By: Leah Hinds, Executive Director, Charleston Conference
Online conferences bring opportunities to attend events you may never have been able to before, to network with and learn from a more diverse range of people. But unlike in-person conferences, online events require a different kind of focus. Sitting and watching a screen is not as stimulating as being surrounded by hundreds of fellow attendees in hotel ballrooms or meeting facilities. Plus there is the feeling of overwhelm caused by wanting to get the most out of the sessions while still balancing life, work, home, etc.
While there isn’t a perfect or one-size-fits-all answer, you can make sure you’re ready to attend your next online conference with a few tips and tricks to increase your focus and make the most of your time.
Set an Out of Office Message and Block Off Your Calendar: As much as possible, give yourself the gift of uninterrupted time to participate fully in the conference sessions and online discussions. I’m sure by now you’ve attended at least one virtual event that you weren’t able to fully engage with due to interruptions or schedule conflicts. Or signed up for a free event and just forgot to attend because life got in the way. Boundaries are important! Just as you would if you were traveling to a destination other than your desk, set up email auto-responses and block your calendar to allow time to focus on the conference you’re attending. This is especially vital for conferences or events covering multiple days. Batch email responses during times between conference sessions, or before/after the session times, and turn off Slack or other notification distractions.
If you work in an office, place a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door. If you work from home, keep your family or roommates in the loop on your schedule for the week, if applicable. I know this gets tricky for parents working from home, especially with small children, but whatever schedule you’re using to allow work from home to happen can apply for virtual events as well. (Let me just pause here and give a standing ovation for all of you superhumans working from home with little ones! Mine are both teens and that’s hard enough.)
Prepare Ahead of Time: Familiarize yourself with the online event platform, making sure you know how to log in, navigate the agenda, and view sessions. Are the times listed in your local time zone, or do you need to calculate the difference for your area? Is there a virtual help desk or email address for questions? What are the system requirements for the virtual event platform? Do you have the latest version of the video conferencing software (Zoom, etc.) downloaded, if applicable? Will there be an opportunity for you to turn on your video and/or audio to participate in a session? Being on Zoom in your PJ’s is the norm in some spaces now, and most online events don’t have a “dress code” as such. But if you don’t know ahead of time that you have the option of turning on your video and you don’t wish to be seen in your pajamas with bed-head, that might cause a problem!
Review the agenda, and mark sessions that you want to attend, creating your personal schedule for the event just as you would for an in-person event. Are there speakers you especially want to hear? Topics or issues that you need to see addressed? Problems or pain points that you’re seeking solutions for? Scan the schedule to find what appeals most and prioritize those sessions. One bonus for virtual events is that you don’t have to take the session location into account when making your schedule – you don’t have to worry about finding the correct meeting room, or sprinting from the Francis Marion Hotel all the way to the Gaillard Center in 15 minutes; you just click from one link to another!
Don’t Go It Alone: Virtual conferences and events can feel very isolating. We’re used to roaming crowded exhibit halls, navigating full-to-bursting hallways, waiting in line for coffee, and running into friends and colleagues all along the way. It takes a little more effort, but online networking can be almost as fun as running into someone in real life. Check the conference agenda for networking events, happy hours, virtual trivia or other games, and jump in to participate!
Do you know others who are attending the same event? Make a point to reach out and schedule a networking event that you can attend together, or set up a one-on-one meeting with them to catch up. Are others from your library or company attending? If you can safely do so, gather in a classroom or meeting space that allows social distancing and participate in the conference together with your colleagues! Create a “watch party” environment and chat between sessions to compare notes.
Even if you don’t know anyone else that’s attending, take advantage of any social hours and networking opportunities to meet new people. Make appointments for one-on-one meetings with speakers, vendors, and other attendees. Even introverts (like myself!) can benefit from stepping out of our comfort zones to engage with others at virtual events.
Don’t forget about FOOD: Food and drinks are a major part of the fun at in-person events. It seems like food is everywhere, and it usually magically appears at coffee breaks, refreshment breaks, cocktail hours, and reception buffets spread throughout the event. But unfortunately, for a virtual event, food and drinks are our responsibility. You don’t want “hanger” messing with your head during the conference! Even if you don’t usually plan out your meals, it can be helpful to think about meals and snacks ahead of time. Treat yourself to a snack box at your desk filled with your favorite goodies – make it something you’ll look forward to! Or maybe splurge on getting coffee or lunch delivered. Participate in a virtual happy hour with your favorite wine, beer, cocktail, or mocktail. Take some time to prepare and make sure your cupboards are stocked to keep your tummy happy.
Take Notes: I know this sounds too basic to even include, but hear me out. Take notes on the sessions you attend in whatever your preferred method of notetaking might be.
My suggestion, for what it’s worth, is rather than flipping back and forth between the session video and a note-taking app, keep the session in fullscreen mode and try taking notes with (gasp!) pen and paper. This helps keep your attention focused on the content of the presentation and helps with retention of information. You can always copy your notes over into a digital format by scanning/snapping them with your phone into your favorite notes app.
After the conference is over, don’t keep your notes to yourself. Share what you’ve learned with your co-workers! You could even set up a collaborative note sharing page in Google Docs or another app to combine notes with other attendees.
Volunteer: See if there’s a way to volunteer with the organization hosting the event. This is a great way to network with others and learn more in the process. Some organizations offer reduced registration rates for volunteers as well, and that never hurts. You could write up a session for publication, help moderate an attendee chat, lead discussion at a roundtable discussion, or help with organization and set up on the back end. (Shameless plug: If you’re interested in reporting on Charleston Conference sessions for publication in Against the Grain, contact Ramune Kubilius at [email protected]!)
Take Stretch Breaks: Don’t forget to get up and move around! Take frequent stretch breaks to walk around the room, or even stand at your desk from time to time. We all know that sitting for prolonged periods is bad for our health. Several events, including the Charleston Conference, are even including yoga or stretch breaks into the schedule, so be on the lookout to see what’s available. There are plenty of YouTube videos for desk yoga (I really like this one!) that you can do on your own.
I hope these tips are helpful to you as you attend and participate in upcoming virtual conferences. And of course, I have to include a note that if you haven’t registered for the upcoming 2020 Charleston Conference yet, there’s still time to get on the bus! Check out our agenda and register at https://2020charlestonconference.pathable.co/.
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.