Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Over the past year, we’ve seen an emergence of virtual events. Personally, I think it’s great. Virtual programs have some definite advantages and organizations are really stepping up their game when it comes to the virtual conference experience.
What made me think about attending virtual conferences was an online conversation I saw recently where people were saying that they “couldn’t get into” the virtual aspect. I can appreciate that virtual events aren’t exactly the same as in-person but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.
I’ve attended a couple of virtual conferences recently and decided to document my approach. This was a good exercise for me and my professional development. I hope you find my takeaways valuable as well.
Virtual conferences are not long webinars. I think one of the reasons that I like virtual conferences is because I don’t view them as simply a long webinar. Not that there’s anything wrong with webinars, but they’re not the same. Virtual conferences are conferences, which means I plan for them like I do when I attend an in-person event. It can be tempting to simply jump online and listen to a session, but I found that I got so much more from the event when I treat it like a conference.
Identify what you enjoy about conferences – both professionally and personally. On the professional side, we attend conferences for the education and the networking. We want to check out the expo hall and the bookstore. On the personal side, I like going to conferences to try out new productivity apps, learn about new cities, find a great cheeseburger, and take photos. When I’m at a virtual conference, it’s not a huge challenge to focus on the education. But I do have to work a little harder to network and visit the online expo. And while I don’t get to visit a new city, I do try to find a new cheeseburger (locally, of course).
Plan your schedule. When I’m at an in-person conference, it’s easier to disconnect from the everyday work. At a virtual conference, work can be staring at you all the time. I’ve found that scheduling sessions in blocks allows me to enjoy the event and keep my inbox manageable. One of the advantages with virtual events is that if there are two great sessions scheduled for the same time, I don’t have to pick one. I can view one in real-time and the other as a recording.
Don’t multi-task! This part is so hard!! When I’m attending a virtual event, my goal is not to multi-task. The speaker has my attention. I have found this is a big contributor to my enjoyment of the program. If I start multi-tasking, I don’t get as much from the session. So, I close all my tabs and focus on the program. Oh sure, I might tweet something, but I would do that at an in-person event.
Take notes. One of the things I love about attending in-person conferences is getting a notebook. I like paper and I like taking handwritten notes. I find it helps with comprehension. Even during a virtual conference, I find a notebook – declare it my conference notebook – and take notes. It’s terrific for a multi-day event. I can pick it up and put it down as necessary. And it doesn’t junk up my desk.
Participate in the chat. If you’re missing human interaction, then you can get it via the chat (or backchannel). One of the things that I love about the chat is that it’s going on throughout the entire session. So, if a speaker mentions a book and you didn’t catch the title, you can ask in the chat. Can’t find the slides? You can ask in the chat. Participants are swapping LinkedIn profiles in the chat. The chat is very robust. You can participate as much or as little as you want.
Have a Plan B. Okay, I hate to end on a down note, but virtual conferences involve technology. Sometimes even the best technology goes kablooey. If that happens, just plan to watch the rest of the session later. And since you blocked the time off on your calendar, have a Plan B of something you’d like to do. Just like at an in-person conference. Leave a session early? Hmm…what can I do with an extra 20 minutes?
Again, I’m not trying to say that virtual conferences are exactly the same as in-person ones. But that doesn’t mean virtual events are bad. In fact, creating a virtual conference plan can be great for your professional development. It can encourage us to learn in new ways.
I can see individuals opting to attend more events virtually for a variety of reasons. The good news is that conference organizers are working hard to offer a high-quality virtual experience. But it does mean that we must come with different expectations and a game plan that allows us to enjoy the event.17