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Virtual Conference Benefits

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

Graphic Illustration from my AB SPORU plenary by Candace Ramjohn

Back in the spring, my inbox became populated with cancellations of conferences that I was booked to speak at. Cancelled. Postponed. Cancelled. After you publish a book, public speaking is the way you share your book's messages. I never had any luck with mainstream media coverage, but health conferences were my places to go.

Alas, my book's timing was a wee bit askew: it was released at the end of October 2019 and then four months later we collectively began living in a global pandemic.

Of course I was not going to get on a plane and speak to a crowded room of health professionals. This concept now seems ludicrous.

There were many months of nothing as organizations struggled with readjusting to the virtual world. Slowly, some of the opportunities were rescheduled to an online format. One of these was Alberta SPORU's Summer Institute, which brilliantly transformed into a Virtual Institute. I was a plenary speaker and on a Town Hall panel. My topic? Storytelling.

Yesterday I attended one of their networking sessions and had a chance to reflect how this switch to virtual conferences has affected me as a speaker. How is it different than the in-person sessions?

Pros to Virtual Conferences

The biggest pro for me is that I don't have to travel to speak at a conference. Travelling for me is complicated: in the olden days, my husband had to take time off work to take Aaron to school and ferry him to various activities. The reality of our family is that my husband makes more money than I do, so time off for him is a financial hit for us.

Folks who are family speakers like me can struggle with all the caregiving arrangements that need to be made to be away from home. If you are a patient speaker, health can get in the way of travelling for a conference. Travel is exhausting. (The fatigue I experienced after cancer treatment prevented me from travelling for many months).

At one time, I might have thought business travel was exotic. Now, I don't get people who hold up business travel as a status symbol. The time and money it takes to travel automatically excludes many audience members and speakers. This makes in-person conferences an activity only for the elite.

For me, business travel is a lot of loneliness, missing my family, empty hotel rooms, sitting around waiting for flights and dinners at the airport Swiss Chalet. Not that exciting.

The Virtual Way

For virtual conferences, I set up at my dining room table. I'm saving money on clothes because I don't need a full outfit (no need for fancy pants and shiny shoes - I could be wearing pyjama bottoms for all you know!) - I just recycle 3-4 shirts. The time it takes to travel to a conference is less than a minute. And it is expense free - no need for conferences to cover my travel expenses now.

Another benefit to not travelling is that I'm not contributing to the climate crisis by hopping on a plane for a one hour talk. That's a big deal to me.

I hope that virtual conferences will open up opportunities for other speakers - patients and families who found travel challenging in pre-pandemic times. This is a chance for conference organizers to widen the net for speakers and invite those who can participate at home easier than in-person. Even as an experienced speaker I am less nervous about speaking in my home with my loved ones nearby than climbing up onto a stage in front of a group of strangers. Virtual speaking might help nurture new speakers who struggle with nerves.

Accessibility to conferences for the participants is another huge bonus. Will conferences now be easier for patient and family registrants who don't have to travel to attend? Or be more accessible to those who don't have big professional development budgets to pay for expensive travel? I have been going to pediatric health conferences for a long time - and the participants are pretty much the same - senior level executives from children's hospitals. Virtual conferences could be opened up to non-management staff, families and patients - I mean, wouldn't that be great?? Don't we want everybody to learn, not just a chosen few? This also means we can participate in conferences from all around the world. We can learn from others in far-away jurisdictions - and expand beyond our local, sometimes myopic, professional development opportunities.

Registration costs for conferences can be prohibitive, but I really hope that the costs drop now that organizers don't have to pay for pricey hotel ballrooms or conference centres or AV or food or for speakers' hotel rooms - and myriad other expenses. I do feel sorry for the conference industry that has lost business, but a positive side-effect to us is that conferences now cost much less money.

And yet another perk: some generous organizers sometimes put up conference recordings or videos on the Internet for free, for anybody to access. A couple of weeks after it was released for registrants, Alberta SPORU Virtual Institute put up my talk on YouTube.

Talks that are open access can be watched and shared with others. It is now not only people sitting in the audience who hear your message or learn about your research. I always thought it was a shame to do all this prep and spend all this money for a limited number of people to watch a talk. With open access, more people can see you speak. How is that a bad thing?

Some of my talks have been shot as a video, like the one above, which is awesome. Videos are easily sharable and I can shoot them anytime that works for me. With today's technology, all I need is my laptop or phone and tripod and away I go.

Cons to Virtual Conferences

It is weird to talk to a computer screen instead of a live audience. Typically you can't see the audience on video (unless it is a small group), so as a speaker, it feels like you are talking into a black hole. I am a feely person, so I really feed off of the audience's emotions. If I see the audience is restless, I might change my speaking notes. I can directly see if they think my jokes are funny - and if their expressions are flat, I can change course.

Plus, afterwards it feels odd to just press 'leave meeting' and have little validation of putting my heart out there - especially if I'm sharing personal stories. Brené Brown calls this a vulnerability hangover. The way to mitigate this is for conference organizers to check in afterwards with speakers for a debrief. The need for feedback is especially important in these virtual times. Otherwise, there's no way for speakers to know if they've hit the mark or fall flat. (In person, you know you've hit the mark if people line up to talk to you afterwards. You know you've fallen flat if everybody just gets up and leaves - both have happened to me).

A way to avoid this black hole is to move away from the lecture-style talk. I have a video coming up in early November from The Gathering of Kindness which is a conversation between me and another author, Karen Klak. Karen and I each video'ed our chat with each other, and an editor will stitch it together. It is an informal talk and you will be able to see our connection and delight in talking with each other. Recording this was fun!

I'll admit I miss the social aspects that come from conferences, but only a little bit. I'm an introvert, and at conferences I spend a lot of time hiding in my hotel room or going for long walks by myself. I do enjoy getting together for a drink or coffee with people I know in various cities. I do miss that.

Summing Up

Nothing is black and white, good or bad here. For me overall, the benefits of virtual conferences (opening up accessibility and the saving of time and money for everybody involved) far outweigh the challenges. Most of the challenges for me as a speaker can be mitigated - check in with speakers afterwards, give them feedback, think creatively to transform lectures into conversations.

My hope is that we don't go back to a purely in-person format for health conferences. These are only accessible to those who have the status, time and funding to speak at or attend conferences and can the way of the dinosaur as far as I'm concerned.

This is our big chance to make conferences more accessible for everybody - speakers and registrants alike. Shouldn't learning and reflection be for everybody who works in health care and not just for a chosen few?


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