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!

Pros and Cons of a Virtual Writer’s Conference- full article.

I could never have imagined that half my life would be lived on Zoom, didn’t even know what it was less than a year ago. Yet I spent a long weekend ‘attending’ a writer’s conference entirely as a virtual experience. What does ‘virtual’ mean anyway? One definition on said “exists in essence but not in actuality”. Hmm try to live in the essence of something meant to be actually there. It’s a challenge but surprisingly there are some benefits when it comes to a writer’s conference.

There are obvious advantages like eliminating the cost of travel, hotel, and meals and in these COVID times, not needing to wear a mask or use excessive hand sanitizer. But there are also lesser positives that altogether make a nice package. Here are a few I noted:

• Don’t need to rush to a class or cross a campus to get there or wonder if you’ll get a seat close enough to hear, see or get a chance to share.
• All you have to do is be quick at typing in a chat box to be able to share
• Don’t need to figure out where the next class is
• Can see all the names of the people in a class – might see someone you know. In a classroom you can’t look around too much or people will think you’re weird(er)
• Always have hot coffee in your favorite mug (or a cold brew)
• Can eat a meal if you turn video off as opposed to being hungry because classes are back to back and you don’t want to be impolite and chomp away while the presenter talks about the spiritual nature of writing.
• You can leave, quietly, without worrying about the people around you and hearing their silent questions, ‘what’s wrong with her? This class is great’ or ‘she looks like she might pass out from hunger’ or ‘wish she would stop making so much noise packing up her stuff…’. Just turn video off and slip away back to the familiar actual location of your comfortable home.

I guess it could be summed up that a virtual conference affords convenience.

There are some things lost however. For example, if there are handouts, the printing is on you. You’ll not walk away with any freebies either; prizes, literature or writing themed merchandise. You have to have decent equipment, two monitors (a laptop and a monitor works) so you can view PDFs if not printing them, take notes and also view the class and presenter. You need a reliable internet connection. If you have IT issues, you’re going to miss live classes and only have recordings. On the flip side, there are recordings, so if your dog chews up your router, no worries, all is not lost.

You should consider when you’re in a video classroom, the presenter has as much ability to look around at the faces on the screen as you do. If your eyes are closing or you roll your eyes, mute won’t save you. The presenter may be staring straight at you…kind of feels that way even if faces are spread out over three screens. One of the biggest drawbacks to virtual from live is that you can’t just get up and leave class (enduring the silent attention) and find another class that is better suited for what you want to spend your time on. You only have access to the classes you signed up for.

That is a problem if the class is small and the presenter is painfully ill prepared or just has that kind of creative mind that strings all kinds of thoughts together and nods, ‘okay, as you can see it’s really quite easy to learn these principles for success’. Yeah, not so much. Another soft miss with virtual is that the presenters don’t fraternize any more than participants. That means that when you share your story idea with one person he won’t be connecting with the editor he knows that told him at breakfast that she’s looking for exactly the type of story you’re writing. That’s probably a long shot that such a miraculous connection could be made, but it’s not happening in a virtual setting. In the same way there’s no connections with other writers. Okay so there could be and maybe larger conferences handle this better. There was one event for ‘socializing’ and there was a ‘break out’ room but I stopped by and it wasn’t the chatroom I had hoped for, more like a crossroads between classes.

However, though I know it’s supremely important to network as these events, I didn’t miss the opportunity to mix all that much. Enjoyment of the company of strangers wanes thin super fast for me. Especially when those people are often subtly competitive. There is always a person dominating conversation who finds a way to mention how their book is about to be published or they just landed a job with a major publisher or they have three agents fighting over their manuscript. Then there’s all the posturing and arranging to sit with agents and editors. By the end of a live conference I’m exhausted from all the information and ideas and stressed by all the social failures I’ve had. I almost always battle a bout of depression just after.

Not so this time. Being able to sleep in my own bed. Being able to retreat from the eager, ambitious faces of my classmates every night, I was more focused on learning, less tired and worn out which leads to my conclusion.

If you’re an extrovert and people energize you, a virtual conference will fall flat but you’ll get something out of it. If you can skip the social networking and won’t miss that you don’t have five new friend requests after it’s all said and done, then a virtual conference is a very good use of your time.

Clare’s recommendations to get the most out of a Virtual Writer’s Conference coming in next post.