Jasmine Wallace is the Peer Review Manager at the American Society for Microbiology.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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