How to Take Advantage of Online Conferences

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When the COVID-19 pandemic forced conference organizers to pivot to virtual meeting formats in 2020, Juliet Beverly, content manager for the Society for Neuroscience’s, jumped at the opportunity to attend as many science-writing and science conferences as she could. In fact, she attended eight, including the ScienceWriters meeting, the joint meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the BRAIN Initiative Investigators meeting.

“I will honestly say that I overdosed on conferences,” Beverly says. “I was determined, like, ‘I’m going to learn something this year, because I can’t leave the house.’” Cramming in so many meetings, while exhausting, was worth it, she says. “Physically and financially, I couldn’t have done this in-person in a year.” However, she doesn’t recommend maintaining such a packed virtual conference schedule without serious strategizing. Too many meetings can leave journalists feeling worn out, stretched thin, and behind on deadlines.

I, too, can relate to the urge to overcommit to virtual opportunities. Before last year, I had never attended a science or science-writing conference. I have lived in the Midwest, not commonly host to major conferences, for most of my adult life. And I have disabilities that make it challenging (and sometimes impossible) to travel long distances.

So when 2020 became the year of Zoom and virtual meetings, I realized many of the conferences I had always wanted to attend would be held online. I was eager to take advantage of all the options that were suddenly available to me. But as I kept finding additional conferences, online talks, short lecture series, and webinars to add to my list, the cornucopia of possibilities became staggering to sift through.

Taking advantage of virtual conferences without overdoing it can be tricky, but there are concrete steps we can take to make these experiences as smooth, positive, and profitable as possible. Journalists can narrow down the plethora of options by picking meetings and individual sessions with an eye for what’s most likely to yield a story or a key connection. It can also help to prepare for technology glitches and other interruptions. And embracing the awkwardness of online networking will help you reap its benefits.


Choose Conferences Wisely

Now that almost everything is literally at your fingertips, you may be tempted to sign up for more online meetings than you can realistically attend. Since we aren’t traveling to attend in-person and accruing those expenses, the options can seem limitless. For example, many online science and science-writing lecture series and one-off talks have been offered for free during the pandemic. And if you’re eligible for press registration to scientific conferences, that usually means that your registration fees will be waived.

But every talk you attend still comes at a cost. “We should try to keep in mind our own bandwidth and other work that we have going on,” says Erika K. Carlson, a freelance science journalist based in New York City.

If you have one or more beats that you typically focus on, it helps to stick to conferences that are directly related to those, says Sarah Derouin, a freelance science journalist based in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Since Derouin covers earth and environmental science, most years she tries to attend the meetings of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the Geological Society of America, as well as the ScienceWriters meeting. She says she prioritizes conferences that show promise for leading to story ideas within her beats or new connections with potential sources. And she typically sets goals for finding a certain number of stories to pitch from each meeting.

Science journalists can also take advantage of online conferences to expand their beats, by attending conferences in new-to-them fields without the high cost of traveling to them in person. The same goes for international conferences. If there’s a meeting overseas you’ve been itching to attend but the cost of the flight alone was prohibitive, now’s the time to sign up for the virtual version, if it’s available.

That said, keep in mind that signing up for an international meeting may mean attending sessions held in a distant time zone, so adjusting sleep and work schedules accordingly might provide a better experience. Beverly didn’t have that flexibility while she attended a conference for the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS), so she didn’t sleep properly for a week. “That was a bad idea,” she says, though the meeting was still valuable to her.

To help sift through the abundance of meeting options, journalists can consider their existing workloads and family or other personal responsibilities for the week a conference is being held, along with the likelihood that attending that meeting will lead to something fruitful, such as a story idea or a great networking opportunity. Asking those questions helped me narrow down my list for the first part of this year to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which has long been on my list of conferences to attend; the Joint Mathematics Meetings, since math is one of my beats; and the American Physical Society’s March Meeting, because I would like to cover more physics research.


Sign Up Now, Watch Later

Sometimes, it’s worth signing up for virtual conferences even if you know you won’t be able to watch the sessions in real time. The key advantage here is the freedom to watch them whenever you want. But that can also be a downside, because it’s up to you to carve out the time to do so. It’s easy to let the recordings you intend to watch pile up, especially if you plan to save multiple meetings for later viewing. Plus, it’s easy to waste money on recordings that may expire before you have a chance to watch them.  “Block your calendar to watch all the playbacks you want,” Beverly says. You might even consider scheduling a virtual watch party with colleagues or friends who have registered for the same conference and want to watch a session recording and discuss it.

Once you’ve settled on which meetings to attend, do your homework by looking over the program and the list of speakers ahead of time.

For both science and science-writing conferences, watching the recordings also gives you the freedom to pause and reflect on big ideas without having to keep up with the speaker’s next thought. Or you can jump ahead in the video if you find part of it irrelevant to you. These options for different pacing can be tremendously helpful if you’re trying to branch into covering a new subject and might need time to look things up or digest information. Keep in mind, though, that it may take a while before recordings are uploaded, so planning on delayed viewing doesn’t always work for finding story ideas on time-sensitive topics. And there’s always the possibility that a particular talk won’t be recorded due to a technology glitch or a speaker’s preference that it not be.


Prioritize Key Sessions

Once you’ve settled on which meetings to attend, do your homework by looking over the program and the list of speakers ahead of time. This step has always been important for in-person conferences. But it’s perhaps even more critical now, because the pandemic has placed greater restrictions on many people’s time. What’s more, we’re attending these conferences from home, where we can’t escape the responsibilities of daily life.

Planning ahead will help you figure out which sessions you don’t want to miss. “Choose carefully,” says Meera Subramanian, an independent journalist based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, who covers science and the environment. Trying to attend every single session offered will just leave you feeling discouraged when you inevitably miss something, she says. Instead, she recommends going to a select few so that you can be fully present during the ones that are most important to you. You could also split up session attendance with a colleague who can be a “recap buddy for you later,” Beverly says.

Ramin Skibba, a freelance science journalist based in San Diego, California, says he has had to focus on attending just a few sessions at each conference. Since the pandemic nixed his childcare options, he has been watching his two small children while continuing to work. When picking which sessions to attend, Skibba says he looks for speakers with interesting work that isn’t well-known, because he knows he won’t be able to turn stories around at lightning speed. Planning ahead is key, he says, because it’s harder to “stumble across” interesting sessions or speakers during online conferences.

Similarly, you can’t just approach someone right after their talk to ask questions like you would at an in-person meeting. So Skibba says he asks the speakers preliminary questions over email before a conference begins. If he finds something that seems promising, he might even discuss the upcoming session with editors to see if they might be interested in a story on it. This extra step helps because responses from sources or overloaded editors may be delayed, he says.

Journalists may also want to prioritize attending social events or interactive sessions at virtual conferences. That’s what Carlson did when she attended the online ScienceWriters meeting in October. Those virtual sessions can only be done in real time and provide opportunities to make connections and engage with others, she says. Other sessions, especially ones in which the speakers are mainly talking at the audience, can be watched as recordings (if those are available) without losing out on much of the experience.

By contrast, Beverly says if you’re strapped for time, don’t fret about forgoing networking opportunities. If the conference provides an attendee list, she recommends scanning it for people you want to connect with on LinkedIn or other social media platforms. “Make the first contact at a time that works for you,” she says. “If they are a panelist [or] speaker, watch their session first before you ask for virtual coffee.”


Plan for Interruptions and Technology Challenges

Even with the best planning, distractions and hiccups can still arise when attending a conference online. Especially if you’re working from home, children, pets, and even other work projects you’re taking care of may sometimes need your attention. “Be prepared to be interrupted,” says Beverly.

Familiarize yourself ahead of time with the conference platform and other technology you’ll be using.

While you can’t prevent every interruption from happening, you might be able to minimize some. “Maybe even make your meals ahead of time so you’re not distracted by trying to feed yourself,” says Subramanian. She recommends mimicking some of the in-person conference experience by trying to create the type of “blocked-off space that’s separate from your other priorities and competing demands.”

Caretaking alongside conference attending can be particularly challenging, Beverly says. “If you are in the house with someone else who can take on that responsibility to help support you, try to have that conversation ahead of time.” If you aren’t so lucky, your best option might be watching recordings at a later date when you have more time.

Anticipating and preparing for technology glitches can also help smooth out the virtual meeting experience. Familiarize yourself ahead of time with the conference platform and other technology you’ll be using. Conference organizers often share resources about their platforms and how to test out the technology in advance, says Subramanian. Make time to review those resources in advance.

That way, she says, when the conference starts, “you can just totally be there to actually engage with some amazing people that have been convened to share information with you instead of fretting with just, ‘How do I even get to get in?’ or ‘Which link do I use?’”

Before the meeting, it may also help to figure out whom to contact in the event of a more complicated technology issue—that way you don’t miss out on a key talk if a link doesn’t work. Depending on your device and the speed of your internet connection, “the software can be difficult to manage,” says Skibba, who has an older computer. Also, if you plan to record a talk yourself, know that could come with some limitations. Skibba used a digital recorder to capture audio from some sessions he was unable to attend. But he says that he didn’t get much out of those recordings, because he couldn’t see what speakers shared on their screens.

To combat the inevitable internet fatigue that comes with online meetings, don’t forget to move. If your camera is off, “you could be walking around your apartment listening to the talk and no one will know,” Carlson says. Subramanian encourages getting outdoors during breaks if possible. “No matter what weather or geography may be, just get outside and breathe some oxygen if you can,” she says. “Let your eyes focus on distant things like birds and trees.”

Science journalists can also use social media to help to stay focused and engage with scientists and other science writers. When Natalie Rogers, a communications specialist and public information officer at the University of New Mexico, attended ScienceWriters online last year, she live-tweeted lots of sessions. “It helps me pay attention,” she says.

Rogers says she juggles tweeting with listening by using her computer rather than a phone, because she types faster than she texts. She also creates threads on Twitter. “Think of live-tweeting like note-taking: only the highlights. Listen for catchy pull-quotes.” Taking screenshots of presentation slides can also help, she notes.

“And finally, it’s supposed to be fun!” Rogers says. So if live-tweeting or chatting during talks is stressing you out, she recommends taking notes offline instead. You can always tweet about a session afterwards.


Find Ways to Connect

While virtual conferences aren’t ever going to be the same as in-person ones, science journalists can still find satisfying avenues to connect with sources, editors, and one another in this online world.

While virtual conferences aren’t ever going to be the same as in-person ones, science journalists can still find satisfying avenues to connect with sources, editors, and one another in this online world. Acknowledging this and being open to a different experience is key to making the most of virtual networking opportunities.

For example, at the numerous conferences Beverly attended virtually in 2020, “the experience of running into someone while getting coffee or at some kind of watering hole was gone, but it was really replaced by the chats and any forums to virtually network.”

While networking online can be awkward, it helps to just “embrace the fact that you’re all looking at each other on a screen and it’s weird,” Derouin says. “We’re all going to be staring at each other and trying to figure it out as we go.” If you’re struggling to connect with new people, she recommends looking for people that you already know from online groups for science writers or from past events.

For me, trying to join a crowded virtual table on an interactive meeting platform like Remo has felt at times like trying to jump into a game of Double Dutch jump rope. But don’t be afraid to wait on the sidelines for a few minutes if there’s a particular table you really want to join. If I was concerned about appearing flustered when I hopped to a new table, I turned my camera and sound off until I was ready to take a turn to talk.

And, remember, if someone starts monopolizing the discussion or a conversation lulls, it’s much easier to leave a virtual space than a physical one. That said, instead of just disappearing, you might want to chime in to let others know you’re going to mingle. If you can’t get a word in edgewise, just send a quick message to the group in the chat.

During virtual interactions, it also helps to add an extra dose of sensitivity. We lose some of the nuances of communication that are present when we meet in person, Subramanian says. “Be extra attentive to how your comments can come across,” she says. “Err more on the side of friendliness and directness.” For example, use caution with jokes and sarcasm, which can be misinterpreted. That way, “everybody feels welcome and included,” she says.

In other cases, virtual meetings may help strip away biased or inappropriate behavior that can come out when people interact in-person. I have experienced these benefits as a service dog handler. When I have been in certain professional settings in the past, others have gotten so wrapped up in the fact that I have a dog with me that they have seemed completely unable to focus on my questions and contributions. Instead, they have pestered me about petting my working dog or asked invasive personal questions about my disabilities. Besides making it difficult for me to obtain information or enjoyably interact with others, this also puts me in the awkward position of having to speak up against this behavior. Knowing that won’t happen during the online conferences I attend has been, frankly, a huge relief.

Similarly, Beverly says being one of the only Black women in the room at science-writing and scientific conferences in the past has felt isolating. “When you’re a different looking person in a space, sometimes what’s overwhelming is the fact that you’re really all alone,” she says. “But in the virtual space, there is a plus, because we’re all these little, tiny pictures of ourselves,” making people more likely to focus on what’s being said rather than the physical characteristics of who’s saying it.

That part of the online meeting experience in 2020 was very liberating, Beverly says. It allowed her to make more and deeper connections while sitting at virtual tables. “I think anyone going forward into the virtual space just needs to be brave enough to speak up or chat up and have an open mind,” she says. “I thought this was going to be a lost year, but it wasn’t.”



Rachel Crowell
Rachel Crowell Denise Warzak

Rachel Crowell is a freelance math and science journalist whose work has appeared in Quanta Magazine, Scientific AmericanScience News for StudentsRewireEos, and more. Rachel also co-edits the American Mathematical Society’s Blog on Math Blogs. Follow them on Twitter @writesRCrowell.

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