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5 Tips for Attending a Virtual Conference (and Getting Real Value)

I’ve written before about how to get the most out of a traditional face-to-face conference, but more and more people are seeing the benefit – and, in many cases, necessity – of attending a virtual conference.

That’s a good thing, in my opinion. While traditional conferences can be valuable, they are also way out of step with our need to address environmental issues, and the costs and time-commitments associated with them are a big barrier for many people.

And, of course, even if you ignore those issues, you can’t ignore the global pandemic that, up until relatively recently, has made it necessary for most conferences hosts to either cancel their in-person events entirely or take them online.

So, attending a virtual conference may be something you find yourself doing sooner rather than later. But how do you make sure you get value out of it?

Fortunately, most of the same tips I’ve already written about for traditional conferences still apply, but in this post, I cover five additional tips based on years of experience with hosting, attending, and researching virtual conferences.

What is a Virtual Conference?

Before I dice into tips for attending a virtual conference, let me be clear about what I mean by the term “virtual conference.” I use the definition developed by my company, Tagoras:

A virtual conference is a Web-based event that replicates many aspects of a traditional place-based conference, membership meeting, or trade show. It may take place on a standalone basis or in conjunction with a place-based conference (i.e., a “hybrid” event).

Virtual conferences feature multiple sessions (not just a single Webinar or Webcast) and may include keynote presentations, training and education workshops, discussion areas, social networking opportunities, exhibit areas for vendors, and various other features. Activities in a virtual conference may take place in real time (synchronously), on demand (asynchronously), or some combination of the two.

With that definition in mind, let’s move on to tips for attending a virtual conference successfully.

1. Adjust Your Attitude

One of the (often unconscious) perspectives many of us bring to online learning of any kind is that it is “second best” – i.e., not as good as “real” learning in a face-to-face environment.

But that’s just not true – at least not in terms of learning effectiveness.

Substantial research has accumulated over many years showing that online learning is generally as effective, if not more effective, as traditional classroom-based education. We’ve covered this topic in some depth a Leading Learning Podcast episode titled “Is E-learning Effective,” but I’ll call out a specific quote we reference from Dr. Will Thalheimer in his valuable analysis of research on e-learning effectiveness. As Will sums it up,

What matters is not “the learning modality (elearning vs. classroom); it’s the learning methods that matter, including such factors as realistic practice, spaced repetitions, real-world contexts, and feedback.”

So, don’t assume that because you will be attending online that you won’t learn as much. That mindset in itself may weaken your motivation, your willingness to engage, and the general level of seriousness you bring to the the event – all of which can negatively impact even a well-designed learning experience.

That said, keep in mind that online conference sessions are just as susceptible to bad design and delivery as face-to-face ones are. And, many (probably most) online session leaders aren’t adept at the sort of informal, impromptu exchanges with learners that can help smooth over bad design in the classroom.

So, be prepared to bring a little extra “can do” attitude to your virtual conference sessions. Be ready to ask questions, engage with other learners in the chat, draw your own connections between the content and your own circumstances, and make efforts to “space” some of the learning (more on that below).

As with any other learning situation, a great deal of the responsibility for effectiveness actually falls to the learner.

2. Cut Your Distractions

Another big issue with virtual conferences is, unlike their analog counterparts, they don’t require us to leave the office – or, more likely these days, our homes. Whatever the downsides of travel, it does have way of focusing our attention and helping us carve out both mental and physical space for learning.

You have to try your best to achieve the same effect with a virtual conference.

That means telling anyone who may be inclined to call, text, drop in, or otherwise interrupt you that you have a commitment that requires your full focus.

It means closing your door and putting a do not disturb sign on it.

It means turning off notifications, shutting down social media screens, closing e-mail, and in general, getting rid of any digital tools that are not actually part of the conference experience.

Most conferences are going to have scheduled breaks. Take advantage of those for any essential non-conference activities.

In general, don’t just attend, but attend to the conference.

3. Go As A Group

If you can, attend – and attend to – the conference with others – like, for example, work colleagues.

These days, you may not be able to be in the same room physically with these people, but you can still all agree to attend some or all of the same sessions, and you can use “back channels” like text messaging, Slack, or a Twitter chat to communicate with each other during and between sessions.

Having others involved in your conference experience can help boost your motivation, increase your attention, and provide some accountability for learning.

Also, consider convening as a group – again, this could be virtually by Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, etc. – at the end of each conference day and/or after the event is over to share your experience with the event and key takeaways. Making this kind of effort can go a long way toward reinforcing learning and ensuring that you actually put what you learned at the conference to work.

4. Know – and Use – Your Tools

Most virtual conference organizers worth their salt are going to let you know in advance what software you need and how to get it. Don’t wait until you have to show up for your first session to familiarize yourself with whatever platform the conference host is using and make sure it works properly on your computer. Otherwise, you could wind up frustrated and distracted and may even miss out on part of the content.

To the extent you can, familiarize yourself with the features of the conference platform and think about how you will use them. Chat is one of the most common features, but even that can vary quite a bit from one platform to the next. Make sure you know how to communicate with other attendees (if allowed) versus just the speakers. And understand whether other capabilities, like separate Q&A functionality or “clapping” and “thumbs up” emoticons (both of which are Zoom features) are available.

If you are going to be able to use audio and/or video in sessions, make sure you are set up to do that. (And, as part of that set up, make sure you know which bandwidth hogging applications it may be useful for you to turn off during conference sessions.)

These may sound like trivial details, but the less you have to think about the tools – and the more fluent you are in using them – the more you will really be able to pay attention and engage. In a traditional face-to-face environment, very few of us have to think about how we communicate with the session leader or other attendees. Be conscious that attending virtually requires that extra bit of thought and preparation.

5. Schedule Replays and Review

Having hosted a virtual conference for years, I know many people register thinking that they will later watch the recordings. I also know, based on tracking replays, that relatively few do.

Don’t let that happen.

One of the big benefits of virtual conferences is that usually everything is recorded. That means you can access sessions you weren’t able to attend live and it means you can review sessions you were able to attend live. That’s invaluable from a learning perspective. We need repetition, and as the quote above from Will Thalheimer suggests, spaced repetition – along with efforts to practice and apply what we review – is particularly valuable. (Here’s an excellent introduction to spaced learning from Mike Taylor – which also features Will Thalheimer.)

The key to making that happen is simple: schedule it.

Don’t just assume you will make time at some point, actually make multiple appointments with yourself – or, possibly your group of co-attendees (see Go As A Group above) – to play recordings, reflect on them, and identify ways to put key takeaways from them into action.

And don’t just review the recordings. As I advocate with traditional conferences, also review your notes. (You should, of course, take notes during a virtual conference. Do not just rely on getting the slides later and/or recordings later. High quality, active note-taking is one of the most effective learning tools you have.)

Don’t Forget the Traditional Stuff

I started by noting that I have written before about getting learning value out of conferences. I’ll end by emphasizing that all of those previous tips still apply. Combine them with the advice above and you’ll be well-positioned to turbo charge your conference learning from wherever it is you choose connect.

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