This time last year, we were discussing the commencement of the conference season and ways to prepare. While some of that in-person meeting advice is still relevant, a few adjustments should be made to get the most out of conferences in this new virtual environment. It is important to remember that conferences, whether in-person or virtual, may still be the only time you have direct access to industry thought leaders, experts, and other professionals. For that reason, taking time to prepare for virtual conferences, just as you would an in-person meeting, helps to ensure you are able to get the most of what they offer.

laptop screen during a video conference

Love them or hate them, virtual conferences should be approached with the same viewpoint as in-person meetings. Having attended several virtual conferences this year, I will admit that they do require a bit more focus and preparation to be valuable. However, they can still be a place for important connections, crucial conversations, and information exchange. Additionally, virtual conferences are a way to offer conference attendance to more team members. With most virtual conferences being far less expensive than in-person meetings, more people, such as early-career professionals who might not have otherwise been able to attend an annual meeting, may now be able to attend. Having recently attended quite a few virtual conferences, I personally found that regardless of how the information is shared, you will get very little out of them without preparation.

Here is a list of tips I’ve found that have helped me prepare for a virtual conference:

Turn on an Out of Office Message

Never has an out of office message been more critical than while attending a virtual conference, especially when working from home. For many under these circumstances, it is already very difficult to maintain a consistent work schedule and a balanced workload. However, you really need to focus only on the conference and not divide your attention. When you are working primarily from your computer, there is a natural desire to check emails, edit a document, or quickly review the latest update on a project. Don’t attempt to jump back and forth between work and conference. Keep in mind that you would normally be physically present at a conference, likely sitting in front of a panel of speakers and not readily answering emails. Take that same ownership when attending virtual conferences. Boundaries are critical when working from home, so putting a quick out of office message up will allow you to fully focus on the conference at hand.

Review Conference Materials (including how-to access meeting rooms)

Reading the conference materials in advance is almost more important to do in the virtual space than at in-person meetings. The conference materials still help to shape your thoughts on potential solutions for issues in your office; and therefore, you still want to determine which sessions will be worth attending.  However, in the virtual space, an added advantage to reviewing the conference materials in advance is knowing how to navigate the virtual meeting navigating platforms. Make sure you know which link and what software will be needed to access the sessions. You don’t want to miss the keynote address simply because you didn’t realize that there was a separate link for each session, and you don’t want to show up late while you wait for a browser plug-in or program to download. Also, some conferences offer a separate attachment with meeting notes, which might add to the overall engagement of any session. Knowing where all of these things are before a virtual conference is critical in organizing your day. It is a lot to sit at your computer for 3+ hours listing to speakers, but if properly planned, you can make your day easier by efficiently navigating your virtual experience.

Take notes

I find taking notes is actually much easier to do during a virtual conference than an in-person meeting; and, in several ways, it’s more useful. Being on your computer and having access to the internet, really affords you the ability to beef up your notes. You can take screenshots of presentation slides, which adds a visual component to your notes making them easier to sift through later. You can also quickly look up organizations, processes, or data being referenced by the speaker. This is especially useful for early-career professionals that may be unfamiliar with certain industry terms or initiatives. Note-taking when you’re already online means you can now add links to certain materials, or, can just help to provide you with a more in-depth understanding of the topic in real time. I enjoy being able to open Word and jot down notes on specifics to follow-up on; or, starting a to-do list for when I return back to work later that week.

Network

Another task that I also found unexpectedly more useful to do in a virtual environment is networking! Believe it, or not, it is much easier to reach out to another participant or even experts in the virtual space because you don’t need to talk. For all the introverts who, like myself, find it difficult to spark a conversation with strangers, instead, you can send a simple message in a chat. You may even find it useful to take a look at the attendee list and then follow up with other professionals via LinkedIn or other social media outlets. This type of instant communication is a quick and easy way to grow your network. Additionally, you may want to try reaching out to an entire panel during one of the breaks. I found it useful when contacting panelists to immediately reach out to them after their discussion, complimenting them for their insight on whatever topic they presented on and asking them to join my network. Knowing exactly what stuck out to me most about their presentation made it easier to continue the conversation at a later time. Being able to reach out to experts directly and get feedback almost instantly makes the experience far more engaging.

Share Your Knowledge

Similar to note-taking during a virtual conference, sharing your feedback with your team is far more robust than it is after an in-person meeting. In addition to sharing your notes, which are now beefed up with additional content, you can also share the links to the presentations themselves. Most organizations request that you purchase access for multiple users for the actual conference attendance, but they do not always dictate how you share feedback afterward. As with in-person conferences, a great way to really get value from the meeting is to bring that feedback to your team. Having all the presentations and material readily available gives you an opportunity to teach and share what you learned more in-depth. Figuring out at least one thing to highlight for your co-workers makes for a fun project and could give way to an innovative idea.

Do you have any tips for attending virtual conferences that you’ve found useful? Please share them with us in the comments below.

Discussion

10 Thoughts on "[Virtual] Conference Season Is Here: Are you prepared?"

These are great tips — especially the stress on email auto-responses and other ways to keep yourself from being drawn away. Personally I’ve found that it’s very easy to lose focus in these online meetings and shift over to other work. I suspect that’s especially true since one is typically paying much less than for an in-person meeting (or, for some virtual meetings, not paying anything at all), so there’s no perceived cost in ducking away.

I wonder if one additional tip might be: Choose these virtual conferences carefully, and don’t try to attend too many? Lately I have been finding the continual march of Zoom meetings kind of exhausting (and I don’t seem to be alone in that assessment — see https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/p/a-theory-of-zoom-fatigue ). The virtual meetings *seem* effort free and many are free of pecuniary cost, so there’s the temptation to sign up for anything that seems remotely interesting. Maybe best to select them as carefully as you would a conference you actually had to pay to travel to.

Thank you! This is another great tip. I’ve also found myself drowning in the Zoom-sphere, so picking the right meetings should definitely be a part of the preparation process.

Excellent suggestions, Jasmine, thank you! And I take “Stewart’s” point as well, not to take on too many of them. Because they are virtual doesn’t mean that they are going to be “easier” than the in person variety. Zoom fatigue is definitely a “thing” that we should watch out for and try to prevent.

In addition to an out-of-office setting, I have to shut down the email client. And Slack. And Teams. Otherwise I get pulled away very easily.

Agreed! That little ping may as well be Big Ben! Like at an in-person meeting, I’ll glance through email at the end of the day but NOT stay up until midnight answering all those messages.

Thanks so much, Jasmine! Great post!

These are some great suggestions, and I would very much support the idea of ‘fully attending’ an online conference, and not getting sucked into having it as a ‘background’ to other activities. Block out the time in your schedule and disable potential distractions! BUT it is also the responsibility of the event organisers to make sure it is a compelling and engaging experience.
It is also true that there is a ‘you value what you pay for’ problem, but it is dangerous to assume that virtual events ‘should’ be cheaper (or free). Event organisers may save costs on the venue and catering, but there are increased costs for really effective online delivery. And hybrid events end up sharing venue costs amongst fewer delegates, while adding the extra communications costs on top. I think organisers should be aiming to provide as much value from an online event as a physical one, justifying a similar price (to cover the similar costs), while potentially saving the delegate significant travel and accommodation costs.
(Hubris-risk declaration of interest, here: I’m the chair of the Researcher to Reader Conference – and we are aiming for a high-value, same-price, compelling hybrid event in February!)

Totally loved your comment about it being easier to network online, Jasmine. I’m a conferenceworm (ok probably not a thing but you get the idea) and an extrovert, and I still find it hard sometime to not be intimidated by conference settings, especially when it’s clear you’re not welcome into conversations because you’re not part of the clique or you don’t look the part. The Internet is a more democratic place, where it matters less what you look like, where you come from or what your seniority level is. In-person events are better than online meetings in the sense that farmers’ markets are better than supermarkets – indisputably so, but also a privilege that excludes most people. If we’re serious about inclusivity and accessibility, online events have to become mainstream and we have to make them a a valuable and pleasant (gasp) experience (I particularly appreciate the attendee perspective of this article). The good news is, we’re all going to learn, attendees and organizers and tech firms alike. And we can still cherish every moment of those in-person events we can still go to.

Great post, thanks Jasmine. I’m part of a team trying to organise a virtual conference at the moment. It’s quite exciting to think of all the ways we can make a conference more inclusive – e.g. more affordable pricing, interaction / networking options that are less skewed to favour the more confident / extroverted – etc. But I am still anxious about whether we can make it work online. Your post reminds me that we don’t have to take 100% of the responsibility for that – delegates will also be able to take some responsibility themselves for how well it works for them. And you’ve given us a great primer to point people to. Thank you! (I too think the out-of-office point is really well made, and you give me confidence to proactively advise our delegates to approach the event as if they were with us in person. Give yourself a window of “travel time” to “get there” – as you say, checking all your software and links. And then be “fully present” and not half in your email. Etc. You wouldn’t think twice about it if you were in the whirlwind of a real-world event. So commit yourself just as wholly for the virtual conference, to make sure you get the best out of it! Telling myself this as much as anyone else!)

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