Six Takeaways from a Virtual Conference Weekend

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Three days. Two virtual conferences. One head spinning with ideas.

That essentially sums up the recent weekend’s activities.

Imagine sitting in front of a laptop screen for three consecutive days attending online workshops, keynote presentations and education sessions. It was wall-to-wall education. By the end of three days, my head was throbbing with so many ideas, and my to-do list became as long as Merlin’s beard.

Virtual meetings have come a long way since the very first virtual set-up by AT&T in 1964. At that time, it was one closed-circuit TV screen connected to another in a different location. After the explosion of the Internet in the early 1990s, it was only a matter of time before the first virtual trade show was held in 1993. 

Then in the late 2000s, virtual conferences became more popular as the recession hit and companies looked for cost-effective ways to hold meetings for large groups of people. Today’s platforms are more sophisticated, allowing people from all over the world to gather in one virtual meeting place to listen to keynote speeches, attend online networking events, and meet one-on-one with clients or entire teams. There are more software and platforms available for online meetings than ever before.

AS the pandemic hit this spring, even more companies jumped on board, converting their in-person trade shows to the online platform, including Spring Fling 2020 which I had been looking forward to attending since the beginning of the year. Would the online presentation water down the conference experience? I answered that question this past weekend.

Below are my takeaways about my experiences with virtual conferences in general. In the near future, I’ll do more specific roundups of the individual conferences I attended hosted by Freelancers Union and Spring Fling 2020 (regional event of the Romance Writers of America).

Takeaway #1: The current pandemic crisis has made technology even more vital to our familial and collegial connections. Without technology tools and event platforms like Zoom, staying in touch with friends, family, colleagues and fellow volunteers would not be possible. Many platforms are fairly easy to use, even for novice users. Still both virtual conferences had their share of tech issues. Some speakers had difficulty staying connected to the platform while others experienced drop outs of sound and/or visuals. Some platforms work better with certain browsers over others. For example, the Accelevents conference worked better with Chrome than other browsers.

Takeaway #2: If you decide to attend a virtual conference, make goals for yourself about what you want to get out of it, just as you would if you were attending it in person. However, some feature may require more effort on your part. For example, if your goal is to meet at least three new people during the event, you might need to make the extra effort to attend the networking sessions since they occur in a separate hub, and most interactions aren’t likely to be by happenstance as they might be if you were there in person.

Takeaway #3: Pace yourself. There are as many sessions and workshops to attend during a virtual conference as there are at in-person events. It’s tempting to visit every one of them. If the experience becomes overwhelming, take a time out. Keep in mind your educational goals. That said, the nice thing about virtual events is you can jump from one session to another quickly without having to get up from your seat and move to another room.

Takeaway #4: Take good notes. There may not be handouts so make sure your notes are crystal clear. Since there are so many sessions, take time to review them a day or two later to refresh your memory. Even better, write one or two summaries of the sessions you attend and post them to a blog – just like I’ve done.

Takeaway #5: Chat rooms can be fun, but they can also be a distraction. It was fun to see the ongoing conversation going on in the chat room that ran alongside the presentation. Even the speakers would get involved in a side chat. It allowed for added interactivity that you might not get in an in-person event. The live chat also allowed participants to post questions, which speakers addressed at the end of the session. Still, it was tempting to get caught up in the commentary and lose track of what speakers were talking about. Other times, it was downright annoying, much like hearing people making snarky remarks about a movie that’s showing in a theater.

Takeaway #6: You can’t replace the energy of a live event. No matter how well planned the conference organizers make the event, it still feels like something is missing from the experience. In-person events seem to have a stronger collaborative energy. You can’t help but start conversations with people around you while you’re waiting for a session to start. You don’t get that with online events – or at least I didn’t. Sure, there is an ongoing chat during the sessions, but it’s more about commenting on what the speaker is presenting. Not sure if any of those chats led to a meaningful connection with a fellow attendee, however.

By the way, if you’re interested in participating in a virtual conference, check out WordPress.com’s Growth Summit event August 11-12, 2020 in the U.S. (No, I do not work for WordPress, but thought it was an interesting and timely item to share considering my topic today.)
 
Bottom line: You get out of a virtual conference what you put into it. I’ve always been interested in the education sessions rather than networking, so that’s where I put most of my effort. But if your goal is expanding your network, there are plenty of people to connect with at these virtual conferences.

With the end of COVID-19 nowhere in sight, virtual conferences will only get more commonplace. It will be interesting to see if they become a permanent fixture in the business world.

Have you ever attended a virtual conference? What was your experience like? Would you attend another one in the future?

Learning to Pivot During Times of Crisis

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I’m stepping aside from my usual posts about the business of writing to explore a different topic – learning to pivot.

“Pivot” has suddenly become one of the common terms associated with the pandemic crisis that we’ve been dealing with these past few months. What does it mean to pivot? In today’s terms, it means repurposing skills and resources to address an immediate need. It’s the ability to switch gears, to shift from one focus to another.

It’s much like watching the weather change before our eyes, then taking steps to protect ourselves from the wind, the rain and lightning.

In the time of coronavirus, people are pivoting between careers, relationships and life goals. One day they may be serving meals to customers at their diner. The next they are packaging meals to deliver to healthcare workers working on the front lines.

Or one day, they may be operating a T-shirt company or work as a seamstress. The next, they may be making masks to meet public demand for face coverings.

Parents have had to pivot too, by becoming at-home school teachers for their kids.

Writers and creatives are not immune. They’ve had to make some rapid adjustments as well. A survey by Freelancers Union in early April found that 76% of freelancers lost business because their clients cancelled contracts or projects. Their clients were small businesses or travel/hospitality companies that were hit particularly hard during this time and couldn’t afford to keep them on. Further 65% reported that they could not find new clients as a result of the pandemic.

With those results, it’s easy to see how some writers need to pivot as much as restaurant workers and travel agents. At least, writers may have more options than those other workers.

So how can you pivot in your writing career during this difficult time? Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

— Ask yourself, “How can I help?” Look around at what is happening in your community. Is there someone who needs assistance? They may not need your writing and editing skills, but maybe they are isolating and need groceries or prescriptions. Doing something constructive can give you some peace of mind, even when you’re not writing.

— Brainstorm ways that you can repurpose your creative skills, or develop new ones. If writing assignments have dried up, look at other ways you can engage. Perhaps start a blog if you don’t already have one, teach a writing workshop to friends and colleagues on Zoom. Or read stories to your kid’s kindergarten class via Zoom. By repurposing your creative skills, you may discover a new talent you didn’t realize you had.

— Look at different industries. Believe it or not, there are some writers who are as busy as ever. Why? They write for companies in industries that are near-recession proof, writes Courtney Danyel at Freelance Writing Gigs. (Check out these tips for finding recession-proof writing gigs.) These industries include ecommerce, healthcare, technology, education government, legal, accounting and energy, among others. Look for companies that are established too. While small businesses and startups can make great clients, they may not be able to afford your services and they may not exist beyond a crisis, like a pandemic, says Danyel.

— Find a way to innovate. There’s an old saying you might have heard of: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” When we are faced with challenges we’ve never encountered before, we learn to innovate to solve those challenges. We develop new systems for operating, invent new products, or experiment with different teaching methods to keep our kids interested in learning. We learn to pivot because a crisis calls us to do so. Look around you now. What can you do that will better serve your family, your neighbors or the community at large?

— Explore new career options. Pivoting can put you on a different career path, one you may not have ever considered. This time might be opportune to take an online course in a subject that interests you. Check out Coursera or Udemy where you can learn about grant writing, entrepreneurship, leadership, content marketing, and contact tracing — the decades old practice of contacting individuals to curtail the transmission of disease.

We are all learning to adapt to the new realities of COVID-19. Some of us are adapting more easily than others. It all depends on how quickly we can pivot