How to Get the MOST out of a Virtual Conference

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We’ve all been pushed to the outer reaches of cyber-space by COVID-19. Thankfully, it isn’t an alien species. Science can push back and bring us back to near normal earth again. Meanwhile, we regular humans are learning to live in a way that is not our preferred style of social interaction. So, instead of the melee and crescendo of creative energy that normally accompanies a writer’s conference, there is the potentially sedate, introspective experience of a virtual conference. (See my last post “The Pros and Cons of a Virtual Writer’s Conference” for my observations about this.)

To get the most out of this kind of conference, some planning and foresight are needed. Here are my recommendations, some are my ‘should have’ and others are ‘glad I did’ actions from the last virtual conference I attended:

  • Schedule management
    • Be very clear on what classes you are signed up for or are available to you by printing the schedule or having it on screen.
    • Forward the registration confirmation with final class information / Zoom links to the top of your email.
    • Print out or write out your schedule / highlighting breaks in between and post in a prominent place in the household (kitchen/ refrigerator) so that everyone knows your schedule.
    • Keep handy the zoom class id#’s and passwords. (If you are rushing back to start a class, you don’t want to have to scroll through a class list that has extraneous information. All you need are the 2 numbers to pop into the class.)
  • Set- up / Environment
    • A secluded/private location is a must. That may mean going to a friend’s house or the library. My experience was that there was not a lot of verbal interaction with the presenter so a public location could still work.
    • Make it fresh. I am working from home 75% of my work week. I didn’t want to feel like I was at work. I set-up another office space that looked and felt different. This could be a corner of your bedroom using a folding table. I have a vintage cabinet with a pull-out counter. Be creative! It’s what you do. But make it so that you can shift into a different mind-set than the normal everyday situation.
    • Splurge on treats; the best coffee creamer, fancy tea, a box of chocolates…whatever makes it feel like you’ve traveled to a new place and you’ve thrown some inhibitions to the wind…safe throwing people, don’t build a path of regrets!
    • Have snacks, beverages, tissues, basic necessities at arm’s reach. It only takes a few minutes to miss that key point a presenter makes or a comment from someone in the class; the one nugget that would save you from failure. You’ll have access to recorded classes, but truth be told, the likelihood of going back and listening to a class to make sure you didn’t miss something is slim.
    • Set-up two monitors/keyboards if you can; one to view class and the other to type notes (a laptop with a desktop and monitor, tablet or second laptop)

  • Pre-conference actions
    • Download the platform being used (ex. Zoom / Teams) and verify it works.
    • Attend any pre-conference gatherings to get inside information
    • Set-up monitors; prep to have a mouse for each situation (meeting & notes/hand-outs/email)
    • Create a notes file/document. I used Microsoft OneNote. Days before the conference, I created a file for each class with the class time/title/ subject and presenter. This way I don’t have a mish-mash of notes.
  • Other Pointers
    • Have a contingency plan – Where can you go if WiFi goes down at your location?
    • Take notes on classmates that share during a class that seem like you might have a genre or style in common. Later when class list is shared, you might be able to reach out that person and find a beta-reader.
    • Like any meeting, in-person or virtual, take some time on your appearance on camera.
    • Like any virtual meeting, be mindful of what is in the background when video is on.
    • Don’t hide! Use the video. This not only psychologically makes you feel more like you are present at the virtual location but is considerate to the presenter. It is truly difficult to teach to a class of printed names. It may seem unnecessary, but I believe there is value in human interaction that includes facial cues.
    • Press off video when you leave the room; have to interact with an actual human in the room or any other time that it’s best people are not getting a cinematic view of your activity.
    • Have a scratch pad handy to jot down thoughts/lists/ questions. Sometimes old-fashioned manual writing works better but not if you have to hunt for paper and pen.
    • Pull PDFs of any class handouts up on your screen. This way you can follow the class presenter but will be able to scroll up or down.
    • Read class description and pay attention if there is pre-work to be done. I missed this with one (the only) class that had a pre-read of an article which meant I was less prepared.
    • Set alarms/timer for class times. If you divide your attention between the conference and things going on in your household, you’ll need a reminder to stay on track.
    • Don’t hesitate to share….which means start typing in the chat box as soon as a question is asked or an exercise is finished.
    • Don’t be a share hog…if you have fast typing skills and shared a few times in a class, hold back and let others beat you to the mic. There were a couple of classes where the same person shared over and over. When finally, a different person got a chance, it was a refreshing point of view. (I swear it wasn’t me who kept sharing).
    • Finally, have fun…actually that’s just the trite ending to an article like this so….Finally, be thankful, you’re a gifted writer! That makes you special in my book. Write on!