Virtual Events: Speaker & Organizer Guide
Part 1: Introduction, Accessibility & Inclusivity
After speaking at almost 20 (and attending over 30) virtual tech events since pandemic started, I’ve experienced a great variety of new tools and techniques that have arisen out of the growing market for high-quality online events.
If you’ve attended an in-person tech conference — or really, if you can still remember what any big, in-person event felt like — it’s probably fairly obvious that there are challenges involved in moving large-scale knowledge-sharing events to a virtual platform.
Virtual events aren’t new, but what is new is having them be the only option. This shift has a significant impact on attendance numbers and attendee (and speaker) expectations. This also means that regular in-person events that have previously been able to draw their target audiences in through in-person perks are having to do some serious readjustments.
Based on polls and interviews with other speakers and attendees, as well as my own experience, I’ve selected the most common challenges of going virtual. I’ve also selected what I’ve found to be the most creative ways of addressing these challenges, and of embracing the opportunities that going virtual can provide.
First I’ll address this in relation to attendees and inclusivity, then in relation to the speaker experience. At the end, I’ve provided a list of links to the tools I’ve mentioned, and an awards section for some of the conferences that went above and beyond. Award categories include “Most Likely to Post on Twitter”, “Best [virtual] Happy Hour”, and “Most Likely to Reapply”, among others.
This post will cover attendees and inclusivity. The next post in this series will cover “the Speaker’s Nightmare”, and the last post will include conclusions and a links to all the tools and resources mentioned throughout the series.
Attendees and Inclusivity
Among attendees I spoke with, most of the downsides mentioned for in-person events going virtual fell under the umbrella of “connection” — whether it was to other attendees, to speakers, or to the technologies being presented. Many people also mentioned missing the festive, energizing experience that is enabled through the combination of other people, new places, and even just fun swag. Virtual events can also be more challenging for people who have demanding at-home responsibilities that they can’t escape if they’re attending an event from home.
However, there are many environmental, financial, and logistical benefits of virtual events, inherent simply in not having hundreds or thousands of people convening on a single location. There are also many additional benefits in the realm of inclusivity. Virtual conferences can be more accessible for those who are differently abled, for those who live far away, and for people who may not be able to afford to travel.
EXPANDING YOUR REACH
- Timezones — the time I spent re-re-re-re-re-checking my timezone calculus this year really added up. Having an agenda that is not easy to navigate is already a common pain point for attendees (whether in-person or virtual). But — if you want to really benefit from the larger, international audience that you can attract during a virtual event, it’s essential to make it easy for attendees and speakers to be able to quickly parse what that schedule means for their timezone.
Some conferences have handled this with a calendar plugin that can save the conference schedule or specific talks to your Google or iCal calendar. These plugins will of course also naturally do that much-hated timezone math for you. One conference simply had UTC and PDT timezones side by side for each row of talks on their agenda. The bare minimum is to at least make it clear what timezone you’re in on the agenda and related marketing materials, emails, etc. Posting the conference dates in these communications (including for speaker acceptance emails) also helps, particularly during busy conference seasons.
- Embracing global influence — conferences like DevRelCon Earth scheduled each full day of events to be hosted by a different city around the world, in that region’s timezone. Additionally, they made each day truly themed around the host city. Although I wasn’t able to make it to Tokyo day, I was able to overlap with several European, African, and US cities, and therefore was exposed to unique themes and challenges faced by technologists in each of those locations.
- Financial aid — more and more, I’m seeing conferences that normally work with sponsors getting more creative with where those funds go. Companies are finding that it still pays to be listed as a sponsor. And, without needing to spend many thousands on a venue, food, and swag, conference organizers are finding that they can afford to provide aid in the form of scholarships to paid activities (like trainings). Other virtual events I’ve participated in give options for speakers to donate their honorarium to a cause (of their choice or selected by the event organizers), since they won’t need it for travel expenses.
- Embedded accessibility features — I’ve noticed more conferences recently using this opportunity to include closed captions and other accessibility features as part of the virtual platform itself. Others have simply taken advantage of increased chat room use to make linked information and Codes of Conduct easier to find.
DIFFERENT LEARNING & COMMUNICATION STYLES
“Traditional” conference formats don’t work for everyone. Virtual events are an opportunity to provide a more inclusive range of options for different learning and communication styles.
- Talk playback — being able to stop and replay parts of a technical talk while still being relatively in time with the rest of the conference can make knowledge share easier for everyone. This can be particularly true though for those with “non-default” learning styles, those who are newer to tech, or anyone who just needs to hear that last part again without getting left out of the general flow of the live event.
- Using familiar tools — reaching out and interacting with strangers can be tough for a lot of us. This is often exacerbated for those with various types of anxiety, for many who are marginalized in the industry, or for those who rely more heavily on things like body language that they can’t get virtually. Using a familiar tool for communication can go a long way in making people feel safe and comfortable interacting with other attendees.
- Safe conversation spaces — I consistently received feedback from attendees that having only a few large chat channels is very intimidating. This has been particularly the case for those I spoke with who are marginalized in tech or early-career, as well as those who self-identified as “introverted.” At one conference I attended, I noticed that although the vast majority of attendees were software engineers (a large percentage of them being early-career), the posts in the large chat channel were almost entirely from people in customer-facing roles, with just a few comments from senior engineers. In speaking with attendees, I found that chats were still happening, but in private platforms (not hosted by the event) by attendees who happen to know each other. Conversely, at another conference that had very few early-career engineers but several smaller, more personal chat channels, I saw much more engagement from the early-career engineers.
- Well-structured breakout sessions — for many of us, both the desire, and the struggle to make meaningful connections over virtual platforms is a well-known issue. For this, I specifically polled attendees who, for various reasons, felt intimidated or uncomfortable interacting with strangers at tech conferences. The most common themes I received was that this was usually (but not always) made worse by the virtual format. However, consistent feedback was that they were much more likely to voluntarily attend (and ended up enjoying) social events that were well explained ahead of time, had a clear structure, and the opportunity to connect in smaller groups. Icebreaker Video is a great example of a platform that provides an easy and less awkward way to break people out and prompt more comfortable conversation.
- Make it personal — of course, you don’t want chat chaos during a conference, but I have received positive feedback on having chat channels outside of the main technical or logistical conversation that are a bit more personal. Popular ones this summer have included #hallway-track, #welcome (or #introductions) or naturally providing specific prompts with ones like #work-from-home-setups or #pets.