• How to Make the Best of a Virtual Conference

    Many organizations have recently been forced to plan virtual conferences—or cancel their conference— for the first time due to COVID-19. Even though in-person conferences are once again possible in some parts of the world, many conference organizers have seen the benefits that a virtual environment can bring. In fact, some facilitators even claim they can be more effective and engaging in the virtual setting.

    Still, virtual conferences are not without their challenges. If you’re planning a virtual conference, here are six expert tips to help you make the best out of it.

    Prepare well for a virtual conference

    Good preparation is a must for any event, and virtual conferences are no exception. “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail,” as Benjamin Franklin put it. By preparing over a shared digital platform, you’ll ensure a strong starting point for a successful virtual conference.

    Preparations for your virtual conference might include:

    • Revising practical instructions for participants
    • Making sure you know how to use the technology and that it works 
    • Doing an introduction round with participants
    • Forming into groups
    • Discussing the participants’ expectations and wishes
    • Presenting questions or exploring the content itself (through videos or other material)

    The specific preparations needed will of course vary for every conference. It’s up to you to decide what types of preparations are most important for the participants.

    Focus on engagement

    One-way presentations and static PowerPoint decks will make for a boring conference—especially when the conference is virtual. To avoid planning a virtual conference snooze-fest, plan activities that spark creativity and keep participants’ energy levels high.

    Here are a few tips for making your virtual conference more engaging:

    • Ensure that facilitators have participants “do” something every five or so minutes, like complete an activity, answer a question, or go into a break-out room. By regularly shifting the energy this way, participants are better able to stay focused and engaged. 
    • Plan activities like icebreakers and games to foster creativity and play. For example, ask participants to search for images that are related to the topic you are exploring, and compile a collage out of them. Or allow participants to take a reflection break and write about their insights and learnings. Get a list of 13 online icebreaker, energizer activities, and games here.
    • Borrow methods of engagement from social media. For example, ask your participants to record a short introduction video of themselves or to share a video on how they plan to apply learnings from the conference in their daily life.

    Enable informal encounters

    One of the main reasons people attend conferences is to network. While informal conversations come easier in face-to-face environments, you can create valuable networking opportunities in the virtual setting with a bit of planning and effort. In fact, these organized encounters may be even more effective than the spontaneous hallway conversations of in-person conferences.

    Here are a few ideas for fostering informal encounters at your virtual conference:

    • Set up a “room” that participants can enter for a casual chat
    • Include appointment bookings within your program so participants can book time slots with specific attendees or sponsors
    • Organize small virtual discussion groups around informal themes or questions

    Host break-out groups and pair chats

    Group work and pair chats are a part of most facilitators’ toolkits as they provide opportunities for active participation. To make the most of your virtual conference, consider hosting break-out groups throughout the different sessions.

    During these break-out sessions, have the groups compile their ideas on the same shared digital platform, whether in text format, images or videos. In this way, everyone’s ideas will be visible to all participants, and the discussion can continue even after the session is over.

    Split your virtual conference into shorter sessions

    People have a shorter attention span when it comes to online sessions. While 45 minutes might seem like a short time in a physical setting, it can drag on in a virtual one. Instead of delivering your conference in one or several full days, consider splitting it into shorter sessions and deliver them in smaller chunks over several days.

    Facilitate asynchronous online discussions

    Splitting up your conference into shorter sessions allows you to benefit from asynchronous facilitation. This is when a facilitator leads participants remotely, and the participants are working at different times. 

    In between different conference sessions, you could invite participants to take part in polls and conversations, and they could do this at a time that suits them.

    For a virtual conference, you need to consider time zones in a way you don’t need to when organizing a physical event. Asynchronous facilitation makes it easy for people all around the world to collaborate together, regardless of time and place.

    Read more informative content targeted at associations and not-for-profit organizations on the CSAE blog.

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