My DJ booth at home doubles as my standing desk for work. The DJ controller I have supports MIDI so I hook it up during meetings to blend in music and sounds.
Our town hall meetings at work are nothing like they used to be. I’ve got fading memories of half the office being called in ten minutes before the session to move kitchen furniture into a theatre arrangement. It created a lot of bustle, drawing people away from what they were working on to come and chat with each other in the common area and pick a seat for the event.
The host used a microphone to gain attention and settled the crowd a bit. The atmosphere persisted with the crowd clapping to welcome each presenter, cheering to acknowledge successes, laughing at jokes and also the occasional gasping and heckling.
The session would end and we’d reflect, chatting some more whilst helping to make the space resemble a kitchen and common area again.
Then there was a pandemic and we all had to stay home. We didn’t have rearranging furniture banter any more, we clicked
Join Meeting on our laptops, staying mostly silent, mostly invisible with the default settings of microphone muted and camera off as 100+ people file in. For a moment, some of the extroverts will find something innocuous to talk about and the host might ask “how are we all?” to elicit a varied, garbled response from a few attendees.
Ultimately, the host would request everyone mute themselves. A deafening silence falls over the crowd for the meeting thereon.
We started to find ways of reintroducing interaction. Everyone was encouraged to switch their cameras on. At times, we were cued to unmute for applause or to ask questions. Presenters were embedding YouTube music video clips in Google Slides to theme their segments.
It wasn’t pretty. You couldn’t hear multiple people clapping at the same time, they just cut each other off. Each presenter had to ask the host for “next slide please”. When YouTube clips were played, they were immediately at full volume and attendees with headphones complained about their ears ringing. The limited interaction we’d achieved felt awkward and forced. It felt like these meetings needed more than just a host — we needed a producer.
I’m a bedroom DJ. I’ve occasionally done gigs at bars and parties but never played for money. Pre-pandemic, I had tried streaming some live sets from home to friends, then during lockdowns I toyed with that idea a bit more and established a reliable production workflow.
Live streaming a DJ set is essentially like hosting a meeting. You need good content (selecta!), you need it arranged well (rinse it!) and you need to present it with some flair (yo yo!). I typically set up scenes using devices like green screens, party lights and fog machines, run multiple camera angles, have virtual background and foreground animations and also overlay the stream text chat on the stream itself.
Even when doing all that, you still don’t assume the audience will turn up and get involved — you have to pick the right time and announce the schedule (promo!), tell people what they’re in for (hype!) and acknowledge the viewers during the show (shout out!).
The analog goes further for me because my “home office” is just a board that sits on top of my DJ gear. Not only does that make it easy to switch from work mode to DJ mode, it’s also convenient to integrate some of my live production tooling into my day job.
I wasn’t typically involved with town halls until this point but I wanted to offer a hand behind the scenes. I pitched some ideas with the hosts and they agreed to let me try a few things for the next session. The basic preparation was:
- Assign someone in the role of producer for the upcoming session
- Presenters submit theme music (YouTube links) to the producer
- Continue using the existing Google Slides workflow
During the session, the producer is responsible for:
- Sharing screen and sound (Zoom has this option)
- Providing presenters with a remote clicker to control slides
- Starting the session with some intro music, ending with an outro track
- Fading each presenter’s theme music in and out
- Sound effects for ceremonial segments like employee of the month (think drumroll, ta-da and applause)
So I’d rigged up my MIDI-compatible DJ controller to a soundboard app and threw in all the sounds and songs we’d need. I had hardware buttons and sliders mapped to play and fade sounds. I’m finally getting paid to DJ.
With these tweaks, our town hall’s online format became more than just a poor representation of the in-person precedent. We were confident that this effort would make the session seem more vibrant, but we wanted it to generate genuine engagement.
We needed to capitalise on the unique interaction devices that video conferences offered us, such as text chat. Without it being actively promoted, there was limited use of the chat feature to date.
One of our go-to office games over the years was skribbl.io. It’s online Pictionary. We set up an Icebreaker slide for the start of the session where I chose someone at random and secretly gave them a word to draw. They had to use the annotation tools in Zoom to draw on the screen for everyone to see, whilst everyone used the chat in Zoom to guess what the drawing was in real time.
Instead of these first few minutes of the session just being a mostly silent waiting game for everyone to rock up and for the host to start, we now had a game going on with people making jokes, dozens of attendees spamming the chat with their guesses and heckles, and a backing track playing to bridge the moment (I usually used theme tunes like Tetris or Mario for this).
The vibe persisted, with chat popping off for the whole event. The segment themes were talking points, no longer because they burst our eardrums but sometimes amusingly controversial due to polarising choices by the presenters. The outro track became a favourite part of the session for me as I reserved the right to select it and played it out as long as I could before obligations of the day would take over.
The new format was universally supported by staff and undeniably made a marked improvement on engagement in the session. It became the new standard and was all quite straightforward to pull off. Just quietly, whilst hardware controls are nice, it is entirely possible to produce smooth fades and queue various sounds without having to hook up professional DJ gear.
One key gap we hadn't yet closed though was the ability for audience members to interact audibly without cutting each other off. That spawned our next idea:Crowdsourcing a soundboard