Virtual Conferences 2020 ~ a Speaker’s Review

Caito S
Caito S
Sep 9 · 14 min read
a rubber duckie on top of a webcam, with a ring light behind it, against a colorful backdrop
a rubber duckie on top of a webcam, with a ring light behind it, against a colorful backdrop

After speaking at half a dozen (and attending almost twenty) virtual conferences this summer, I’ve experienced a great variety of new tools and techniques that have arisen out of the growing market for high-quality virtual 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.


Attendees and Inclusivity

Among attendees I spoke with, most of the downsides brought up 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 cannot be escaped from at a virtual event (particularly during a pandemic).

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 summer 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 to save the conference schedule or specific talks to your Google or iCal calendar, which each 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.

GENERAL ACCESSIBILITY

  • Financial aid — more and more, I’m seeing conferences that work with sponsors getting 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), 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 easier to find.

DIFFERENT LEARNING & COMMUNICATION STYLES

“Traditional” conference formats don’t always 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 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 they can’t get virtually, like body language. 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 outside the main event application. 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) exacerbated 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.

The Speaker’s Nightmare

What are the biggest issues that most speakers face? Audio/Visual issues and talking into a void tend to be the things of nightmares for most of us. And guess what? You can still have this traditional speaker experience with virtual events too: A/V issues are often similar, and instead of that worst case scenario of addressing an unresponsive room of people on their phones, now it’s a blank screen.

There are some new problems too, but fortunately, there are some really fantastic organizers out there who have shown me some effective ways of mitigating these.

AUDIO-VISUAL ISSUES

It’s become unavoidable that speakers now have to be a lot more familiar with A/V troubleshooting, with anything from the internet connection to a potential bug in the presentation software. However, most conferences now have mic-checks as a baseline for testing out audio, webcam, and slides with whichever event platform(s) they’re using, typically a week ahead of the event.

  • Pre-recorded: more conferences are allowing for (or requesting, often as a backup) a pre-recorded talk. There are pros and cons for this, but generally I find that it allows for more flexibility, particularly when the speaker and attendees are not in the same timezone. My favorite software for pre-recording talks for this format been OBS.
  • “Green rooms” are becoming more common as well. This is where the speaker joins a separate video chat with one or more organizers (but no attendees), well in advance of their talk. In the best experience I had, instead of making me sit through my pre-recorded talk (which, from experience, is just — cringe) the organizers chatted with me in a separate “room” during my talk, and did some practice Q&A. As a result, I had my best Q&A session (ever) because I felt very prepared, relaxed, and supported. For the organizers, they avoided having dead air, which helped keep up the energy and momentum of the event. With live talks, there are still great opportunities by leveraging the increased chat room use to seed or encourage audience engagement during the Q&A.

TALKING INTO THE VOID

This is many people’s worst fear about public speaking, and is an issue with both in-person and virtual events. There are some fascinating psychological papers on this phenomenon, as well as many resources on how to address it individually. Personally, with virtual, I feel like I’m getting the best of both worlds: I get to avoid the Silent Room of Terror from in-person conferences, and I put photos of friends right behind my webcam, so presenting at conferences now feels like like geeking out with my buds.

Even with effective techniques though, the toughest part can often be the feeling of disconnection right after a talk. If you’re a conference organizer — this can be alleviated by enabling stronger connections between the speaker and their audience in various ways, including:

  • Q&A prep — as I mentioned earlier, finding ways to avoid dead air during the questions and answers portion is beneficial to the speaker, the organizers, and the audience. The most successful ones I’ve experienced occurred when there were seeded or backup questions, either submitted by the speaker, or by the organizers. At one conference, the organizers leveraged the fact that all talks were pre-recorded, and they watched each talk and came up with questions (which they shared with the speaker) in advance. To avoid the outcome where no one wants to be the first one to ask a question, the organizers also added their seeded questions to the event chat during the talk, which did seem to help increase attendee engagement.
  • Virtual speaker loungeparticularly with virtual, speakers often have last-minute questions for the organizers, and it can be uncomfortable, or just plain inefficient, to ask them in a large public chat channel with other attendees. Having a separate chat space just for speakers to quickly access the organizers can make a big difference in the speaker experience.
  • Separate channels for each talk — although this risks getting chaotic if there are already other channels or it’s a multi-track conference, I’ve mostly found that the pros outweigh the cons. Namely, this allows for better separation of concerns and keeps announcement channels clear. There are also easy ways of mitigating the downsides, like being clear in announcements and notifications about where to find these other spaces, and using familiar tools for communication.

BONUS POINTS

Another speaker I was “hanging out with” (virtually, across many timezones, like you do nowadays), told me he kept wishing more conferences would replicate a virtual version of the traditional “speaker dinner.” In the “before times,” these were typically done to help speakers ease into the event and bond with their peers, which often makes a big difference in how connected a speaker feels to the event, and how relaxed they are giving their talk. I have yet to see a virtual conference attempt this.

Conclusion

Whether or not virtual conferences will be a permanent option, they’re the option we have now, and there are a lot of benefits to leveraging the opportunities they bring, and getting creative with the challenges.

This summer I have been impressed with methods that leveraged the virtual platform to better accommodate global reach, wider accessibility options, and different learning and social styles. Even more so, it’s been refreshing to see solutions spread across a wide spectrum of manual thought-work to automated tools that are constantly improving in this new virtual-focused world. I am genuinely looking forward to continuing to see the limits pushed of these tools and techniques, and seeing what that can get us in terms of attendee inclusion, content and connection.


And the Award Goes to…

There were SO many great, innovative, and thoughtful things I’ve seen. I’ve tried to keep it down to just a handful.


Image for post
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Kafka Summit took the award for Most Likely to Post on Twitter. They had several social-media-worthy activities, including a fun points system based on the amount of engagement with the talks and speakers, which could earn you swag. My favorite though, was the Virtual Photobooth. Although I’d seen and used #streamingSelfie for other virtual conferences, Kafka Summit absolutely dominated the hashtag — it was clear attendees really enjoyed this fun and easy-to-use tool. The conference organizers also kept things going by challenging attendees in their Slack space to post with pets, kids, a beverage, etc.


a fake award with images of virtual bars
a fake award with images of virtual bars

Berlin Buzzwords wins Best Happy Hour. A multi-day conference co-hosted by MICES and Haystack, they tested out a different virtual happy hour platform each day, picking the most popular one for the final happy hour. I had SO much fun in each one, and through this festive experimentation, I gained contacts and friends with whom I now chat regularly. I enjoyed them so much, I used some of these later for virtual parties I hosted for friends.

This conference used Finnish company, Digibaari, which includes different bar backgrounds and fun sound effects, and several apps like Gather.town and Spatial.chat which allow attendees to roam around.


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I don’t think anyone will ever beat Deserted Island DevOps (DIDevOps) for Cutest Conference. DIDevOps hosted their conference entirely inside of Animal Crossing, a video game with a reputation for being adorable. Additionally, the organizers and attendees fully embraced this endearing backdrop, and included Animal Crossing-themed analogies in their talks. They also created a fully functional, incredibly well-organized conference hall, with podium, guest laptop, slides, and vendor booths (with branded t-shirts and other swag for your avatar).

I was also very impressed with whoever did the “filming”, as they were able to catch “audience” reactions, and the cutting from the wide angle of the speaker and their slides to just the slides was seamless. If you want the speaker’s perspective for this conference (and more great tips for virtual conferences), check out Noçnica Fee’s writeup.


fake medal saying ‘best style’ with an image of the marketing banner provided by the conference of the speaker, talk title
fake medal saying ‘best style’ with an image of the marketing banner provided by the conference of the speaker, talk title

ACT-W (Advancing Careers in Tech for Womxn) wins Best Style (every year, honestly) with their bold and energetic marketing. This conference is known for having a different logo each year by well-known designer Karlie Kirkaldie, always featuring a Woman of Color and her laptop (or other tech device), often with references to retro space- or futuristic-themed movies.

In addition, this year, they set up separate marketing packages for speakers, sponsors and attendees, which helped spread out and maximize advocacy throughout their community (a valuable move for a non-profit event). As a speaker, I was given a very user-friendly template that could easily be uploaded to social media with my headshot, talk title, and conference information (seen above, in the award graphic).


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DataEng Bytes AU wins Most Likely to Reapply. I say this, not because I would hesitate to reapply to speak at any of these other amazing conferences, but I really want to give DataEng Bytes AU a particular shoutout for their speaker experience. This was one of the conferences where talks were pre-recorded. The organizers went above and beyond in editing the talks and reviewing the content, and were able to come up with very thoughtful questions in advance for each talk.

Organizers were very attentive in the #speakers-lounge Slack channel, ready for speaker’s last-minute troubleshooting questions. They were also active in each speaker’s individual channel, and in giving speakers kudos, which encouraged other audience members to add their compliments as well. They also provided a QR code at the end of each talk that linked to a feedback form for that specific speaker.


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Failover Conf wins Most Likely to Stay in Touch. One component of this was a particularly energetic and well-moderated Slack space — with channels that each had a specific and clear purpose and a good balance between technical and social/fun, each with thoughtful prompts from the organizers. Although they archived the conference Slack a couple weeks after the conference, they encouraged attendees to join their main Slack, where I’ve stayed in contact with several fellow attendees.

Additionally, Failover Conf used Icebreaker video, which I’ve found to be a superior… well, icebreaker tool. They also made sure to introduce this tool in a way that felt natural with the flow of the conference. They acknowledged the inherent awkwardness of virtual social interaction, while still reassuring us that there would be enough structure to mitigate some of that awkwardness. The attentiveness to community in their Slack and in the icebreaker opportunities enabled me to make lasting connections.


a fake medal for ‘most on brand’ with a pic of the speaker in a frame in the shape of a bee’s face, and the Beam bee logo
a fake medal for ‘most on brand’ with a pic of the speaker in a frame in the shape of a bee’s face, and the Beam bee logo

Beam Summit, debuting their new logo this year, wins Most On-Brand. And I’m not even that jealous that this icon gives my company’s logo some major competition in the “cutest logo” category. For real though, they did a fantastic job of leveraging this debut to further engage their community. Beam Summit had logo-themed trivia, and most noticeable of course was the fact that each speaker was framed in the shape of the bee logo’s face during their talks.


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