How to make the most of a virtual conference

Eva Lantsoght
1 Apr ’21

As we are heading into the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we may be hoping that we soon will be able to attend conferences again. But the reality right now is that conferences are still virtual.

Virtual conferences allow more people to participate. Many virtual conferences have a very low fee for students, so that now more (PhD) students can participate in conferences – especially now that the cost of travel is not part of the cost of going to a conference. For those of us with care responsibilities, it’s much easier to combine attending a conference with our care duties when we can attend the conference from the comfort of our own home. We don’t have to worry about the carbon footprint of our conference attendance anymore.

At the same time, not being physically together takes away some of the former network opportunities. We miss the time spent going for lunch with old friends, the coffees with former colleagues, and the chance encounters in the space of the conference. Some with care responsibilities have lamented not having the opportunity to have this “me-time in a hotel” anymore, where we can just focus on our professional identity and get a good night’s sleep.

I’m quite certain that even in the years to come, many conferences will offer hybrid models, and that some form of virtual conference attending will stay with us. This post brings together my best tips for attending a virtual conference during the COVID-19 pandemic, and for getting the most out of your virtual attendance to a hybrid conference in the future (shoes optional).

1. Understand the program

How is the virtual conference taking place? Will you get a chance to watch prerecorded presentations at your own time, or study the poster at your own convenience, and then have a time to chat or voice discuss with the presenters? Will all sessions be live? Understand the format of the conference, as it is adapted to the virtual mode. We are seeing now that conferences are either distributed over more days to accommodate more time zones and to separate committee meetings from presentation sessions, or that they have both synchronous and asynchronous activities.

2. Give yourself time to attend

Once you know the layout of the schedule, make sure you put the meetings and sessions you want to attend on your calendar, and set aside time to read the papers, review the posters, or participate in other asynchronous activities. You may be tempted to think that, since you are not traveling, you can just squeeze it in when it seems fit. Don’t fall for this trip – set aside the proper time to really participate and get the most out of your conference attendance.

3. Raise your hand virtually

If you want to actively participate, make sure you know how to interact. Can you raise your hand to ask permission to speak in a discussion? Should you use the chat or Q&A option to send a question? You may feel more or less of a barrier to interact in a virtual environment than in an in-person meeting, but try to pass this barrier. Being more actively involved has the advantage that you get noticed, that you get to engage at a deeper level with the contents – and for speakers and moderators it is also great to get an interactive discussion going.

4. Attend the networking events

Don’t ignore the networking events simply because they are virtual now. As we have learned what works well and what doesn’t in virtual networking over the past year, many conferences now have very valuable networking events going on. You can join focused break-out rooms for discussions, or join in fun and innovative ways (such as a virtual escape room) to meet new people in your field.

5. Follow up with an email

If a presentation was particularly interesting, don’t shy away from following up with an email. In an in-person event, you might want to linger in the room to have a quick discussion with a presenter. The equivalent for a virtual conference would be to send an email to let the presenter know that you are interested in their work. You can ask them to share their presentation with you, to share a recent article with you, you can ask a follow-up question, or you can send some of your work over if it’s relevant.

6. Attend the preparation session

When a conference offers a training session for you as a presenter, it’s a good idea to attend. It will help you understand the software you’ll use to present your presentation. Even if you think that, by now, you know very well how to use the software, it is polite to attend. In addition, it will give you the opportunity to get to know the organizers and other presenters better, so you can consider this an additional networking opportunity.

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