Ten Tips for Making the Most of a Virtual Conference

Samantha Tyner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics is the inaugural AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow. She is an applied statistician with interests in data science, data visualization, forensic science, machine learning, text mining, and network analysis. She earned her PhD in statistics from Iowa State University in 2017. You can follow her on Twitter at @sctyner.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a glut of opportunities to attend remote meetings from all over the world, including many of the ASA’s conferences. Even the Joint Statistical Meetings are virtual this year! As we navigate this new world and new way to share our work, here are some tips to make the most of your virtual conference experience as a presenter and an attendee. 

Four Tips for Speakers

1. Get Your Tech Right in Advance.

Your computer setup is by far the most crucial key to success at a virtual conference. If your material is amazing, but you’re having technical issues, your presentation will suffer. Here are a few steps you can take to ensure success with your tech:

  • Use a headset with a microphone. You will sound clearer, there won’t be echoing, and you will hear better. The headphones that came with your phone will work just fine, so long as they have a microphone built in. You can also get a headset with a USB port.
  • Make your presentation full screen. Your presentation will be shared to other small screens, not projected on a large surface, so you must make your slides full screen. See Table 1 for keyboard shortcuts to make your slides full screen on various systems and using different software.
  • If you use presenter notes, you will likely need to clone your slides, displaying the slides to the audience while you see your notes. Some programs such as Zoom do this automatically with the most recent version of PowerPoint. If you’re going to use presenter notes, make the conference staff aware in advance so they can help you set it up.

Unfortunately, there is not much you can do about your internet connection. Just do your best to connect to a network you know is reliable. 

Table 1: How to Enter Full-Screen/Presenter Mode When Giving a Presentation with Your Preferred System and Software (fs = full screen)

Table 1: How to Enter Full-Screen/Presenter Mode When Giving a Presentation with Your Preferred System and Software (fs = full screen)

2. Have a Good Background

If you will be on video, it is best to have a neutral background with limited distractions. Avoid “fun” backgrounds, though I do like the blur background effect some services have. There should not be light coming from behind you. For attendees to best see you, the light source should be coming from in front of you, not from directly above or behind you.

3. Look into the Webcam

Just like during an in-person presentation, you want to present to the audience, not to your computer. The audience sees you through your webcam, so look into it occasionally. This will help your audience feel more connected to you and your material. 

4. Good Presentation Rules Still Apply

Some of my favorites are the following:

  • Minimize text, equations, and code on the slides.
  • Ensure any text you keep is large enough to be seen on a small screen. Many attendees will be watching with their laptops, phones, or tablets, all much smaller screens than a traditional desktop setup. Make the text on your slides a bit larger than you think is necessary. 
  • Any plots, graphs, or other visuals should also be clearly readable on a small screen and have large labels.
  • Follow the rule of thirds.
  • Speak more slowly than you think you should. In the moment, your speech will almost always speed up. 
  • Don’t forget to breathe!

Six Tips for Attendees

1. Make a Plan

When attending a conference from home, your attention will be pulled in many directions. The virtual conference may also have many concurrent sessions, just like an in-person conference, so there will be many sessions you want to see. Navigating the online conference system without having a plan could cause unnecessary flustering, so it’s best to know what sessions you’ll be attending ahead of time.

2. Be Present

Do your best to be present during talks. To get the most out of them, give them your full attention. Eliminate distractions wherever possible: silence your phone, your smartwatch, and your email notifications, and inform your living companions you won’t be available for a short time.

Above all, do not do other work while watching a virtual talk. It’s tempting, but avoid this temptation! If you do have to work, close the conference window. It will still be there when your work is done.

3. Move!

During an in-person conference, there is usually some shuffling between rooms every 40–60 minutes or so. You should aim to keep this up during a virtual conference. Get up every 40–60 minutes and take a five-minute break. Get up from your computer. Stretch. Walk around. Do yoga. Make a cup of coffee. Do anything that gets you up from your computer and away from screens for five whole minutes.

4. Set Yourself Up for Success

Figure out the best setup for you ahead of time. When working from home, this can be tricky. If you like to take notes, make sure you have a comfortable space in which to write and watch the talk. If you will use headphones to listen, test the sound in advance.

5. Practice Good Virtual Etiquette

Depending on the conference system, you may be seen and heard during the conference. Unless the speaker specifically requests otherwise, always turn your sound and video off. At an in-person conference, it is obvious who the speaker is based on their position in the room. During a virtual conference, this cue goes away: We are all little squares on the screen. Don’t distract from the speaker by leaving your sound and video on.

6. Protect Your Time and Health

Your time and health are incredibly valuable. Don’t let attending a conference, virtual or otherwise, detract from that. If you are new to working from home, you are already adjusting to a new way of life.

Don’t put additional pressure on yourself to attend every virtual conference session. In addition, now you can access more conferences than ever, with no travel required and low registration fees. Don’t try to attend them all. Choose wisely.

Finally, try to make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Don’t get up super early or stay up super late for a conference in a wildly different time zone. 

Good luck, everyone! “See” you at JSM 2020!