Toni Buchanan

10 Tips for Organizing Virtual Surprise Celebrations

Yes, we can still celebrate during this pandemic. It just looks a little different these days.

Just because we’ve moved to nearly a virtual world during this time of social isolation, we’re still human and we still need to highlight personal milestones or business achievements. They’re part of what makes it easier to thrive even though we can’t get together in person.

I would be remiss to ignore the fact that nothing can replace the connection and feelings that come from a typical in-person celebration. We’re missing, maybe even grieving, the traditional events that we possibly took for granted in the past. But to write off celebrations altogether would be a huge mistake.

In today’s day and age, we may be fortunate enough to have technology at our fingertips. True, videoconferencing can be a blessing and a curse. But the ability to see a familiar face, hear a familiar voice and share some time together should not be dismissed just because it has to happen in a different format.

I’m mostly an extrovert. I thrive on human energy and connection which makes up a big part of my job as director of National Life’s K-12 recognition and awards program, LifeChanger of the Year. In a typical year, I along with many of my do-gooder colleagues, spend these months surprising school employees in front of their entire school communities. We celebrate the good they do in their districts, their accomplishments, the lives they have changed. And then we award cash prizes to these LifeChangers and their schools. It’s pretty amazing, if I am being candid. And everything that goes into these events is just as sweet. The energy from the crowd, the surprise reaction, the opportunity to get a glimpse into the lives of a special community – all of it plays into the celebration.

When COVID-19 threw a wrench (or what feels more like a jack hammer) into our plans, into our tradition, we were shaken. We wondered how we would be able to capture all of the magic that happens in a traditional LifeChanger event. We were forced to step outside of our comfort zone to find new ways to provide this vital recognition and celebration. Can’t we all agree the world needs more positivity now? So we couldn’t stall.

We decided to find ways to pull these events off virtually. We’re already doing meetings via platforms like Skype and Zoom, why not try a celebration?

And the result? Well, it’s not apples to apples but it has worked very well. And there have been some unexpected bonuses. So, here’s what I have learned and what I recommend for those of you contemplating how to pull off a virtual celebration.

  1. Size matters. As with any party or event, the invitation list is important. It’s especially important for a virtual event. Though you do have the ability to make these events large, that’s really only recommended if your celebration is more of a spectator event. If you have plans for individuals to engage with one another then that group of individuals needs to be kept to a minimum. In a traditional pop-up we would often do it in front of the entire school. Though there was a ton of energy they often were not very intimate. Our new virtual events are smaller, with close colleagues, administrators, friends and family. They feel more intimate and there’s something so gratifying to be a part of that moment.
  2. Speaking of the invitation list, who is on it? As with any event, think about who is important to the individual you are celebrating. For our traditional pop-ups, we would always try and include close colleagues, friends and family to the LifeChanger and our virtual events are no different. But we were limited to who lived locally. Now, we can include family members even if they are out of state.
  3. Your internet needs to be reliable if you are the host. Not much explanation needed here.
  4. Preparation is just as important with a virtual event. No, you won’t be serving fancy finger sandwiches this time but you should spend time thinking through the flow of the event and connecting with key contributors ahead of time. For our LifeChanger events, we try and collaborate with the principal, nominator and a few other individuals ahead of time so we can make sure our speakers are ready. Having multiple people share celebratory stories and shout outs makes the event more dynamic and meaningful. We also are vigilant when it comes to making sure our participants have the right meeting link. If you’re inviting participants across different areas of the country then you’ll need to make sure they are aware of the correct time in their zone. We send out invites to help with this.
  5. Event length. Attention spans tend to be shorter for virtual events so make sure you are concise and the event flows. Awkward transitions happen no matter what but the more you prepare and work on your flow with your key participants the less likely they will overwhelm your event.
  6. Surprise! Our events are all surprises to our winners. This makes for a beautiful reaction, but it can also put the LifeChanger winner on the spot. In an effort to alleviate some of that strained awkwardness that comes from being surprised in front of an audience we prepare some casual interview-style questions for the winner. This allows us not only to get to know our winner more deeply but also cut through the silence after the surprise announcement.
  7. Really surprise! We work with leaders in our winners’ schools to schedule what appears to be a typical meeting. We use the “host” function on an app like Zoom so we can get everyone into the meeting before the winner. And when we’re ready, we admit the winner who has truly been surprised every time we’ve done this.
  8. Mute is your friend. Before the event starts you can mute everyone to avoid background noise. The chat function can allow those who are not speaking to still congratulate the winner and personalize the event. We also love when our non-speakers hold up signs with special messages.
  9. Did I mention personalize? At some events, participants not only speak but prepare homemade signs of congratulation. Often, they bring their kids along. Their pets, too. It makes it so much more personal.
  10. Record and share. I mentioned above that our traditional LifeChanger pop-ups often were held at entire school functions. This is no longer possible, but we are still able to share with the entire staff, student body and greater community because we record the events. It’s a nice way to keep the celebration going!

These events have worked out really well. But I’m still holding my breath for those in-person events. I know they will return some day and when they do I’ll be over the moon to pick up where we left off. In the meantime, acknowledging the digital resources we may have access to and learning how to best leverage them has been a saving grace for us during these virtual times.