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‘A whole new experience’: How to get the most out of virtual conferences

Attending a virtual conference for the first time this fall? The Journalism Institute reached out to five journalists to learn their strategies for maximizing remote event experiences.

  • Rebecca Aguilar is Secretary Treasurer and Diversity Committee Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists. She created a video on how to build your network during a virtual journalism conference.
  • Juliet Beverly is the Content Manager and recently attended the #NABJNAHJ20 Convention.
  • Robert Hernandez is a Professor of Professional Practice at USC Annenberg School of Journalism and served as co-curriculum chair for #NABJNAHJ20.
  • Tara Puckey is the Chief Staff Officer at the Radio Television Digital News Association, where she facilitates leadership seminars and training programs.
  • Celia Wexler is an award-winning former journalist and nonfiction author who is presenting at the SPJ 2020 Journalism Conference this weekend on “Watchdogging Congress.”

Top 3 general tips for virtual attendees

Aguilar: Before the conference starts, read over thoroughly what it has to offer. Make sure you know who is speaking, what time, and start making a schedule on what you will attend. 

Know the #hashtag the conference will be using to keep track of the conversations on Twitter or other social media platforms.

Before the conference, find many of the speakers and moderators on social media and start following them. This will help in watching what they are talking about, who is talking about them, and expanding your virtual network. 

‘Do the homework’ and set boundaries with your employer

Beverly: There will be conflicts in not just the program but also in your personal life. So, do the homework on whatever is scheduled, see if there’s anything that has repeating themes so that you don’t feel like you’re obligated to go to one session if you think maybe you could get something similar out of another one. …

I think it’s true for a lot of journalists that once they find out a conference was canceled for in-person, that perhaps the notion was well, maybe I’ll attend some sessions and still work. Maybe their employers expected them to still work since it was virtual and not in person. Make sure you can establish some boundaries for yourself and have that conversation with your employers, your editors, because you do need the concentrated time.

Manage expectations

Puckey: Understand that this is a whole new experience. Comparing it to in-person events is only going to leave you feeling like you’ve missed out on something. It’s key to give yourself – and event organizers – some grace and space as we navigate all these changes together. Dive in headfirst to the new technology and put effort into learning something new. You might not love all of it, and you’ll probably miss some components of gathering together, but there are benefits to be had and new things to learn if you approach it all with an open mind.

Beverly: Be open-minded because you’ll probably have a better experience than you’re planning to have. I had a good one at NABJ/NAHJ.

Hernandez: Look, this is not ideal but this is the current reality. We need to adapt as best we can. Whether you are networking or looking for a new job, do your best to have a positive attitude even though we know 2020 is a dumpster fire. We’ll get through this. Just make sure you have a good answer when someone in the “after COVID times” asks “What did you do during COVID?”

Yes, you still can have serendipitous conversations outside of the sessions in a virtual environment

Aguilar: Sure you can’t meet face-to-face but that does not mean you can’t network with those attending the virtual conference including the moderators and speakers. Use the conference hashtag #SPJ2020 to see what everyone is talking about on Twitter and other platforms. 

Part of networking in a virtual conference also means that you should be sharing what you learn at a conference with others via social media and make sure to tag the people who provided the information that you want to share. This is a quick connection to the key people at the conference. 

Make sure you engage with the people who are using social media to network about what they have been learning at the virtual conference. 

During a “live” virtual panel make sure you use the “chat section” to engage with other conference attendees. It’s a good way to meet people who you can also connect with via social media.

Also, don’t be afraid to jump and ask a question when it is time to do so during a panel.  Sometimes they will ask you to ask the question yourself. Get in there, on camera, and ask your question. It’s another way to expand your network when you are seen. 

Beverly: I thought all of those little run-ins that you have with people that you wouldn’t have met before would be gone. And they weren’t; they were chats, reception halls and people establishing their own Zoom rooms so that you can watch a virtual party but have a side conversation. 

With NAHJ, I was fortunate to make a connection with someone in a reception chat that later invited me to a Tejano afterparty. It was great. There are people I connected with, and we talked a lot since the conference. I was surprised about that aspect. It gave me a good feeling like I always had with the in-person meeting, like you can still sit next to someone.

Hernandez: Hallway conversations are THE best and one of the things I miss most about conferences. I think organizers can use new tools like High Fidelity or even Mozilla Hubs to create these experience. For attendees, roll with it… embrace it… and try to engage in more than a video chat. …

Interesting enough, one overwhelming note we got from the NABJ/NAHJ 2020 conference was that people LOVED the one-on-ones at the virtual booths – I honestly did not expect that. Also, because it was virtual, people could hop around from session to session, without having to walk through a convention center or hotel. And, one thing that is obviously clear, is that the conferences were more accessible to more people, since they didn’t have to pay for flight and hotel. Negatives is the missing serendipity… conference organizers need to create those spaces.

Puckey: It’s exceptionally difficult to create those organic conversations that take place in the halls of conferences and I think we all have to stop trying so hard to replicate it. Instead, let’s look at what options we do have for people to connect. Some studies have shown that it takes more than six times of interaction to actually make a connection with someone, and others that the first eight seconds of a conversation are the most challenging. How do you bridge those gaps? We’re exploring ways to introduce guided networking in a virtual way to take away those first few seconds of awkwardness, creating small cohorts to build those relationships and checking out a multitude of virtual software options that help us do it.

Advice for virtual event speakers

Hernandez: The first and most important suggestion is make sure you aren’t boring the audience. Zoom fatigue this a real thing. You want to engage with people, whether asking them to post something in the chat or unmuting their mics to actively engage.

Wexler: I think we’re all trying to figure out how best to serve the people who attend these sessions. My experts are very good, and this session should be quite tech heavy. So my strategy is to briefly introduce them, and get out of the way. If they’d like me to check for questions, and ask them, I’ll do that. I pray the technology will make that possible.

Since the conference is on a Zoom platform, I think attendees will be comfortable enough to follow along. And anything that has to do with computers is actually easier to do remotely. I will be asking panelists if they’re willing to include an email address if folks have follow-up questions. When I proposed this panel, it was last January, so we could not have predicted how things would work out. I’m not sure how you can recapture the feel of a national conference, although I know SPJ is offering an app called “Discord” to help connect participants before, and after sessions. We have several skills sessions going on at the same time, so it’s not clear how many will be attending ours. I am hoping that these sessions will be archived. 

The conference is less expensive, so that’s a plus. Members have been asked to donate $25 per student to help them attend, and in terms of numbers of participants, SPJ member attendance has not fallen off. I think we’ve been able to book really impressive people for the super sessions, many of whom would have had prior commitments, so the fact that they don’t have to travel has been very helpful for getting big names. 

We in DC were disappointed because we really wanted to show off our city, but we’re hoping to do that at a future conference. But of course, no one likely will suffer a hangover from this one!

Tips for virtual event planners

Puckey: One of the first things we do is try to explore the “why” behind the event. If we’re pivoting from a traditional in-person event to virtual, what made people want to attend in the first place? Is the purpose networking, education, something else? At the end of the day, if the event you’re producing loses the core goals it set out to reach, that should be enough to think twice about even hosting it. If the goals can be accomplished, then we start looking at our stakeholders. Who will be there, what’s their skill level with virtual events? Is this something we need super high-tech platforms for, or are we able to meet the needs of attendees in some other way? Once you know what you’re really trying to do and who you’re doing it for, the rest starts to fall into place.

Don’t neglect self-care

Beverly: Zoom fatigue is real and so are blood clots, so you need to stand up. Make sure you get up and take care of yourself the same way you would in person.

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