Getting Value out of Virtual Conferences

Last updated 9/1/2020

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Online conferences can be easier than in-person conferences to integrate into a busy schedule, but they still require some advance planning and thoughtful behavior throughout. If you’re attending the ACS Fall 2020 Virtual Conference & Expo or any professional meeting online for the first time, we’ve got advice to help you be a good virtual citizen and boost your chemistry career.

Know your space

A decade ago, the pharmaceutical company Merck ran an experimental virtual conference to save on travel costs. Attendees logged into an animated conference hall filled with avatars of other attendees and live voice conversations. Not every conference looks like this.

The fall ACS national meeting will consist of a mix of broadcast sessions and live activities. Some events will be live while others will be pre-recorded. Asynchronous conference sessions offer you time to reflect and think more deeply about all the new information. Last summer, for example, then-final-year University of Mauritius undergraduate Abhilesh Imrit caught around a dozen sessions of the virtual computational chemistry conference during his daily bus ride home from class. “It had the advantage that you can rewatch videos,” Imrit recalls.

Imrit was able to use his daily bus rides to keep up with conference talks because that conference took place over the course of a month with recorded events.

Virtual conferences also allow attendees to catch more sessions. “During in-person conferences there is always that factor of leaving the session you are in to run like crazy to the other side of the building in less than one minute to attend the other session,” says Juliana Ladeira Vidal, a chemistry graduate student at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada. Vidal attended the first-ever ACS Green Chemistry Virtual Conference in June. “This virtual format allowed me to go back and watch the presentations I had missed during the day,” she says.

Ellie Armstrong, a science and technology graduate student at University College, London, who recently organized the virtual Space Science in Context conference alongside Divya M. Persaud, a planetary science researcher at University College, says that the so-called flipped-classroom format, in which lectures appear days ahead of the live online discussion, helped improve the quality of the questions from audience members. For the best results, she says, it takes planning on the part of attendees. “We’d encourage people to look at the talks not the day before, but a week or more, and sit with those questions,” Armstrong says.

“The talks aren’t the end of the conference,” says Armstrong. “Think about this as a starting point to explore researchers you might be interested in working with, publications you might be interested in reading, and careers,” she says.

Presenting with panache

If you are presenting your work at a virtual conference (for undergrads, this is typically a poster), plan ahead. First, your poster needs to meet the technical requirements of the conference, whether that means a PDF or another file format, and you need to deliver it correctly, whether by e-mail or a web upload, by the deadline.

Next, just like an in-person presentation, an online poster talk should be to the point, well-practiced, and tuned to the audience’s level of expertise and interest. Don’t worry about presenting every detail of your work, because you won’t have time for that. Just give an overview of what you did and be ready to respond to audience questions during the Q&A.

Christopher J. Welch, a scientific consultant who ran Merck’s 2010 virtual conference, says that students presenting for the first time might need to be prepared for people to move on from a given poster, just like people stroll through poster sessions in person. “The more focused a presenter’s elevator pitch, the likelier a visitor is to listen to the whole thing and provide useful feedback,” says Welch.

Being on camera

Whether you’re recording a poster presentation or participating in a live question and answer session, your professional appearance is important because of the impression it makes on your potential future colleagues. If you look like you’re there to work, people are more likely to envision themselves working with you.

For example, if you will be on camera, make sure ahead of time to prepare the “set.” Place your camera around eye level, maybe by using a bookshelf or stacking up some boxes. That will help you maintain eye contact. Test whether your upper body fits in the frame and check that the lighting is good, perhaps with a call to a friend. Also check what else is in the frame: the tidier your background, the better.

During a recording or a live event, if you find yourself fidgeting, playing with your hair, or drumming your fingers, try taking a deep breath and holding your hands still on your desk or lap. Although it’s normal to feel nervous, conveying nervousness during a presentation distracts your audience and can undermine your message.

A simple trick is to smile, whether you’re on camera or just asking a question via audio. It shows goodwill, helps perk up your energy, and the smile will be audible in your voice. Positivity is more engaging than a flat or nervous attitude.

Finally, select your outfit and the visible background with the same care you’d use when you dress for an interview or in-person conference.

The same etiquette that applies to online classes will apply at the national meeting. Remember to replace encouraging “I’m listening” body language with chat messages such as “understood” or “thanks.” Minimize distractions by leaving your phone out of reach and warning your housemates not to interrupt during live lectures.

Networking at virtual conferences

Of course, one of the greatest opportunities at conferences is meeting people who can give you scientific advice, help you shape your career, or even become a mentor. In the virtual space, networking is still vital, but it may look different.

Good networking online should replicate many of the basics of networking in person, such as fluidly and politely moving into and out of conversations and continuing them in some form after the event.

At the meeting, each setting will have its own norms for introducing yourself or asking a question. If the organizers do not spell out those norms, first-time participants can take cues from other participants.

Most recordings will be accessible at any time, which means you won’t feel the need to ask hurried questions or you can more easily avoid asking off-topic questions. Imrit’s advisor taught his students to be respectful in the conference forum. “We were told to use the forum for only scientific questions, use only English, and respect the work done by others, to try to acknowledge what is being done,” Imrit says.

Another way to interact with conference participants during and after the conference is via social media. Many researchers discuss their work and that of their colleagues on Twitter, LinkedIn, or other networks, and while those conversations are less private, they may be equally helpful and potentially longer-lasting conversations. 

Online inclusivity

Although physical conferences, including past ACS national meetings, have had behavioral policies for years, first-time attendees need to read them. The ACS policy calls on attendees to contribute to “a collegial, inclusive, positive, and respectful environment” and to refrain from discrimination, harassment, and offensive language. All of that applies in a digital environment as well.

Remember that virtual conferences are still professional events; and, if you aren’t on camera, other participants won’t have the benefit of your body language to help differentiate between a joke and an insult. Avoid sarcasm and hot button topics, especially with people you have just met. Keep your comments on-topic, professional, and grammatically correct.

There may even be some new norms. In the case of Space Science in Context, for example, one speaker used GIFs in their chat window, which the policy forbade because not all participants can see or hear them.

Adjusting to a new norm

Undergraduates can help shape the next generation of virtual conferences. “I imagine that COVID is going to really lead to some dramatic changes,” Welch says, and “students are part of this, too. They’re part of the experimenting,” he adds.

Students can give constructive feedback to conference organizers and adopt the best practices they see when it comes time to organize their own events. “You’re not just learning the chemistry,” Armstrong says. “You’re learning how to be a scholar, teacher, and educator—someone working in the 21st century.”

About the Author
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Lucas Laursen is a science and technology journalist. He writes for Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, and many other magazines.