Andrew Chapman, Harsita Patel, Susan Wallace
How many virtual conferences had you been to before 2020? For all three of us, and likely for most people reading this, the answer to this question would be a combined total of zero. Before 2020, you would have been laughed out of the room if you suggested 200 clinicians, each sat in front of their own computers, in their own house, and even in their pyjamas, gather together for a meeting. However, as we write this article today, this is the new norm. A once far-fetched vision is now a daily reality; study leave from home, handovers from the sofa, and teaching from bed.
Before 2020, you would have been laughed out of the room if you suggested 200 clinicians, each sat in front of their own computers, in their own house, and even in their pyjamas, gather together for a meeting.
We were devastated when, in March 2020, all events were cancelled – and with it the Annual London School of Paediatrics Conference. We felt such a great sense of loss, having worked tirelessly in our planning over the preceding year. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought innumerable challenges and difficulties to healthcare, it has also driven a revolution; modernising the way medical education is delivered. Riding the wave of the digital revolution, and with a lot of support along the way, we set about transforming our conference and eventually delivered the first virtual London School of Paediatrics Conference.
Having never been run digitally before, and with little in the way of prior experience, we felt very much in uncharted territory. Feedback was incredibly positive, and has paved the way for a more permanent change in the way this event is administered. The three of us learnt a lot from this experience and we want to share some gems with the reader in an attempt alleviate some stress of future virtual conference planning; a recipe for a successful virtual event so to speak. This is by no means an exhaustive list points but will hopefully help to get you started in the run-up to any event you may need to design. In truth, some of these were learnt after the event, but we won’t tell you which.
Attend a few digital conferences beforehand
While this may seem like an obvious point, you’d be surprised at how many people don’t. By attending a variety, you can get a feel for what format works well such as breakout workshops, rotational sessions, or how to display submitted posters and media. It also highlights common technical pitfalls to try and avoid in your own conference. Keep a list of events attended and what worked well.
Choose your software carefully
Many companies now provide virtual meeting software. From Zoom to Skype to Microsoft to Google Hangouts they all have varying intricacies; such as capping maximum attendees in one room, whether they integrate polling and whether or not you need to download a separate app, to name a few. Have a play with them all and try to get a feel for the user experience each provides. If you’re charging a registration fee for delegates, you may have a budget for premium subscriptions from some of these providers – which obviously will increase functionality and provide increasing attendance caps at each level. We didn’t have this luxury as our conference was free to attend for paediatric and foundation trainees and medical students, but did take advantage of the agreement between Microsoft Teams and the NHS. This includes polling software, again many available and all have different user functionality. They empower delegates to use their mobile phones to interact by voting on topics, answering multiple choice questions and even give feedback instantly.
From Zoom to Skype to Microsoft to Google Hangout they all have varying intricacies such as capping maximum attendees in one room, whether they integrate polling and whether or not you need to download a separate app, to name a few.
Communication is key
You may end up never meeting your speakers and helpers face-to-face, and so clear, well worded emails are paramount. Be specific! This goes for technical instructions too. Some of your speakers may have very interesting things to say on the day, but if they can’t join the room, or have never used the software before they won’t get started. We found that it helped to distribute provider-specific manuals and FAQ documents. If you can, use something you’re familiar with, as you may end up providing advice and support yourself. Offer test sessions, and practice timings.
Have good technical support on hand
There will undoubtedly be issues on the day, even for the most-rehearsed of conferences. Whether it’s speakers or delegates, webcams or microphones, slide-sharing or displaying media; something will go wrong. Have someone else at the ready to troubleshoot, whose sole role it is to provide IT support. This will not only ease the host’s nerves, but will allow frantic screen-switching, poll-administering and general behind-the-scenes peddling to make sure the day goes perfectly (or at least seems to). The analogy of a duck’s legs underwater comes to mind! We had the best support on the day, and despite a few inevitable difficulties, the conference ran very smoothly as a result.
Have a plan B, in case of technical difficulties, absences or tardiness.
Organisers and speakers. Enough said.
Ensure it translates to digital
Do the sessions lend themselves to an online format? When converting a face-to-face event to digital, ensure the sessions translate to a virtual forum. This primarily refers to small group sessions and workshops, as distance sessions lose that intimate feeling and the non-verbal feedback a speaker gains from being in the same room as their delegates. It’s much easier to sit in silence watching an online event, and so be ready for this – with items to fill silence.
Combining posters into a single PDF file allowed us to upload them to the website and share more easily, but also that uploading them as a Powerpoint document meant that people could browse through in their own time
Rehearse the minutiae
This sounds silly, but the details are often done badly. Cameras left on, microphones left on; we know all too well the damage this can do to the broadcaster and/or broadcastees. As a host, you are likely to have the controls to mute your delegates – a luxury we don’t have in real life. Make use of this wisely – with great power comes great responsibility.
Media, media, media
If picture tells a thousand words, how many can a video tell? Keeping people’s attention is difficult, possibly much harder when you’re not in the same room. Maintain interest with regular bursts of media, and if appropriate start with a bang. The same goes for delegate packs, a visually appealing programme for the day, circulated well ahead of the conference, piques interest. Humans love to read along – it’s a form of inclusion and to ensure non-deviation from the plan, so make sure you RUN TO TIME.
Beware. Schedule short sessions with regular breaks. Encourage people to get up and stretch their legs. Keep sessions varied to aid interest, and interactive to aid engagement.
Everyone submitting work deserves to have it displayed. Delegates’ projects also serve as brilliant talking points throughout the day. In contrast now though, the responsibility for getting it right and displaying it lies with the organisers. Rather than just providing the presentation boards, you need to collate and arrange the prints and ensure they’re all readable. Easier said than done – especially given the varying formats of submission. Specify how it should be submitted; the type of file (PowerPoint or PDF), orientation (landscape or portrait) and minimum font size, this will hugely reduce your workload in the run up to the day. Set a deadline for submission, with enough time to format all the posters ahead of the event. We found that combining them as a single PDF file allowed us to upload them to the website and share more easily, but also that uploading them as a Powerpoint document meant that people could browse through in their own time during the breaks with the inbuilt functionality of the software we chose to host the conference.
Be creative in how you ask for it, and get it out promptly – if you can. Link to a URL or QR code whilst you have their attention, and incentivise the survey! Digitised feedback can be forwarded to speakers speedily. Seeking feedback throughout the day can help you decide what is working well, and can be displayed in a creative and easy to read way.
Speakers have given up their time and so, even if just with a certificate, should be recognised. We decided early on that we wanted to budget for a small voucher for our speakers. We also incentivised abstract submissions by having the top three (as marked by TPDs in the school) present their work on the day, with an award for each.
The last word
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but will hopefully be valuable to future virtual event planners. Take it systematically and you won’t miss anything. The most important thing to remember is why you wanted to run the event in the first place. This will keep you focussed when things start getting stressful, especially if a pandemic is threatening to derail your event. Good luck to all future virtual planners and hopefully see you on a conference call and face-to-face very soon!
Dr Andrew Chapman, ST4 Paediatrics, Northwick Park Hospital; Dr Harsita Patel, paediatric trainee and clinical research fellow, Imperial College London; Dr Susan Wallace, ST6 Paediatrics, Royal Children’s Hospital Glasgow, with support from Dr Jonathan Round, Consultant Paediatrician and Head of London School of Paediatrics