8 Tips for Attending Virtual Conferences

It's conference season…virtually speaking. The health and safety of our community are more important than anything else, which means in-person events are a no-go in 2020 (and likely beyond). Rather than canceling, most tech events in 2020 have decided to go online. These very virtual venues aren't the only change. If you've attended conferences before, you're in for a completely different experience with an online event.

How can you make the most of this new world of virtual conferences? We have eight tips to help get you started.

  1. Understand your goals. Before attending, make sure you know what you want to get out of the event. So many people attend conferences on autopilot. "It's just what you do" is not a valid reason for spending your valuable time. Think it through first.
  2. Be selective. If you're there for training, select talks that will be most helpful for moving you toward your goals. This isn't different from an in-person event, but it's something I find few people actually do. Plan to spend your time on the things that matter most for you.
  3. Adjust your expectations. If you're there for networking, you might be disappointed. Most online conferences fall short on this element. It's nearly impossible for online events to duplicate the serendipitous experience of walking around and hanging out at an in-person event. Most attempts to do so feel contrived at best and worryingly like Chatroulette at worst, leaving them ripe for abuse.
  4. Be respectful. Speaking of abuse, don't be That Guy in the session chatroom. Just because typing in the chat may not interrupt the speaker's delivery, it doesn't give you license to type a bunch of “well actually”s during their session. The session chat is not the place to show off your knowledge or bring up a pet project that you feel the speaker should have mentioned. Just like at in-person events, legitimate questions are welcome but comments are not. If you want to show off your knowledge, do it the way the speaker did: by doing the hard work of getting a proposal accepted then writing and delivering a good talk.
  5. Branch out. Because nearly every conference seems to be going virtual right now, you may find that these online events give you the opportunity to test the waters in a conference you'd never otherwise attend. Want to learn more about technical writing? Accessibility? Product management? HR? Robotics? Whatever the topic, you can find an online conference for it. A few introductory sessions may give you a lot of valuable perspective on other roles and industries.
  6. Take a break. Many people find all-day video conferences even more exhausting than the real-life version of the event. Remember: You don't need to attend a session in every time slot. Take care of yourself by taking breaks to go for a walk, play with your pets or kids, stretch, read comic books, or whatever helps you relax. You'll get a lot more out of the event this way.
  7. Make the format work for you. A lot of video conferencing systems allow you to join the video on one device and the audio on another, such as your phone. This can be really helpful to battle conference fatigue because, by using your phone for the audio, you're no longer chained to your workspace and can move around without missing much. At a real-life conference, it's typically bad form to move around a lot in the middle of a session, but not so when the event is virtual, and using your phone for the audio can maximize your flexibility in this regard. In a virtual conference, it's perfectly fine to go get another cup of tea, walk around the room, or take a bathroom break (just make sure you're on mute).
  8. Choose wisely. The best conference may be the one you never attend. If you don't feel you'll be able to meet your goals or have a good experience at an online event, don't attend it. You may be able to select the content that's best for your needs by viewing recordings of talks or by setting up online networking video chats with colleagues and fellow community members.