A practical guide to conferences, part V: preparing for an online conference

Guidelines for presenting at virtual technical and scientific conferences
11 August 2020
By Mikhail A. Kats
Preparing for an online conference

Initial academic conferences can be a stressful experience for students, especially those presenting their research for the first time. We asked SPIE Early Career Professional Mikhail Kats to adapt his recent Twitter thread — which also recruited advice and suggestions from his colleagues — into this comprehensive guide on preparing for, attending, and presenting at conferences. Part V is below. Don’t forget to check out Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV as well!

Part V: preparing for an online conference

Due to the pandemic, many major conferences have been converted into online events. We anticipate that at least some form of virtual or hybrid events will continue even after we can return to physical conferences. Part V of this series covers best practices for participation in online conferences.

Preparing for your presentation

The recommended strategy for preparation of oral presentations or posters is roughly the same as preparation for in-person presentations, as described in Part I and Part II.

• Remember that the online audience may be broader than one at an in-person conference, and that a recording of your talk may be available indefinitely. This might affect how much unpublished data you want to present. Also, triple-check your acknowledgements slide and references!

• Make sure you have access to a reliable internet connection before the event starts. If practical, it is recommended that you connect via ethernet rather than WiFi. If you must use WiFi, position your computer close to the WiFi router. It is a good idea to ask others on the same WiFi network (e.g., family or roommates in your apartment or home) to minimize their internet use while you are actively participating in the conference, whether that might be presenting your talk or moderating a session, for example.

a. Pro tip: if you have tether capability on your phone (i.e., the ability to turn your cell phone into a WiFi hotspot), turn it on for the duration of your presentation. If your internet goes out, you will be able to quickly jump back online by connecting to the hotspot from your phone.

Know your digital tools

Become familiar with the conference or event software/platform before presenting. Though most videoconference tools have many similarities, they are also sufficiently different that, without prior practice, you could become flustered trying to share your screen or read incoming questions. Even the same videoconference tool (e.g., Zoom, Webex, etc.) can have multiple modes for a question and answer session, so don't assume in advance that you know exactly what to do from your past experience.

I recommend doing the following ahead of time: (1) Accessing the conference website and reading the instructions; (2) If you can, trying to use the software in a standard video call; and (3) Checking out at least a couple of talks before yours to get a feel for how the session will go.

• Make sure to check your audio quality in advance. Pick a quiet place where you will not be interrupted and test out your microphone. It may be worth investing in a high-quality headset or standalone microphone. It is worth checking to see if your institution would be willing to purchase a headset or microphone for you, as some may have the resources to do so.

• If you don't want to broadcast video of whatever is behind you, consider using a virtual background. Many conferences and/or professional societies have virtual backgrounds that you can use, or you can use your own. It is recommended to test the virtual background before your live presentation, wearing the same clothing/hairstyle you will have for the conference, because sometimes the edge detection can fail. Don't get lost in the virtual background!

• Most conferences will give you a private link with which to join your session. Make sure to use that link, not the general access link for the audience members who will likely not have the ability to share their screen. Please join the session 10-15 minutes before the start time, so that you can get on the same page as the chair/moderator, and make sure everything is working.

Go live or recorded?

Some conferences will give you the option of presenting your talk live or pre-recording your talk and then answering questions live. These days, the preference seems to be for live presentations. However, I have found that playing a pre-recorded talk and then answering the questions live can be quite effective because it gives the speaker the opportunity to read the questions as they are coming in during the talk and prepare thoughtful answers.

• If you decide to pre-record your talk and answer questions live, make sure to let the audience know at the start of the talk that you're there in real time and will be answering questions live: your live presence will make people more attentive and engaged, even if you are playing a recording. Also, be ready to take over and present live if needed: sometimes your internet connection will be better than that of the person playing your pre-recorded video!

• One downside of pre-recording a talk is that you won't be able to make on-the-fly adjustments, such as changes to the intro based on the other talks that came before you in the session or making a joke or apology if there are problems with the connection or software platform.

• Even if you plan to deliver your talk live, upload a pre-recording if you have the opportunity. In the event of technical issues (e.g., your internet goes out or you have a power outage), the pre-recording can serve as a backup.

• If the questions are asked via chat and relayed verbally by the moderator, you may want to try to also have the question panel open on your computer so you can read the questions yourself. Sometimes the moderator may have a hard time parsing and/or relaying the questions, especially if the questions contain jargon that is specific to your narrow sub-field. In this case, it helps to both read and hear the questions so that you can answer them to the best of your ability.

• If you are presenting a poster, take extra care to figure out the exact format of the presentation. While online talks are in many ways very similar to in-person talks, online posters can be implemented in a wide variety of ways. Some conference posters are implemented as mini talks, with questions at the end. At the recent Photonics Online Meetup we ran a poster session in a virtual-reality setting, which resembled conventional poster sessions at physical conferences, and another poster session asynchronously on Twitter.

a. Don't forget to tailor your poster to the medium! Make sure the text and figures are readable, and that you are taking advantage of unique opportunities offered by virtual formats that may not be available at in-person events, such as the ability to play gifs or videos, or even run fast calculations in real time.

Get the full virtual experience

For listening to talks, many of the tips in Part IV apply to online conferences as well. If you want the full conference experience, try to carve out chunks of time for the conference. It will be all too easy to schedule your regular activities (work, meetings, personal events) at the same time, and you may want to fight that impulse when planning. Conversely, virtual conferences make it possible to pick and choose just a few talks/events in which to participate without eating too much into your regular schedule. Choose the approach that works best for you!

At the time of writing this article, conference organizers are just starting to figure out how to build communities and encourage engagement at online conferences, beyond formal talks and Q&As. Approaches can include teleconference meet and greet events or "coffee breaks;" the use of chat platforms like Slack or Discord; or encouraging and supporting engagement on social-media platforms like Twitter using the event #hashtag. Take advantage of these events and platforms! Despite being miles away from other attendees, you will have the opportunity to meet people from around the globe, learn from their experiences, and build collaborations and friendships.


Related SPIE content:

A Practical Guide to Conferences, Part I: Preparing for a Presentation

A Practical Guide to Conferences, Part II: Poster Presentations

A Practical Guide to Conferences, Part III: Pre-conference Planning

A Practical Guide to Conferences, Part IV: At the Conference

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