address in the event. By selecting only three sub-themes that reinforce that theme, you are increasing your chances that audiences with remember and understand the event’s theme.
The content in the virtual event must be relevant to the audience. Why have they be invited to listen to this content? What motivated them to sign up and attend?
Keeping the answers to those questions in mind, connect your three sub-themes to their lives. It helps if you know some basic things about your attendees—and given that they are likely your donors, I’m assuming you do. Interpreting the three sub-themes involves us connecting them to the audience’s lives—what they already know, care about, and can do something about.
Here I challenge you to answer these questions about your sub-themes:
In a virtual event, this is where the call-to-action comes in. If this is a fundraising event, then the call to action is an appeal to support the organization financially.
But not every virtual event should be a fundraising event. We are wise provide engagement and educational opportunities for donors too. In those cases, the call to action may be to engage in a general behavior (e.g., start recycling, call your representative, reflect on your privilege) or to initiate a behavior specific to your organization (e.g., sign up for our newsletter, spread the word about our campaign, come to our next event).
The event should be enjoyable. This is subjective, and the exact tactics to reach “enjoyment” will be differ depending on audience, context, and organization. What I recommend is that you tailor and incorporate three elements in your event to turn up the joy:
• Make it multisensory: Think of ways to incorporate senses besides sight and sound. Some ideas can be found in Tip #5 of this article.
• Make it participatory: Get audience members to talk with each other to reinforce what they learned and share ideas for how they will apply what they learned in their own lives.
• Create opportunities for connection: Supporters don’t want to merely absorb content passively. Give yours a chance to virtually connect with board members, volunteers, staff, program participants (if safe and appropriate), and of course, other donors! Some ideas can be found in Tip #2 of this article.
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