1. The Learning Effect is Higher with Shorter Videos
It can be much more difficult to pay attention online. Distractions lurk around every corner and it becomes harder to concentrate on a presentation, partly because some participants overestimate their multitasking skills. Accordingly, little of the content sticks. And if you don’t have the energy to start yet another 30-minute videos, you’re certainly not alone. Times that are typically no problem at an onsite conference suddenly feel like a real marathon in the virtual world. Shorter, to-the-point presentations help alleviate the problem. To make sure no presentation exceeds the minute limit you set, work with pre-recorded video instead of just live content.
But be careful about cutting back on virtual medical conferences: If your event is certified as continuing medical education, ten minutes is not enough time for a presentation, as one CME point is equivalent to 45 minutes of continuing education.
2. Prepare Presenters for Their Task
Presenters have the biggest role in shaping the individual (shortened) program, but still very few of them have yet had the opportunity to present at a virtual conference. Sometimes there is even a little skepticism mixed in, because after all, it makes a huge difference whether someone is speaking to an audience or supposedly into the void. Ahead of its time, the Society for Cultural Anthropology already held its 2018 Displace18 conference as a virtual event, a time when hardly anyone was seriously considering the format. Now, one can thank those responsible back then for their very descriptive toolkit: What should speakers consider when recording their presentations themselves? and How to create a voice-over presentation? If the speakers are spread over different countries, it does not make much sense to have them travel just for a recording (if that is possible at all due to travel restrictions). On the other hand, having a professionally equipped studio eliminates the whole technical aspect of video production. To eliminate the need for travel, such a service is therefore highly recommended, and is now offered by some convention centers.
Recording a video is made all the easier when speakers work with subheadings and divide the video into several chapters – or produce a separate short video for each chapter. Instead of one 15-minute talk, you might have three videos, each five minutes long.
3. Plan Breaks
If the stream simply runs continuously after the start, the learning effect will fall by the wayside (see tip #1). Participants should always be given a little time to rest and process the information after each session. At home, there tends not to be a buffet to help oneself at any time, so most people need to make their own coffee and lunch and sometimes use breaks to answer a few e-mails or make phone calls.
Especially at lunchtime, the break should be a little longer. This way, no one has to sit in front of the screen with a growling stomach to miss anything.
Unfortunately, some organizers plan virtual conferences without any breaks at all because they fear that participants won’t come back afterwards. The danger is not unfounded, but the cause is more likely to be the result of the content quality. However, it is always important to inform the participants in advance when there will be breaks and for how long, or to make the videos permanently available so that everyone can divide their time freely.
4. Participants Should Do More than Watch
Well-produced content is the prelude to a successful virtual conference. If participants can comment on the sessions themselves, instead of just remaining in the role of spectators, the event stands out all the more positively from others. Unfortunately, many people have not been able to do this very well. In a recent survey, organizers stated that engaging participants was by far the most difficult part of the process.
Many speakers would like to have questions and further discussions or find it helpful to get an overview of the participants’ views. Organizers of virtual conferences should therefore always provide opportunities for interaction. This works best directly where the content is located. Don’t rely (only) on social networks – participants can meet there, too, but only those with their own account. Those who don’t want to create one for privacy reasons, for example, can’t participate.
5. Provide Networking Opportunities
Unfortunately, contacts at virtual conferences are often limited to people who are already part of one’s circle of acquaintances. Complete strangers are contacted much less often, although many participants expect new contacts from a conference. Organizers can help by suggesting contacts based on common interests.
Virtual discussions in small groups also promote getting to know each other by working together on a topic. Therefore, in addition to presentations, a virtual conference should always include formats that focus on participant interaction. Icebreaker questions and prompts work really well right at the beginning.
6. Discussions can be Planned
One great advantage of virtual conferences is that participants can experience the event at their own pace. Shouldn’t that also apply to live talks? For example, it is quite frustrating for scientists when they are asked to make themselves available for poster discussions for an hour or two, but there’s a particular lack of interest.
so rewarding to put in hours into making a poster and partake in two practice virtual poster sessions, just to sit in a breakout room all by myself for >1 hour besides the 5 min where I finally got one (1) visitor pic.twitter.com/Rn03HR8bJV— slurm daemon slayer // B L M (@michkellelley) May 28, 2020
The wasted time could have been much better used to look around the virtual conference by oneself and engage with content that seems interesting to each participant. If someone wants to talk to the authors about their poster, a planned or spontaneous connection can be made instead, making the best use of both the presenter and the participant’s time.
7. Use Moderators
Sometimes participants are afraid to speak up with their own contribution if no one else has done so before them – nobody wants to be the first. And some critical remarks may be misunderstood in the virtual space – but they are quite normal, especially at scientific congresses, and tend to be constructive.
Moderators are therefore very helpful because they can monitor the course of the conversation and intervene to counteract precisely such misunderstandings. They intervene when necessary, provide sparks of inspiration that get a discussion going, smooth the waters in disputes and can filter out inappropriate comments.
8. The Virtual Conference Opens only after Registration has been Completed
Even if you don’t charge a fee for a digital event, participants should have to register beforehand to take full advantage of its features. While it’s okay to make streams and videos accessible without registration, this could quickly get out of hand during interactions; for example, if the comment section is hijacked by trolls and flooded with disruptive, pointless comments. This makes moderators’ work more difficult. If you want to be on the safe side, link the virtual conference platform to a professional participant registration system. This gives organizers maximum control over which people can access which content.
Do you have any other tips that help organizers and that we should include? We are grateful for further suggestions – also from the point of view of the participants.