Tips for being a chairing a virtual conference
Who would have thought two years ago that conferences would have moved online? Not me, that’s for sure. And I think a virtual conference is quite different to meeting IRL as an experience. I miss meeting people in the flesh. But hey, its better than the alternative. And it does have plus sides too. It is a way to get over geographical challenges and inequalities within attendees. It is also easier to attract speakers outside the normal geography, who no longer have to commute.
I had my first virtual conference chair gig last week. It was day two of Community Housing Conference (CHC) Finance conference. I thought it might be useful to share a few tips on what I learned…
Tip one — do the preparation
I was very lucky that CHC are experienced and very competent conference holders. True to form, an enormous amount of preparation had been done by them before I even lifted a finger. But it definitely was worth going some of my own prep and reading beforehand. Firstly it helps build confidence. Y ou are better placed to think of questions and interesting topics to explore should the audience go quiet. It also means you have less to grapple with when you go live. I have noticed that virtual working does require more preparation and planning. Virtual meetings tolerate less spontaneity, I have found. Conferences are no different.
Tip two — get familiar with the technology
Sounds obvious — but I still had a slight panic when I couldn’t get into the “backstage” section first time! I’m glad we had allowed a few extra minutes for issues like this. If you are chairing its worth acquainting yourselves with the extra functions backstage. You don’t want to be teaching yourself that in public. And you may be using a new platform entirely. Remember the first time you had to navigate Microsoft teams? … Exactly. The “walkthrough session” beforehand was definitely worth it.
Tip three — manage your attention
I found it helpful to take quite detailed notes as the speakers were sharing their stories. It helped me focus 100% on them — which is somehow harder in the virtual format. It also made asking questions easier and homing in on common and interesting themes. I knew I was going to be giving a conference summary at the end and it helped prepare for that too. Themes around wellbeing and resilience kept coming up. The notes helped me weave that into the narrative.
I switched off emails and notifications on my laptop. I knew I needed to stop my attention from becoming too diffused. I kept my phone on for emergency contacts and family stuff. We split up managing the chatbox and chairing the meeting. I recommend this in Board meetings and elsewhere -it is too much to manage otherwise.
Tip four- prepare for audiences to behave differently
I think audiences are more passive online compared to IRL. There are of course a number of reasons for this. The stresses of working whilst homeschooling, or with care responsibilities, are well known. Both certainly make it harder to give the presenters your undivided attention! The experience can feel more like watching TV than participating in a meeting, so it lends a different mood. Attendees may bemultitasking with email. Or keeping half an eye on their other communication channels, feeling the pressure to be available. And IRL there is the strong social pressure to be seen to be paying attention, which is, of course, absent online.
So, it is worth thinking about having some backup questions in case the audience is quiet. And being mindful of the energy levels . As Chair you need to be at least as lively and energetic as you would in IRL, maybe more so. And using back up social media — tweeting about it as you go. I think CHC’s chat groups and polls helped to draw people in. Splitting up into smaller workshops worked well. It generated interest and lively comment and lots of questions too.
I hope you found this useful — if you are tempted to have a go, please do! Always good to learn new things. And one final piece of good news. It is more intimate as an experience speaking into a small screen. Although I knew plenty of people were there, at times it felt like a conversation with a small group. As such, it is less intimidating than speaking to a packed auditorium. So, not a bad place to get started I think. Let me know how you get on!