Earlier this month, I was honoured to be asked to speak at a plenary session of the North American conference of the International Society of Managing and Technical Editors. A later blog post will reflect on the content of my talk, an update on the evolution of Plan S, but I thought it might be of interest to reflect on the experience of participating in a virtual conference – the new norm in our COVID-19 world – from the perspective of a speaker.
You would think the preparation and run up to the conference would be much the same as any event, with the added advantage of no flight or hotel bookings to make. In practice there is a bit more work to do over and above the usual registering of author details and writing a talk.
Firstly the event was running on a specific online platform (in this case Whova). We had to download the app, register and provide all the usual speaker information again (in addition to having done so to the event organiser’s system) and find our way around the app so we could use it to interact with the delegates. We had to check we had the right technical set-up for presenting remotely. Is the internet connectivity going to be good enough? Is the lighting and webcam angle right or will I look like a triple-chinned vampire? Is my microphone working? Have I got the right books on the shelf behind my head?
Knowing that you won’t get any direct feedback (laughter, heckling, puzzled looks or snoring) from the audience means that you will need to plan your content carefully and keep it simple. Cut out the jokes and tell the story you’ve been asked to tell. Timing is vital. Your audience expects the talk to start and finish as advertised, there’s no option to waffle on into a coffee break. So practice and practice again.
The organisers were running a consolidated slide deck so I had to make sure the formatting was compatible with my fellow presenters. As I was relying on the event team to run the slide show I kept it as simple as possible in case the slide transitions ran out of control.
On the day, there isn’t quite the same adrenaline rush and dry throat you get when standing in front of a large group of people. Different anxieties come into play: will the dog bark, will my broadband fail? In our case, we had an anxious moment as my fellow speaker struggled to log in to the conferencing software as the seconds counted down to the start of the session. She joined us just in time, although with no time for a settling pre-session chat. Presenting into a lap-top screen is just like talking to a video conference, a skill we have all become used to for work and social interaction during lockdown periods. The silence at the other end is disconcerting though and it takes a little discipline to push on through the presentation at a consistent speed.
Clearly there is a huge gap in the experience when the session ends. The opportunity to meet your audience over a coffee or lunch is gone. However, the Whova app has an excellent option for delegates to ask questions and I really enjoyed the interaction this allowed to elaborate on some of the thorny issues we were covering in the session. The advantage of dealing with questions in this way is that the questions and answers are there for all to see.
Overall, my experience was very positive. No, the networking and interaction was not at the same level as meeting in person but the opportunities to interact were there. The discipline of coordinating speakers online from remote locations allowed a very broad programme to be delivered within the short conference envelope, with the option for delegates to choose which talks to attend and even to come back and listen to the recordings again up to a month after the event.