An expert in North Korea agreed to an on-camera interview with the BBC in March but a few seconds in, everything went pear-shaped.
First the man’s young daughter walked in and he gently tried to coax her out during the interview. Then his eight-month-old son strolled in on a squeaky walker. Finally, the man’s wife frantically tried to herd both children out of the room.
The clip went viral, to the point where Robert E. Kelly, the so-called “BBC Dad,” felt compelled to give a press conference explaining himself.
Most glitches during a live stream don’t rise to that level of comedic gold, with a lot of them related to delivery issues that could be corrected for through scaling as mentioned in this Scaling Video Delivery to Reach Massive Audiences white paper. Very often, though, unexpected problems during live streams leave the impression that the presentation is unprofessional. But presenters can salvage such moments by taking some cues from the world of improv comedy.
When things go wrong
Running a high volume of live streamed events means there’s a high probability that something won’t go as planned. Jeff Irwin, customer success manager at IBM, recalls working with a client who was using a new mic system in a cafeteria.
“They had hung microphones all over the ceiling at various points,” Irwin says. “The idea, I guess, being that during Q&A segments you could have audience feedback without needing to hand out mics.”
The event was Bring Your Child to Work Day.
“In the middle of one of the presentations, a kid in the back of the room began an epic meltdown,” Irwin says. “Since we had the new ceiling mics—and I didn’t have control over them—the shrieking was all caught in the stream.” Luckily, Irwin was able to pull the ceiling mic feed and rely on lapel mics, but not before 30 seconds of tantruming filled the feed.
Whether the glitch is tech-related from a person, or an external source, acting fast like Irwin did is key, and requires thinking on your feet. To do that means being prepared—but also flexible.
Recovering from technical glitches
Bob Kulhan is the founder and CEO of Business Improv, a firm that helps executives adapt improv comedy principles to their presentations and events. He says the first step to tackling live stream surprises is to know your material inside and out.
“The best improvisors practice incessantly,” Kulhan said. (Tim Ferriss, the self-help guru, takes the idea further. In a recent podcast, Ferriss said he practiced giving his TED talk on four hours of sleep, just in case he had a bad night of sleep before his presentation.)
Kulhan’s also encourages developing contingency plans in case something goes wrong. For example, if the A/V cuts out, the show must go on. If the plan was to run an eight-minute video, Kulhan says, have eight minutes of material ready in case it doesn’t work—say, a short synopsis of the video and a Q&A.
Finally, avoid dwelling on the glitch. It’s OK to apologize, but quickly move on. “By acknowledging it, you can frame it in the positive,” Kulhan says.
Taking the “human element” in stride
People make mistakes and, while it’s totally normal, this compounds the unpredictability of a live stream. Interviewees run out of questions, lose their train of thought or respond with monosyllabic answers. It’s a nightmare to be halfway through the prepared questions with 40 minutes left.
Kulhan calls these types of panelists “hard nuts to crack.” The answer, he says, is to mix in how or why questions that invite more expansive answers—and to even answer your own questions.
Another challenge is that, despite their best efforts, people get nervous on-camera. Kulhan recommends individuals take a deep breath and relax; take a moment to regroup rather than letting a moment spiral out of hand. And because they’re more accustomed to live content, modern audiences are generally empathetic and forgiving:
“If you go back 20 years or so, people wanted perfection in a presentation,” he said. “But now most people don’t care if the presentation is perfect as long as the message is easy to understand and transferable and memorable,” he said.
This expectation offers what Kulhan calls a “buffer zone for error.” The audience will forgive a lot, he said, because they know that everyone makes mistakes. Even better, audiences love redemption and are rooting for you to regain control. If properly prepared and armed with the right attitude, pretty much any situation should be salvageable.
“If mistakes happen, great,” Kulhan says. “Embrace them.”
There’s an unpredictable element to live streams that can’t be avoided—and streaming history has plenty of examples. For producers of live video, that means making a habit of expecting the unexpected and preparing accordingly. For the moments that not even the experts can predict, remember to take the moment in stride, acknowledge it, but move forward. Audiences are likely rooting for you to make the comeback.
Looking for some more tips to help your live video productions succeed? Check out these 5 Pro Tips for Live Video Production.