With the onset of global pandemic and universal cancellation of in-person events in the initial period, most professional gatherings are now held in an exclusively virtual or a hybrid mode. With such circumstances, adaptation to new ways of verbal and non-verbal communication is needed to take the maximum from the attended event. Some tips shared below should represent effective, yet simple steps to enhance the virtual or hybrid experience, based on specific roles.
FOR THE ORGANIZER
SELECTING THE RIGHT FORMAT
If the planned event is supposed to be a lecture and is intended for a large audience, full virtual format is the only possible choice, as the health precautions are still in effect. Make sure the chosen platform is user friendly, which means supported by most operating systems, and one people have access to. Also, a platform you and your institution/company are familiar with and can provide prompt adjustments in case of glitches or malfunction. Secure the right bandwidth to ensure the optimal experience for the presenter and the audience. Alternatively, a smaller event such as a workshop, seminar, or panel, may be set as a hybrid format. In such instances, the in-person participation should preferably include most of the presenters and the moderator.
Keep it simple with registration/log-in process, and e-mail invites containing direct links with all the information works best. Some participants may be joining from non-computer devices, and one should ideally be able to run the same platform on any of these (tablets, smartphones, etc).
Virtual formats offer the chat and poll options, which are usually unavailable or cumbersome in traditional in-person only settings. To make most of these extra dimensions, it would be best to have an experienced moderator who could track the status of the chat and any live polls, as the presenter may find it difficult to focus on the presentation and live audience feedback. A moderator may help guide the event in case of any sudden technical difficulties or unexpected situations. With that in mind, such a role should be reserved for someone who ideally has experience with the chosen virtual platform.
FOR THE PRESENTER
Much is dependent on the presenter in the traditional format of professional events, but even more so in pure virtual setting. Feel free to use even more (quality) multimedia contents, as the audience would be viewing it through their own close-up screens, as opposed to a traditional big projector or single screen. Slides may contain greater details than usual, as such should be more obvious on private quality screens. All the traditional presentation recommendations are also valid for virtual ones, so do not overcrowd the slide, but break it into several slides in such case.
ENGAGE THE AUDIENCE
The main goal of the presenter should be to keep the attention of the audience, and with multiple virtual platform options, it can be turned into advantage rather than handicap. Include polls or ask questions to the audience to make them an active factor of your presentation (remember the raise hand option). It could increase chances of a quality discussion as well. If the event is a workshop or seminar-like event, feel free to call out an individual from the audience to share their thoughts, of course if one is comfortable, though their attendance should vouch for such an assumption. Once the barrier of silence or passive listening is broken, virtual events may become quite lively.
SET THE TEMPO
It is your presentation and your allocated time to deliver a message. If audience engagement is not at the level of your expectation, focus on getting the presentation done as though you are not dependent on their contribution. It is nice to have them as an active factor and create a mutual momentum, though remaining able to independently deliver the intended take-home message is the key. Work with your moderator throughout your presentation and set the rules up front, as some presenters prefer to be interrupted by a real-time comment, though others may leave it for the end. No matter what the style, be mindful of the time and ideally finish a bit earlier, as it allows room for an extra question or comment, which for sure would always follow and excellent talk.
FOR THE AUDIENCE
GET THE RIGHT TIME
First, make sure you have the right schedule of the event and timing is appropriate. With the virtual formats offering global participation, one should be mindful about possibly different time zones depending on the host reference timetable. It is always appreciated to politely notify other participants if you are not planning on attending a previously set commitment.
Although the virtual format offers almost endless opportunities to participate at many live events, it may become overwhelming, and ultimately long screen times can just add to feeling of burnout, instead of fulfilling a positive role. Therefore, prioritize. Most events are now being recorded, so it is possible to access them some later, at one’s convenience. Live participation is preferred for events in which the focus is on discussion, such as seminars, workshops, panels, or if you are planning on contributing with questions or comments, as those may represent a unique time-sensitive opportunity.
SET THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT
Indeed, the virtual format offers an excellent opportunity to participate in an event, regardless of other ongoing daily activities which would otherwise preclude a dedicated travel to other state, country, or continent. However, brains are still underperforming while multi-tasking. In order to get most from the selected virtual event, the environment should be set so focus is maintained. You don’t have to be in your office, and possibilities are endless, but attending an event with the screen in the background or just through headphones, while performing some other cognitively or physically demanding task, may be suboptimal.
Ultimately, flexibility is the key to avoid frustration with the virtual format. Whatever the future brings, this will likely represent another form of expected literacy in the professional world.
Drs. Man and Toljan are employed by the Cleveland Clinic. They have no conflicts of interest to disclose.
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz