We Are Back, Baby!

Five things I learned at my first back-to-live event

Just home from Las Vegas and the production of a CEO keynote at his company’s high-tech conference. I know a lot of us are getting back to live or still looking forward to the opportunity. For me, I was surprised at the depth of the impressions that washed over me as I navigated my way to, in and around the event. Here are my top five:

The Obvious: So happy to be back

Everyone looked pleased if not thrilled to be back together, gathering with colleagues and friends new and old. The keynote audience seemed more engaged than I remember pre-2020. Very few devices were evident in hands and on laps. 99% of the group stayed until the very end, and the final applause seemed robust and genuine. I think folks were expressing their appreciation for the CEO as well as the refreshing experience of gathering again. Lastly, no one seemed in a hurry to hit the exits.

The Awkward: Hello, back off!

Pre-pandemic, the act of a physical greeting could be awkward. Are we going to hug? Maybe a high five, fist bump or a handshake, and if so, what kind of handshake will we settle on, and how much of dork will I appear when I miss the signals? In post-pandemic gatherings, it’s even more awkward. So I’ve learned it’s okay negotiate in advance: “Because I don’t wish to violate your personal space or commit a health code violation, how best can I show you my warmth and respect?” Seriously, that’s not too far off.

I was open to pretty much anything that came my way this week, though I did miss the signals on a weird wrap-around handshake accompanied by a half hug with the CEO in front of his C-suite posse. On the first day, one of my team made it clear she wasn’t up for any kind of touching. OK, fine. A bit later, our very spirted client (who I’d never met in person) burst into the room and instantly and effortlessly encircled me in her arms. I think I reciprocated naturally. And then, before I knew it, she was on to my touch-averse colleague. As the client pulled her into a full-on, all-body embrace, I could see my colleagues arms fall limp to her sides; she went full rag doll. Was that some sort of violation? Or just people being human?

The Visceral: Applause Matters

The sound (and physical sensation) of an in-person crowd applauding and laughing gave me goosebumps. It’d been so long and it felt so good.

The Reunion: You’ve changed

We’ve all been through a lot in the past two years. Some of us have suffered and grieved, while others have simply survived or even thrived. Think back to mid-2020 when our empathy spiked: “How are you holding up?” “I’m always here if you want to chat.” “You haven’t touched another human in six months? OMG!” Coming back together, I could sense some scarring in a few close associates — more guarded and serious in their demeanor. Aside from a few pandemic anecdotes over dinner, I didn’t witness a lot of sharing on a deeper level. Perhaps we’re tired of sharing our feelings or willing to give them up freely.

The Self-Revelatory: I’ve changed

I could not sit still. Production activities during the pandemic moved quickly, for the most part. We jumped from meeting to rehearsal to meeting to recording to review and meeting and wrap party with every snap snap snap of the fingers. Back on site, well, I came to recall the long, slow slogs of rehearsal: the waiting for presenters to show, the waiting for videos to rack, the waiting for stages to get reset, the waiting for new files to upload and download, the waiting for a fresh bin of chicken piccata, the waiting for the waiting for the next wait. Too many times over the days, I longed for a quick Teams or Zoom meeting to goose my blood flow and electrify some synapses.

Next Up

Off to Philly in July for what will be a much more guarded affair. No ballroom, no big audience, no grand agenda. One tight hour of content delivered virtually, live and recorded.

Two steps forward. One step back. (Wait, reverse that: One step forward, two steps back — back towards live, in-person events.)

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