Virtual and Hybrid Conference Presentations - Where Time and Space are No Longer Finite
In-person events have long been a juggling act of available space and time for planners. We are limited as to how many people can sit in any given room, how many rooms we have contracted, the number of days our event spans, and how many of those available hours we can get attendees to sit in on education sessions. Add to that a presenter’s ability to get to the conference, any other onsite commitments they may have, and of course, their co-presenters.
As an attendee, if we were even available on the pre-determined conference dates, had the resources to be away for any number of days from home and work, and take on the expenses of travel, overnight accommodations, meals and time away from work, you bet we wanted to make the most of that. We looked at the menu of education options and wished we could be in two places at once - sometimes more!
Enter virtual events.
There are no room size constraints or room availability limitations.
We don’t even have to worry about physically distancing attendees due to pandemic protocols.
We can run a virtual event at any time we want, not when a venue has the days and space for us.
We can stretch out the virtual education across a broader span of time, not just when everyone will be in the same city together.
We can flex when presenters are live based on their schedules, not ours.
Attendees can flex when they attend at a much lower cost.
Lower costs for virtual events (usually - not always!) mean a lower price point for attendees plus not having to shell out money for travel and hotel. More people can attend.
Virtual captioning software, language translation programs, pre-recording and translating over, direct audio support, and the physical accessibility of one’s own home or work environment mean that those needs can often be better accommodated than in-person.
A workshop that used to require sitting in a room for six-hour sessions two days in a row can now be split into something where the registered individuals meet a month before the event to get initial introductions and preliminary work completed, receive “take home” assignments (reading, watching videos, exploring resources), then come back together for a work and discussion session that lasts a couple of hours immediately before or during the official event. Attendees may then be advised to take time back in their own environments to explore and apply their learnings, make adjustments and see results, then come together some time after the event to further dissect their knowledge and experiences. Turning focus to the content of the sessions, a virtual event gives us opportunity to grow and expand. When we present live, we get ONE chance. When we pre-record, we can edit, go back, make it more powerful. We can show video while live chatting - in essence, as a presenter, you can be doing multiple things at once to connect with attendees, sometimes in more robust ways.
Securing presenters for an event entails making sure the individuals you want, the subject matter experts you need, are available on the dates you want them and either you or they are willing to cover the costs of travel. Now, without as much overhead cost, we can seek out presenters from all over the world to bring varied and diverse content to attendees. We can reach outside our typical presenter circles and find the experts our attendees need to hear from. We can engage multiple presenters in a session “stack” or in a panel presentation that we may not ever have the opportunity to bring together in person.
I won’t ever say that a virtual event is the same as an in-person event. It’s simply not. They often have different outcomes and deliverables that are carefully calculated for the best return for attendees and organizations, as well as sponsors and exhibitors. Attendee interaction though, may be much higher during a virtual event. We can often chat without being disruptive to those that are laser-focused on the presentation. We can ask questions when they pop into our head with interrupting the presenter, who can answer them when ready. We can dive into tangents with other attendees that we may NEVER have interacted with in person. I’m saying a lot of this as an introvert. I’m far more willing to share my experiences and advice in the veil of an online environment than I would be sitting in a session and sharing in front of 50 other people. I’m much more likely to ask a question, strike up casual conversation, and offer ideas when I can type them quickly without everyone’s eyes on me. I can choose to allow chat distractions or not. I can choose to allow video interaction or not. I am not forced to sit in a chair, face one direction, and listen quietly. I can get up and stretch when I need to. I can return to content (when recorded) to review a piece I missed or need to run through again. It’s not simply one chance, one viewing, one room. My options are robust and endless.
While many webinars still look and feel like a template - talking head and powerpoint, I’ve witnessed some excellent presenters that truly bring a more in-person feeling to their presentation. Sometimes it’s something small, such as standing to present. When in-person, how often do you “sit and present”? What about when you are presenting in a virtual environment? Do you stand up? Back up from the camera and let body language still play a role? What about props? I always love when presenters have items at the ready to share or a whiteboard or chart paper they write on. It FEELS more in-person. Even if they’ve pre-recorded, I feel more engaged as an attendee. And as a presenter, I feel stronger and more confident. Instead of missing that instant feedback, I focus on delivering something powerful and engaging, knowing that the feedback will come later.
We can go beyond the standard talking head and powerpoint though. What about videos of other presenters explaining a portion of the content or shedding new light on a subject? Can we send attendees on a virtual “quest” to find something relevant on the internet related to the content and share with the group? Can they draw something or write something and hold it up to the camera, send a picture in, or add it to a shared online drive for all to see? There are so many other online collaboration tools we can use to amplify the attendee engagement experience and it’s using those things that help bridge a gap between in-person and virtual events. It may not close the gap, yet it certainly provides us opportunities to explore things we couldn’t necessarily do at an in-person event.
Beyond the standard session, let’s not forget all the variances we see at in-person events - panel sessions, extended workshops, poster presentations, focused discussions. These are all possible, all viable, all open to imagination when we go virtual. What if a panel group presented ideas and concepts, shared initial thoughts and then sent attendees away for a day, to come back the NEXT day with more thoughtful questions? What if the panel had time to take questions, prep answers and resources, then come back to share with attendees? What if a group discussion had too many people trying to weigh in and we could more easily break the group into smaller sub-groups to discuss, or even smaller sub-groups based on more refined topics? And we don’t need chairs moved or extra rooms.
Time and space become less finite in a virtual event. Let’s use it to our advantage, not as a fall-back. Let’s take the time to produce content that our attendees want to consume and engage with. Let’s seek out the best presenters from our diverse world. Let’s invite those that could never afford to attend to join in. Let’s learn more than we could before - and dive in deeper than we ever have. As event planners, as we wished for less confinement in space and time before, we should embrace the virtual and hybrid options as they give us exactly that. Embrace the infinite possibilities!
Here’s my side note and shameless plug. When it comes to managing all of this information, all of these details, the endless sessions, links, recordings and more, it can feel overwhelming. To manage it all together, whether virtual details or in-person event orders, I encourage you to check out My Event Plan - software that allows you to more easily manage every session detail, your entire event production and all of the variables that go with those. This software helps us with every conference, from working together remotely to working together onsite. It is our “event binder” in digital format (and yes, sometimes we do still print pages of it!). We think you’ll love it!