23 September 2021 – As a senior programme officer of the EMBO Young Investigator Network, a part of my job is to organize events for its members. After more than a year of organizing all interviews, conferences, courses, and networking events in a virtual format, and going from building a conference website from scratch to using an all-inclusive virtual platform, I feel I have a lot of experiences to share. So I decided to contribute to the EMBO blog and write about all topics around virtual conferencing. This is a personal view of what worked best for me, what did not work at all, and what I think I can do better.
In early 2020 conference organizers were faced with a choice: either cancel an already planned conference or move it, sometimes very quickly, to a virtual format. Some took a leap of faith and went with virtual concepts. As speakers had already been confirmed and agendas announced, compressing or altering the schedule was often not an option. Thus, many of the first virtual conferences ended up being 1:1 remakes of in-person conferences. Today, we know that replicating tightly packed agendas of in-person conferences in the virtual world is a recipe for disaster. There is now an enormous amount of data about the reality of screen fatigue, so as a conference organizer you should consider several things before setting up the agenda to mitigate it.
Reduce the total number of hours per day…
…even if it means having fewer speakers. Alternatively, consider extending the conference for one (or more!) day(s). You can also introduce several topic-specific parallel sessions to accommodate more speakers. Plan for your conference to take place between 10:00 and 16:00 in the time zone of most participants, as many have caring responsibilities.
Decrease the talk length
Shorten the length of talks to a maximum of 15 minutes. I find this to be a sweet spot for most talks, and other organizers agreed. For the keynote lecture, you can be more generous and allow 30 minutes. You can cut down flash talks or poster talks to two minutes.
Break, break, break
Include more breaks than you would have for an in-person conference. You can follow an hour of scientific talks with a meet-the-speaker session of 20 minutes, but it is a good idea to plan a breather between an hour of scientific talks and a podium discussion of another 1.5 hours. Also, do not underestimate the importance of a sufficient lunch break. At first, I was very wary of including a long lunch break and worried I would lose the audience to their everyday chores. But feedback and practice have shown that participants do prefer longer lunch breaks, as they allow them to prepare a proper meal, eat without haste, maybe go for a brief walk, and tend to other home or office business.
Spread networking activities throughout the day
Do not shift all your networking activities into the ‘evening’ hours of your local time zone. A standard practice of in-person conferences – work first, drinks and leisure after – does not work well in the virtual environment. Depending on the time zones of your participants, your local ‘evening’ time may be an ungodly hour for some of them. Even if they are in the same time zone, there may be responsibilities to attend to. Yes, speed networking at noon without a glass of Chardonnay is not as stimulating as in the evening, but at least there is a chance enough participants will join.
Consider adding built-in calendar invites to the email when sending conference invitations. In this way the invite is just one click away from being added to the participants’ or speakers’ calendars.
Send reminders about your conference one week, one day, and one hour before it starts (a piece of knowledge from a virtual conference about virtual conferencing). Reminders ensure the event link stays at the top of your participants’ busy mailbox.
Fight for the participants’ attention
How can you outcompete chores the participants are facing when they join the sessions from their home or office? The simple answer is: you can’t. It is a daunting, ugly truth and one of the major drawbacks of virtual conferences. There are still some things you could try to keep the audience engaged:
- Content: Serve your content in small digestible chunks and have it ready for on-demand watching (pre-recorded videos or recordings of live sessions).
- Format: Plan two to five minutes of the Q&A directly after each talk (about ten minutes for the keynote lecture) to give voice to the audience. Bring your participants live ‘on stage’, if your platform set-up allows. Add interactive polls when moderating a panel discussion and ask participants to type their ideas and suggestions in the chat or a Q&A box.
- Mobile access: Make sure that participants can join sessions from a mobile device and make them aware of this option.
- Child-care grants: Make child-care grants available even for virtual conferences, if your budget allows.
So, these are my tips and tricks. How do you ensure your audience stays tuned? What are your top things to consider before planning the conference agenda? Feel free to comment or add your suggestions.