Behind the scenes at the J&J Show

Published by Jackie Barrie on

I’m a Fellow of PSA UK, and a regular at their weekly Coffee & Conversation sessions. It’s a chance to catch up with speaking colleagues in an informal and conversational setting.

A different person hosts the meeting each week. The usual format is to suggest a couple of discussion topics and invite people to raise their digital hand to speak, and then to set up breakout rooms for networking in small groups.

I’d already prepared my thoughts for a recent meeting I hosted. I’m a copywriter by profession, so I did a (mostly) word-related theme.

First, a show-and-tell called ‘Show us your mug’. We’ve been meeting and drinking coffee together since Lockdown 1.0, and no-one had yet chosen this as a topic. I thought it would be a nice visual way for people to share interesting stories.

Then, a session about names. I’m fascinated by names, and I thought it would be another topic that can reveal a lot about people in a getting-to-know-you sort of way.

Finally, my topic for the breakouts was for attendees to discuss which words they had learned recently, and the definitions.

And then I had an idea. An idea that changed everything. An idea that explains why the featured image for this article shows Elmo and the Cookie Monster.

You might be wondering what happened. The rest of this article explains how I did it, what went well, what went wrong, and what you can learn from my ideas and mistakes.

Inspiration struck

A few days before the event, I had a series of ideas.

  • “I know, I’ll add the title of each topic on a virtual background!”
  • “Ooh, I can record a jingle and play it when I reveal each title!”
  • “Hey, what if I run the whole shebang like a cross between The One Show and Sesame Street!”

I almost wish inspiration hadn’t struck, because it took me a ridiculous amount of time to plan, prepare and practice all this!

But we are all presenting via video conferencing these days, and our audiences (even subconsciously) benchmark our performance against TV shows. As well as adapting our presentation style to suit the small screen rather than the big stage, there are many things we can do to repackage the way we deliver our content online.

Here’s what I did, in the hope that it will inspire you when planning your next online event.

Opening sequence

One of the things you can do on Zoom is change your profile picture while a meeting is running.

So I decided to start the meeting with me spotlighted and my camera off showing a sequence of title images that I was manually changing while also playing YouTube copyright-free coffee-shop ‘musak’ from my phone into the mic.

Meanwhile, I was busily admitting people into the meeting from the waiting room. The speakers were shocked to find they’d been muted and denied permission to unmute! That was because I knew it would mess up the audio signal for the music.

They objected so much in the chat that I changed the setting later (it’s a tick box below the participant panel). Despite this, I found we still had to send unmute requests to attendees when it was their turn to speak. So I was glad I’d briefed my co-host, Jennie Eriksen, to set people up in advance by saying, for example: “Next it’s Fred, then Gladys”. This gave them time to prepare and ensured no unseemly silences.

I faded out the music, and spotlit Jennie, who introduced me in the style of a TV continuity announcer. (I’d sent her a script and AV instructions during our pre-meeting rehearsal.)

Reaction icons

During the previous week’s event, the group had mentioned the fact that J is the most common initial for first names. (I knew this from the days when my dad used Letraset to make a book of remembrance. The letter J was always the first to be used up. By the way, B was most common for second names, which makes me doubly ‘common’.)

Coincidentally, Jennie my co-host was another J-name. And I remembered that I’d been given a J-shaped book by my brother one birthday, so I had the perfect 3D prop sitting and waiting on the bookshelf.

Once I’d been introduced, and had replaced Jennie in the spotlight, our dialogue went something like this:

Jackie Hello everyone. Today, Coffee & Conversation is brought to you by the letter J Jackie shows prop
Jennie What do we want the lovely people to do every time they hear a word starting with the letter J?
Jackie We want them to press the “ta da” reaction icon that looks like a party hat
Jennie Yes, Jackie. How do they do that?
Jackie They’ll find it by clicking the smiley face at the top or bottom of their screen, won’t they Jennie
Jennie Yes, Jackie
Jackie That’s also where they’ll find the option to raise or lower their digital hand, isn’t it Jennie
Jennie Yes, Jackie

Reaction iconWe could see everyone laughing and pressing the reaction icon (for example, Jackie Handy, right). I tried to switch to gallery view and grab a screenshot of everyone, but I was enjoying myself and multi-tasking so much that I didn’t manage to capture it in time.

Comments I noticed in the chat included:

“I’m getting RSI from reacting to all the J-words”
“I hate emojis” (which was fine by me, as even a negative comment is from someone who’s listening and engaged with the content).

Another happy coincidence. I had noticed that the host for the following week’s Coffee & Conversation meeting was Rikki Arundel, who was talking about LGBTQ Week. It gave me the chance to end the meeting like this:

Jackie Today, Coffee & Conversation was brought to you by the letter J. Next week’s host is Rikki Arundel, with the letters L G B T and indeed Q

Thank you everyone for playing.

Spotlight Jackie

Like good copywriting, I love being able to top and tail a session by tying it up in a nice neat bow!

Anyway, back to the main part of the meeting…


Pre-lockdown, I was part of a musical improv troupe, so I knew I could make up songs on the spot. I had recorded three jingles where I sang the session titles direct into iMovie, then edited the audio tracks to layer the harmonies and saved them as MP3 files. I emailed them to myself and saved them in Files on my phone.

I’m sure there’s a better way to share music, but I chose to do it like this because I didn’t want to navigate away from the Zoom window on my iMac. I just had to remember to hold my phone near the mic so the audio would be clear for listeners as well as for me.

We didn’t enforce the J reactions throughout the whole meeting, but this created another chance for us to play the game. Here’s the script:

Jackie Our first segment of the day starts with a jingle, doesn’t it Jennie Spotlight Jackie and Jennie
Jennie Yes, Jackie, why don’t you play the jingle and the lovely people can all sing along on mute Mute all

Virtual backgrounds

This idea came from Dave Henson, the Slide Presentation Man, who uses a textured virtual background in a rotating series of colours.

To show what can be done, I created three virtual backgrounds of different types. One still image, one animated drawing, and one video. (Zoom auto-plays video backgrounds on a loop.)

Show us your mug: I found a free and copyright-free image on Pexels that showed a shelf unit full of mugs (right). I added the title text in PhotoShop, then uploaded and tested it in Zoom to ensure the text fitted on the screen above my head. (Note that any writing will appear reversed if you have selected ‘mirror my video’ – it’s a tickbox in the virtual backgrounds section of Zoom. This only applies to your own view, so, even if you’re mirrored, the writing will read OK to other people.)

What’s in a name: I opened the Notes app on my iPad, handwrote the title and drew a rose on each side of the frame, leaving a space in the middle where I knew I’d be sitting. (Why did I draw roses? Because my jingle included the line “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.)

It’s networking time: This was the title of the breakout session where I was asking people to talk about words. The iMac has a screensaver where animated words are defined and float across the screen. So I used QuickTime to record the entire screen, then imported it into iMovie and edited it to avoid duplicate words and ensure the loop would be seamless.

I uploaded all the backgrounds into Zoom. Note that, if you do this and subsequently move the original files into a new folder on your device, Zoom won’t be able to find them and you’ll have to delete the old versions and upload the new ones.

Mentimeter screen share

For the networking session in breakouts, you’ll remember that I asked attendees to discuss new words they’d learned and the definitions. It’s just a suggested topic. Obviously, they can talk about anything they like. They had 10 minutes so there was also time for them to have a chat (which is a key benefit of the meeting).

When the group was back in the main room, I used Mentimeter to collect all the words – you may know it as a useful tool for polling, quizzes and word clouds.

I shared my screen so everyone could see the list being built.

The screenshot shows the results. Do you know what all these words mean? I may be a professional wordsmith, but I admit I had to look some of them up.

I remember saying something like: “Janky needs a party hooter”, which prompted someone to type ‘Quote of the day’ in the chat box.


Note that Mentimeter has four price points: Free, Basic, Pro and Enterprise. I upgraded to the Pro version in order to add my own branding. However, I don’t recommend it. I found that you can’t do much to edit their standard templates, and the restricted list of fonts they offer are all as ugly as the default. I suggest you stick to Free or Basic, and save yourself some money.

Results and learnings

At this event, I was trying to showcase some of the engaging things you can do with Zoom, and to prompt people to think creatively about how they use it.

A few things didn’t quite go to plan.

In my carefully planned intro section, I found you can’t be spotlit when your camera is off. D’oh.

Next, I realised I’d turned down the volume on my phone to fade out the title sequence musak, and forgot to turn it back up for the ‘Mug’ jingle. That meant it started late. And then I forgot the music was on a loop and omitted to stop it, so it played the beginning of the jingle at the end.

I was in quite a kerfuffle! But I don’t think it mattered, because I was playing the role of a children’s TV presenter or playschool teacher, so I hope the audience assumed the script was supposed to be stilted and that things were going wrong deliberately.

Another unplanned moment was when I opened the breakout rooms. I had assigned Jennie to a ‘green room’ and hoped Zoom would automatically move everyone else. It didn’t. So I had to close the green room (which took 30 seconds), then recreate all the rooms, then move Jennie to the right room and anyone else out of it, then open them all up again. I was kicking myself, because I know how to do this perfectly well, yet I messed it up on the day.

Afterwards, people said they enjoyed the J&J Show, loved the jingles, said it had inspired them to think differently about their own meetings, and asked me how it was done (see below). It certainly seemed to keep their attention and made my meeting stand out. And that’s surely what you want your events to do.

You may know that one of the things I do is co-host Murder Mysteries, where I handle spotlighting and breakouts. I don’t have to do much talking at those events. At this event, I was trying to be a host, talk, and handle the tech, all at the same time, and I realised that I just don’t have enough hands or brain-space to do it all. Another time, I would appoint a second co-host to make it all run smoothly.

Anyway, it was great to try out these ideas in a safe and supportive environment, and I’ll be prepared if I ever do something similar for paying clients.

Can you use any of these ideas to enliven your own online meetings?

And finally…

I’m a member of the Remote Speaking Practice Group on Facebook, and am running a session for them on Friday 12 February at 4pm (UK time) where I’ll tell this story and share how I did it, as well as some other ideas about using Zoom features to make your meetings come to life.

It’s not a workshop. But it will act as a tiny taster of my new ebook/course on online engagement, coming soon.

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