8 tips for getting the most out of online conferences

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Can I admit something to you, as a friend? I think I might like virtual conferences better than in-person ones.

Not only are tickets cheaper, or in some cases free (apparently lavish cocktail hours and flying in a Gates or Obama for a 10-minute keynote adds up), but it’s also more accessible and flexible for attendees. Folks all across the globe can tune in to a world-class professional development experience without having to get on a flight or make family arrangements.

Over the last year of tuning in to virtual conferences for my job as a partnership professional—and for my own curiosity and learning—I’ve picked up some tricks of the trade for getting the most out of an online conference. Here they are.

Getting ready for your first in-person conference article-pandemic? We’ve got 10 tips for that too.

1. Set your expectations

Simply put, a virtual conference is not going to offer you the same experiences as an in-person event. You’re not going to serendipitously make a new friend while waiting in line for a busy talk, crash a fun afterparty, or get a selfie with your favorite business leader. And that’s ok.

Like in-person conferences, online conferences are a great opportunity to learn, grow, network, and try new things. Conferences are particularly refreshing now, when many parts of the world are still locked down, and life and work feel like a lot of the same day-to-day.

Set your expectations. Reflect on what you’re looking to gain from the conference, and be realistic about it.

2. Take time off regular work

Just because you can work and attend an online conference at the same time doesn’t mean you should. The last conference I went to was the longest (five days!), and it was also the first conference where I didn’t try to juggle work alongside sessions.

Even though I was nervous about being disconnected for so long, especially for something that wasn’t a vacation or had me physically away from work, I got so much more out of it. There was less context-switching and less stress of trying to “get it all done.” It also had the added benefit of setting an example for my team and others to feel like it was ok to make space for their own development in the future.

Need to convince your boss to give you the time off? Most conferences have picked up on this and now offer resources to help you justify the cost of the conference ticket. Build off that to make the case that the company’s money will be better spent if you have the space to focus on getting the most out of the event.

Part of the reason people are reluctant to take time off is because of what awaits them when they get back. Here are 5 ways to catch up on work after a vacation that will decrease the stress around being away.

3. Plan ahead

Online conferences still have capacity restraints. Some sessions, like roundtable discussions, Q&As, or mentor meetings, have limited capacities—and these sessions are typically the most valuable for networking and applying your learnings.

Plan your schedule early to avoid disappointment. Subscribe to the event’s email list or follow them on social media so you can stay up-to-date on when the schedule gets released.

4. Meet someone new

It’s easy to attend an online conference and not meet a single new person—again, no happy hours, no elevator meet-cutes, nothing. This is a missed opportunity, especially with how few organic chances there have been to make new connections during the pandemic.

When you’re planning your schedule, sign up for a number of networking events that’s just slightly above your comfort zone (wouldn’t be a true conference experience otherwise!), and also carve out time to prepare for them so you can make the most of them while you’re there.

5. Get off your desk

Attending an online conference doesn’t have to feel like just another day of work—switch things up by moving away from your desk for the day.

Some big conferences like SXSW are pulling out all the stops and creating TV apps to take the virtual experience to the next level. This was a game-changer for making the conference experience more immersive, and I was also able to share it with family members, which was even more fun.

Dannielle's TV conference setup

If the conference doesn’t have an app, consider casting or connecting your computer to a TV, if you have one. That way, you have a bigger screen to take in all the details, and you can enjoy a comfortable spot on the couch. Bonus points if you’re able to take notes on your laptop or a notepad while the talks play on your TV.

No TV? Or maybe your eyes can’t take another hour of being on a screen? Consider using the conference’s mobile app (or your mobile browser) to tune in with headphones while going for a refreshing walk—or folding up the distracting laundry pile. This works particularly well for a panel discussion or fireside chat where there won’t be an accompanying slide deck presentation.

Video brain breaks are helpful during the regular work week too—not only during virtual conferences. Consider joining Zoom meetings by audio more often.

6. Enjoy the entertainment

The best online conferences break up heavy content with lighter entertainment. One of the most memorable parts of Slack Frontiers, which I tuned into last October, was a monologue by comedian Sarah Cooper.

Use entertainment as a mental break from absorbing more dense material. If the thought of fun during work hours still feels weird, you can consider multi-tasking a little or using it as light background noise while you plan your next day, follow up with new connections, or squeeze in lunch.

7. Share your learnings

After any development opportunity, it’s valuable to take a few moments to reflect on what you’ve learned and the impact the experience had on your professional development or business outcomes. It’s even more valuable to share these details with your team. I typically do this by recapping my takeaways in an internal main site article—in fact, this main site article was the evolution of an internal one I provided with my team on tips for online conferences.

An internal main site article from Dannielle talking about SXSW

Even if no one reads my articles, writing forces me to be accountable for getting the most out of my experience and consider how to apply my learnings to my job. Maybe writing an internal main site article isn’t your style—you could publish a recap video on LinkedIn, share notes over Slack, live-tweet a session, or discuss your experience at a team meeting.

8. Invite your colleagues

Go beyond sharing your learnings: share the experience itself. As you plan your schedule, consider inviting teammates (or that industry acquaintance you’ve been meaning to reconnect with) to sessions that they’d be interested in, particularly if it’s a free event.

You can send a calendar hold with registration details and spin up a thread on Slack or Microsoft Teams to discuss the session live, which builds excitement and allows folks to share insights in real time.

Dannielle inviting people via Slack

Attending online conferences has taught me a ton about my work, but more importantly, about myself and my learning style. With the right environment, plan, and balance, I’m able to get the most out of my time and energy. Instead of being socially tapped out and usually a little jet-lagged after in-person conferences, I walk away (er, close my laptop) with new perspectives to apply to my life and share with others. I hope my tips help you do the same.

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