Tuesday, April 28, 2020

So what makes a good online conference?

The conference industry went into deep freeze. It literally ground to an absolute halt. But like many who experience a life threatening event, it has led to some reflection and change in behaviour. Having presented at hundreds of face to face conferences and many online conferences, I’ve been surprised at the lack of discussion on the topic. Then again, to misquote a famous quote "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his junkets depends upon his not understanding it."
Yet I’m hearing academics and business leaders reconsider their annual spend. They are shifting that spend to other forms of researching and marketing. Flying large numbers of people all over the world now looks increasingly odd, if not immoral, not only in terms of the virus but also in terms of climate change and efficacy. The sight of a swarm of private jets at Davos disgusted many but that is nothing compared to the day in, day out, climate denying activity of the conference business. Let’s not kid ourselves that these are practical venues, the perennial attraction of Vegas, Orlando and Hawaii remain dubious.
The common denominator to all this is that cramming huge numbers of people into rooms in conference centres has several major problems. First they have to get there, increasingly from all corners of the globe, exacerbating climate change. Secondly, the risk of accelerating contagion in a pandemic. Third, it is not clear that the current model is that useful. There are many other reasons for questioning these old habits, and habits they are. Two examples of bad habits, that always surprise me; first, seeing 'posters' at academic conferences, it always seems so school-like, so adolescent. second, the literal reading of a paper from a lectern. Do we really have to travel thousands of miles to see this stuff? 
Perhaps, far too little use is made of online conferences.
So what makes a good online conference? 
We know a lot about what works here... online has, in fact a several advantages - cost, time, more audience participation, links, able to leave presentation easily, post-conference learning and follow up... and so on... but they have to be run differently Having been involved with a few, here’s my thoughts…

1. Needs a compere
A physical conference has the building to hold it together. There is a sense of place and you choose from a schedule, which rooms to go to… Online I value a MC or compere with the presence, communication skills, organisational skills, often with a touch of charm and humour, to motivate people and provide guidance and help. They need to be comfortable in front of a camera and be concise and clear communicators. Throughout the conference, they can feed back themes that have arisen, marshal views from attendees and stimulate discussion and online participation. They also need to be able to cope with things that go wrong…

2. Accept that shit happens
In physical conferences, speakers screw up all the time, can’t find/operate their PowerPoints, overrun, go back or too far forward on their slides. Online you can have complete centralised control. You can also troubleshoot internally and externally. For example, speakers can be muted, unmuted at a distance, slides ready. Even attendees can get help, usual problems being audio. A good behind the scenes producer, with technical skills really does help make things flow.

3. Speaker performance
You can rehearse a speaker on timing, eliminate overlaps, allow links to external content
and signal to a speaker on timings much easier online than you can on a stage. A quick run through of slides, check that the speaker knows what’s happening with the tech and how to set up at home (near router, reasonable light etc) can make things more professional.

4. Participation
Rather than the wooden Q&A at the end of sessions, that often get ditched as the speakers overrun, you can engage before, during and after presentations, with varying levels of participation: formal Q&A, chat, moderated questions and so on. This can be a much higher level of participation than a real conference. Moderated question, I think, work best, even stopping in the middle to take a few.

5. Social events
Conferences are sold on the social networking side but witness the people who sit next to their colleagues in sessions and talk to the people they know and work with during the coffee breaks. During lunch, coffee breaks or with special breakout groups, it is possible to set up discussion groups or let social groups coalesce. These groups can carry on afterwards, as people share social media details. They can be topic based and chaired. Alternatively, you can encourage social media activity to get your messages and content out to a huge global audience. Let these groups form. Wenger talks a lot about these communities of practice – they can be encouraged. In my experience anyone who wants social interaction with the speakers and other attendees will be able to do so to a far higher degree than in a live conference.

6. Lightness
Given that communication is at a distance, I like it when the compere introduces some lightness to the proceedings. You can set up little competitions – spot the X, even ask for pics of attendees rooms (that works well) with prizes. It gives some social cohesion to the affair. I rather like the idea of making it more like a live TV show… how about a house band!

7. Anonymous exits
In physical conferences, people sit in a room but that can be a trap. When a speaker’s content is clearly not relevant or they’re poor presenters or reading from a paper, you can experience  a profound sense of boredom. In online conferences, with parallel streams, you can skip out anonymously. This makes online a much more convenient and time saving affair.

8. Repeat access
Talks and participation are easily recorded for future access. Indeed, the recording becomes trivial and in a format that is not the speaker like a matchstick person at distance on a stage but an intimate close-up with cuts to their slides. Miss a session and it will be available as a recorded event immediately afterwards.

9. Post-conference
I’ve given talks at hundreds of conferences around the world and am often shocked to see that most attendees don’t take notes. They WILL forget, not only what they think they will remember but even what sessions they attended. That’s how the brain works – it’s a forgetting machine. Learning Pool recently ran an online conference where they used their LXP software, integrated with Zoom to hold the conference within a learning environment. This allows follow up and learning from the event to a much higher degree than is possible with physical attendance. I like this idea of turning confer5enmces into richer learning experiences with more follow up.

10. Lower costs on both sides
On costs, both sides save a pile of money. For attendees, no travel, accommodation, subsistence, less opportunity loss. For organisers, no venue, food and less labour costs. It’s a win-win. Conference fees can be minimal or waived, as sponsorship money can pay for the much reduced costs. An interesting model has been tried during this pandemic, an online conference where 50% of the revenue is shared among the speakers.
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Conclusion
Sure, some things will be lost, the drunken conversations and late nights in the Hotel bar, the chance to visit some foreign capital. But behaviours will change after this pandemic. People will not rush back to restaurants, cinemas, travel and cruises. On conferences, organisations and individuals will think twice before going back to things that were clearly bad for the planet. The online economy will grow – online learning, online shopping, online payments, online streamed entertainment and online conferences.

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