After two years of living in pandemic mode, we look at time differently. Because many people rearranged their lives so they could spend more time on what they value and less time doing unfulfilling work, we’re witnessing The Great Resignation. Time is a primary decision factor now. Is this job worth the hour-long commute? Is this virtual conference a good use of my time? Do I want to spend more time in front of a screen? What else could I be doing with that time?
When people want to guard and maximize their time, the compulsion to multitask during virtual conferences is more understandable. Attendees get antsy sitting there and staring at the screen while listening to lackluster presentations. That definitely doesn’t seem like a good use of time!
Your audience is made up of discriminating consumers. Price is a factor for them, but time, a nonrenewable resource, is a huge factor. Information and CE credits are commodities. Your virtual conference must offer learning and connecting experiences they can’t find elsewhere and are worth, without a doubt, their precious time.
Prevent multitasking by designing a virtual conference worth every minute of someone’s time
In the early months of the pandemic, virtual conferences were online replications of in-person conferences with the same schedule and session format. But, instead of table discussions with a small group, attendees shared a chat box with dozens, if not hundreds, of others. Networking—or any opportunity for conversation—was a challenge. And the exhibit hall, ugh, let’s not go there—because nobody did!
You now have a blank slate with virtual conferences. Keep adult learning principles and social learning in mind as you design your conference. You can offer learning experiences that are actually enjoyable and effective, and plenty of opportunities for attendees to meet and talk shop in small groups.
Provide a virtual conference experience that’s worth the time attendees must take away from work and personal responsibilities. Deliver an experience that never gives them the urge to multitask.
Identify and overcome the barriers to your attendees’ attention
Virtual conference attendees have far more distractions vying for their attention than attendees who flew somewhere to spend a few days at an in-person conference. Everyone knows the virtual attendees are still at home or in the office.
Think about a virtual attendee’s life before asking them to give you their full attention to a program lasting from 9 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. Good luck preventing multitasking during that one! It’s a rare human who can completely ignore meeting requests, emails, notifications, and their nagging to-do list. For three or four hours at a time, sure, but all day? Probably not.
Consider a half-day schedule during the hours that work best for your audience. You can always program optional social activities, such as facilitated discussions, before or after hours.
Dave Lutz of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting suggests scheduled replays or appointment learning. Although these often take place after a conference, you could replay popular sessions with the speaker or another expert in attendance in the chat box. Give attendees the opportunity to have live discussions or interactive ‘table’ exercises in breakout rooms.
The European Society of Paediatric and Neonatal Intensive Care (ESPNIC) made life easier for parents with toddlers at home with their ESPNIC Preschool, “where parents could find interactive elements to entertain their children while they were busy learning.” This PCMA article has other creative ideas for helping attendees stay engaged.
Experiment with new program ideas
Sarah Michel of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting suggests an alternative approach to conference tracks. “Organize your education sessions into challenge-based (not role-based) learning tracks. To improve impact, appoint a Track Leader with experience in that track’s challenge and in facilitating group discussions.” In her post, she has more to say about the role and impact of Track Leaders.
Attendees want more opportunities to meet with their peers so help them continue session conversations. During the conference or in the weeks after, schedule follow-up Q&A sessions with speakers and discussion/networking groups.
Give people something to do during breaks. At in-person conferences, the hallways are where some of the event magic happens. Open up virtual lounges for a mix of different job positions, career stages, industry topics, or random interests—poll your attendees for ideas.
Virtual attendees miss striking up conversations with fellow attendees as they’re walking out of a room or running into acquaintances in the hall. Julius Solaris of Hopin mentioned this lament in a PCMA article: “That was the feeling I was missing. It was about the corridor, not the big room.” Scratch this itch by creating “planned serendipity—the oxymoron we should live by when we think about virtual events.”
Offer enjoyable learning experiences that make an impact
Maximize every minute of the session by skipping speaker bios and housekeeping announcements. Attendees can dread that information on rotating slides before the session starts or on the first few presentation slides. Do the same with sponsor promos. If you give sponsors more substantial educational roles, which is what they prefer, there’s no need for promos to take up content time.
Virtual sessions must supplement passive listening with individual/group activities. This variety holds an attendee’s attention since they have to keep up to participate. Encourage speakers to inject more variety into presentations, for example, short media clips or interview snippets. Instruct them to rein it in. Too much speaker or panel banter—the inside jokes and show-off lines—is a waste of time.
The speaker’s duty is to make it impossible for someone to want to multitask. To help them with that mission, you need to take more control of session design. In proposal forms, explain your new session requirements. Prospective speakers must describe how they will give attendees the chance to recall and apply new information, and what kind of group or individual interactive exercises they plan.
Don’t just tell them what they need to do, explain why. Educate prospective speakers about learning principles. Provide resources so they know how to adjust the way they’ve always done it and can feel confident experimenting with a new method. This Leading Learning program, Presenting for Impact, might be a place to start.
Get the word out about your new virtual conference experience
Prospective and past attendees will expect the same old thing unless you tell them how this year’s conference is different. Let them know what to expect. This won’t be a sit-back-space-out-and-multitask conference experience. Tell them you made changes so they can meet people, have meaningful conversations, and take away knowledge they can apply back on the job.
Everything we’ve suggested for virtual conferences applies to in-person conferences too. Since attendees spend more time and money traveling to an in-person conference, you must pay even more attention to conversations and connections than you ever did before. Attendees don’t want to multitask at your conference. They much rather forget the office and enjoy the moments unfolding right in front of them.