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How the best virtual events focus on attendee learning experience

  • 4 min read

The world of online living cracked open in 2020 as many regular activities – including those in agriculture – went virtual.

Membership drives, communications, committee meetings and often the most important event for agriculture groups — annual conferences — are now largely online.

But how can organizers and presenters ensure producers get the most from learning in a virtual environment?

“Traditional two-to-three day conferences were meant for the in-person world,” says Janet Stewart, learning experience designer CEO of We Love Learning. “They have to be redesigned when they go virtual.”

Determine learning objectives

When organizing an online conference, the first step is to determine the learning objectives, she says. They can become obscured when a conference is combined with an annual general meeting, with requirements like electing officers and bylaw changes.

Such officialdom requires significant effort by organizers, perhaps at the expense of the conference’s educational aspects. But Stewart urges organizers to focus on participants, whose main interest in a conference is learning.

“A conference is a wonderful opportunity to learn from speakers, break-out sessions, networking and through informal learning like hallway chats,” Stewart says. “This variety can and should be replicated online, in a manner that doesn’t cause participants digital fatigue and shows the organizers care about them.”

Stewart says in the digital world, events should not last more than four hours. Organizers need to know how participants will take part, either on their phones or on a computer, so speakers can plan presentations accordingly. For example, a crowded PowerPoint presentation may be hard to see on a phone.

Break out to break up presentations

Instead, she says, break up presentations with activities where small groups of six to eight people can gather to discuss one of the presentations, or talk about specialized topics to promote learning and networking.

Jenn Norrie, Calgary-based communications lead for North America and Europe for Alltech animal health, says the speaker, topic and quality of the presentation need to be engaging.

Organizers of a modern virtual event need to figure out how to replicate the kind of relationship-building that takes place at an in-person conference.

“We’re competing with not only other online conferences and events, but we are also competing with time that producers are working, so we need engaging speakers and topics that attendees will take the time to watch,” Norrie says.

Stewart reminds organizers to schedule pauses for participants to check email or look after other affairs. Even break time can have some pizzazz, like bringing in a band or other form of entertainment.

That’s music to Marty Seymour’s ears, the FCC Director of Industry and Stakeholder Relations.

“People consume so much of what’s online with an entertainment lens,” Seymour says. “A modern virtual event needs to be structured with that in mind, and organizers need to figure out how to replicate, on a sterile platform, the relationship-building that takes place at in-person conferences.”

Remember your 4-H public speaking advice

Seymour says presentations need to be short — ideally, less than half as in-person presentations — and delivered using proven public speaking and online engagement techniques. Those are typically taught at 4-H, Toastmasters, Junior Farmers and other leadership development and training organizations.

Seymour says participants of those programs will remember advice such as “be brief, be bright and be gone” and “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

He underlines that conference organizers must make sure guest speakers are skilled at holding an audience. And if they don’t have the skills to moderate an event, to consider budgeting for a professional moderator – a news personality perhaps, who might also draw a crowd.

Seymour says because video is usually a part of a virtual conference, presenters must have reliable audio and screen awareness, which includes being mindful of camera angles and lighting.

“Position your camera, so the audience isn’t looking up your nose,” Seymour advises.

Carry through to post-conference

Norrie says post-conference learning opportunities are proving successful. For example, to complement its monthly, year-long ONE Virtual Experience, teams within Alltech created video book clubs. Participants individually watch a video on a topic such as swine nutrition, then discuss it as a group.

Norrie says extra efforts like these reflect the company’s drive to add value to a producer’s virtual learning experience. She says participation in online meetings and events should be user-friendly, so attendees have easy access to the platform, content and any other resources such as agendas.

Norrie says those elements have become the standard for producers.

“As organizations have become more reliant on virtual events, expectations have been raised,” Norrie says.

Bottom line

As virtual meetings and conferences become the norm, it’s important for groups like agricultural associations to adapt to online presentations, especially when learning is the primary focus.

To create a successful event, experts say organizers should determine the goals of an online conference, create platforms for smaller group networking, bring in engaging speakers and follow-up with attendees post-conference.

Article by: Owen Roberts