How to make your virtual conference not suck

We’re taking stock of our virtual conference experience in 2020 and highlight some of the things that worked and didn't work.

December 16, 2020

Conference screenshot

Written by Sam Bail

2020 has brought a lot of changes, both negative and positive - and yes, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably rolling your eyes and yelling “tell me about it!”. Now, for the sake of this blog post, let’s just look at one area of our lives that has changed drastically this year, and will likely continue to be somewhat different from we’re used to for quite a while going forward: in-person conferences. Pretty much everything we’re used to doing in person - concerts, conferences, performances, parties, you name it - moved to a virtual setting in 2020, and conferences were no exception.

For me personally, participating in a virtual conference seemed like the worst possible scenario: Instead of being able to experience talks in person, wander between conference rooms, and socialize with attendees in between sessions, I was supposed to sit in front of my laptop all day, by myself, with no way to interact with anyone other than my little keyboard. Thanks, but no thanks.

However, I figured I should at least give it a shot and signed up for DockerCon in summer to watch a few talks, and - wow - to my surprise, this was actually really fun! I could watch the talk while eating lunch on my own couch instead of shivering in a freezing cold conference venue, if I missed anything I knew I could catch up with the recording later on, I could hop between talks easily without feeling like I was being rude (or just do some work with a talk in the background) and the live-chat gave me some amount of interaction with other folks. Six months and several virtual conferences later, I figured it would be worth sharing my experience with what works and doesn’t work for virtual conferences, and what makes attending a live conference really worth attending over just watching the recordings.

So, here are some of the things I noticed that made the virtual conference experience actually enjoyable, both as an attendee and a speaker:

Using an actual platform that’s suited for virtual conferences

Sure, Zoom does the job, but a virtual platform such as Crowdcast, Hopin, or Cube 365 (among many others) has some additional benefits. In addition to things such as virtual green rooms for participants to do final tech checks, I found it really helpful that all these platforms have room for additional content beyond just the video (and maybe the chat - more on that in a minute!). Having speaker bios, talk summaries, talk schedules, and other content right where you’re watching the talk simply provides a more convenient experience, rather than having a Zoom window somewhere and the other content somewhere else. It’s a small detail, but for me, it made the difference between a “virtual conference” and “here’s a random Zoom meeting”.

Additionally, and this is almost a bigger benefit, most (if not all) of these platforms record the talks and provide instant access to the recording within minutes after it finishes, which is great for people who want to catch up shortly after and don’t want to wait hours or days (like we used to!) until the recording is available.

One downside to the rise of virtual conference platforms is that there is no single “platform to rule them all”, as there might be with Zoom. I’ve definitely collected my fair share of new accounts across all of these in the past year, and I’m looking forward to seeing which one of them will emerge as the clear go-to option.

But… let’s talk about the chat.

The chat

One of the biggest differences I noticed between several of the conferences I attended was the chat participation. All virtual conference platforms I’ve used, as well as Zoom, provide a chat window in which participants can ask questions - and they usually do, politely, during the talk, but there is also not much other conversation, mostly because these chats just aren’t that great to use (How does the Zoom chat still suck so much?).

One conference I attended (ok I’m going to name names, #dbtcoalesce you crushed it!), however, decided to route all chat through talk-specific channels in their own Slack channel, which resulted in a lively and borderline hyperactive, Giphy-laden, ultra engaged (in the talk topic or some obscure sidebar conversation) chat room that brought back some amount of the experience of socializing at conferences. Well. During the talk. Which might have been a little distracting for some, but it also really worked for me to stay engaged. Seeing people’s reactions in Slack was, to some extent, the virtual equivalent of hearing the audience gasp or laugh at the exact right spots in the talk! In addition, using Slack allowed attendees to break into side-conversations via direct message, which again added some aspect of socializing with your buddies to the conference experience.

Audience questions

Another aspect of audience participation is, of course, asking questions. I actually experienced several different formats of this: In some instances, the talks were actually pre-recorded and the speaker was present in the chat to answer questions on the spot. At other virtual conferences, moderators would collect or pin questions asked during the talk for the speaker to answer later, while others would ask the audience to hold questions until a dedicated Q&A session at the end.

Both approaches come with some pros and cons: Having the speaker answer questions immediately is definitely great for impatient folks like me, and might be beneficial to people understanding the remainder of the talk. On the other hand though, watching a pre-recorded presentation and talking to the person while watching a video of them speaking was… kinda weird. As in, “wait, if you’re talking - who’s that on stage?” (dun dun duuuun.) But then again, as a speaker, coming back to a chat room with 10+ questions to answer felt just a little stressful - hopefully I didn’t miss any!

Clear instructions for speakers

One conference I participated in as a speaker shared a very clear speakers’ guide that was extremely thoughtful about providing a good audience experience. The guide contained instructions such as “close down all other windows on your computer”, “plug in your charger”, and “TURN OFF YOUR NOTIFICATION FOR GOODNESS’S SAKE” (dramatic emphasis by me), which were also repeated as a check list right before my talk started. I really appreciated the attention to detail (both as a speaker and as a participant), and delivering the same message via different channels really ensured that it would get noticed.

Trying out different formats

I’ve focused mostly on the classic “individual speaker presents some slides” type scenario of a virtual conference so far, but it’s worth mentioning that I’ve also had some good experiences with other presentation formats. Virtual panel discussions in particular were surprisingly enjoyable. I noticed that, while having a good moderator for a panel discussion is always a good thing, this is absolutely crucial for virtual discussions.

In an in-person setting, it’s totally possible (I say possible, not always recommended) to let the conversation develop organically, mostly because the communication is easier and there are enough visual cues for both the speakers and the audience to understand what’s going on. That just isn’t the case in virtual settings, and it really requires a skilled moderator who can strike a balance between giving turns for speaking time and not making the format feel too rigorous, in order to make the experience enjoyable for both panelists and the audience. Or just do it like the folks at FC BUILD and fully embrace the turn-based format: One panel discussion I watched was explicitly focused on “expert” panelists taking turns providing their feedback on case studies. In that context, the turn-based approach just made sense and didn’t feel restrictive.

Socializing

While I didn’t actually participate in any virtual lounges or happy hours, several people on Twitter kindly shared their experience with solutions to the aspects of a conference that go beyond talks. A few folks had experienced using proximity-based platforms like Gather in a “virtual lounge” type setting, which would allow small-group interactions via voice and video. However, the format did not translate to a “more spread out” virtual poster session - keep that in mind when thinking of organizing one.

Some conferences went all-out and created a game-like experience to recreate some of the IRL conference feel. Em Lazer-Walker wrote about the immersive experience the Roguelike Celebration team created for the conference - I guess you’d expect nothing less than incredible creativity from a conference focused on dungeon-style games.

What needs tweaking?

While I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the virtual conferences I’ve experienced this year, there are still some minor bumps that might be worth ironing out for future events.

Talking to yourself: Personally, I don’t mind just talking to my slides too much, but not having any visual feedback from a human is still pretty tough as a presenter. When we run webinars for Great Expectations, we usually have a couple of members of the team present with their video on to provide some visual feedback (even if it’s just nodding and smiling while they’re actually writing code because they’ve already heard your talk several times ;) ). I’d really love for conference organizers to figure out a way to have at least the hosts be visible to the presenter.

Gaps between talks: While it’s tempting to schedule talks back-to-back since attendees don’t have to switch rooms, I really appreciated having at least 5-10 minutes after each talk to linger in the chat, stand up and walk around, get a snack, tweet something funny about the conference, or simply decompress and do nothing. The conferences might be virtual, but our human bodies are still very much present in physical space, with all their needs.

Work-conference balance: This is less on the side of conference organizers, but a general problem with working from home - or doing anything from home at the moment, really. Being able to squeeze a couple of talks in between my work meetings was definitely a nice way to fill my breaks, but basically being available for work the entire time made it hard for me to focus on the conference in a way I would have if I had actually been away at a real-life conference for a few days. It feels weird to block off time on your calendar to “watch some videos”, and watching them on my work laptop definitely didn’t help. I’d love to hear from other participants how they balanced conference participation with work demands, and whether there is something the conference organizers can do to facilitate focus on the conference!

I hope this blog post has highlighted some of the learnings from my virtual conference experience this year, and maybe even helps future conference organizers identify some tweaks they can make to improve their audience experience! Feel free to leave a comment on this post below, or ping me on Twitter with your best or worst virtual conference experience!

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