Education & training

How to get the most out of a virtual conference

Virtual conferences were pretty much unheard until the COVID-19 pandemic brought them into the mainstream as a way of delivering education and training. Although face-to-face conferences are coming back, many organisations are electing to keep an online element, whether that’s wholly or as a hybrid model.

The UKCPA Conference is virtual again this year, and to make the most of this and any other online conference, we’ve put together some top tips to help you maximise this new way of learning.

Create the right environment

Perhaps the most important point to consider; try to clear your diary and set an out-of-office as if you were away from work for the day. It’s very tempting to watch a virtual presentation and respond to a few emails at the same time, but you won’t be concentrating properly on either. 

If you can, attend a virtual conference somewhere other than your work desk, otherwise there is always the risk of someone coming into your office with a “Can I have a quick word?” request.

If you are at home, try to rearrange any responsibilities such as childcare or dog walking so that you minimise distractions.  You could even try sitting somewhere entirely different, like a café or a friend’s house, so that you don’t get side-tracked by anything from your work or home life.

Essentially, treat a virtual conference as you would a face-to-face one: with your attention and presence.

Preparation time

If the event organiser is using a platform you don’t recognise, join the conference before it starts to familiarise yourself with it. This will give you time to sort out any logging in issues, adjust any browser settings and check your audio quality. Make sure you read any instructions for logging in beforehand so that you’re not panicking at the last minute and miss the start of an important keynote.

Decide on the sessions you would like to attend and make a note of the start times. Think about what you want to get out of the sessions and jot down a few questions which you can ask in the chat function.

If the conference has the facility to meet and chat with other delegates, make a note of when these networking sessions are and if there is anyone in particular you would like to meet and chat with.

Set yourself up with your beverage of choice and get your notebook and pens at the ready.

Get involved

It’s a well-known fact that we have a much shorter attention span for online learning than we do for face-to-face learning. In addition, you don’t get to move around from room to room or stand up at refreshment times talking to peers. To prevent any sluggishness, try getting up and moving around every 30 minutes or so. If there is time, take a quick walk outside. Giving your eyes and brain a break from the screen and keeping the blood flowing around your body will help to keep you alert and focussed.

Most online conference platforms will have some functionality for audience interaction. Try to use these as much as possible as they not only help to keep you engaged, but you’ll also get more out of the session. Ask questions, answer polls and quizzes, make comments – it all helps.

The cost of conferences are usually subsidised by selling advertising or exhibition space to companies who are interested in speaking with the audience. Talking with these companies, in whatever format the conference organiser has set up, helps the conference to be value for money and also provides a valuable opportunity for you to learn and share your experiences about the products that the companies are offering. 

The more the merrier

At a face-to-face conference, you usually find your friends and colleagues at break times and discuss what you found interesting and useful from the speakers. You could try doing this in a virtual format as well. Perhaps you could set up a Zoom or Teams chat with your colleagues after the conference and share what you learnt. This will help hold you accountable to attending sessions and offer you some other perspectives and insight into sessions you couldn’t attend. And if you hear of an interesting session someone else attended, you can view the recording later. 

Feedback loop

It’s very difficult for speakers to gauge audience reaction when delivering online. A quick message of thanks in the chat function or the use of an applause emoji after the session is very much appreciated by speakers. 

Most conference organisers will also send out a feedback survey. Try to let them know what you thought worked well and what you thought could be improved. Conference organisers want you to get the best experience, so your thoughts and insights are extremely valuable.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the UKCPA or its members. We encourage readers to follow links and references to primary research papers and guidance.

Competing interest statement: 

The author declares: no support from any organisation for the submitted work; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.


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