Tips for building engaging virtual conferences

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As more and more events go to a virtual platform, “virtual event fatigue” is also on the rise. Many groups have been either canceling or finding creative ways to deal with the burnout. One alternative conference getting a lot of attention right now Deserted Island DevOps. It’s using the popular video game called Animal Crossing to engage participants.

Here are some tips for both organizers and presenters to create engaging and worthwhile day-long (or longer) virtual events. 

Tips for organizers

  1. Schedule shorter sessions. It’s difficult for anyone to sit through eight hours of sessions in one day, whether in person or virtually. Instead, schedule one-hour sessions with a 30-minute break in between, and one to two hours for lunch. This allows people to refresh and talk with others. If possible, schedule the event to span multiple days instead of replicating a single day, in-person event. 
  1. Try longer streams when catering to a global audience. If your intended audience is global, an attempt should be made to accommodate both the speaker’s and participants’ timezone(s). This can be done by aligning speakers with their time zones to avoid participants joining at awkward times.
  1. Provide a chat option or question and answer (Q&A) session to replicate important social interactions that get participants to join in for conversation and share. 
  1. Schedule social time. It is often said, the “the hallway track is the best track.” An important value to in-person conferences is the social time or unscheduled opportunities to speak to someone in the hallway. Some ideas for getting some personal time include:
    1. Facilitate online board games
    2. Provide digital “break out rooms” or channels for topic-driven discussion
    3. Coordinate online gaming activities
  1. Give away egift cards to add a bit of fun. These could be raffled away to those that participate in asking questions, or for those that attended an entire session.
  1. Create a panel-based discussion that drives direct engagement. Panels along with a question and answer section (Q&A) is a good way to drive engagement. Select an experienced moderator, four to five panelists, and develop polls or questions that the audience can contribute to. 
  1. Select the right platform for your audience’s needs. ITS offers a variety of conferencing options for all faculty, staff, and students to use. Use this resource to help make a decision about which tool to use based on the set of features you need.
  1. Try “vendor” rooms for participants to book time to talk to an expert. Use a scheduling platform like Calendly to book a timeslot with your own video conferencing software such as Zoom, BlueJeans, or Google Meet.

Tips for presenters

  1. Increase presentation engagement using interactive platforms. Poll Everywhere allows presenters to ask interactive questions that get participants talking and sharing. With Kahoot!, presenters can create games or trivia quizzes, or host or share a live game. 
  1. Don’t neglect your A/V equipment. Invest in a high-quality headset or microphone and webcam. If budgetary needs necessitate that you choose just one, prioritize the headset or microphone. 
  1. Follow best practices for presentation accessibility. Make your presentations, talks, meetings, and training accessible to all of your potential audience, including people with disabilities and others.
    1. Use single words or phrases rather than sentences and paragraphs.
    2. Use a sans-serif font like Arial, and make it large enough for people in the back of the room to see (suggested size: 26-32 pt. for body text; 38-42 pt. for headings).
    3. Watch a four-minute video for tips to present online or live
    4. Review the W3 accessibility website for more best practices. 

Bob Killen, research cloud programmer senior with Advanced Research Computing – Technology Services (a division of ITS) co-authored this article. He has helped run large in-person events since the early 2000s, and has been helping do the same for Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) and Kubernetes since 2018.

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