We’re in strange times aren’t we? Normally at this time of year I’d be writing about the excitement of the upcoming in-person conferences, with top tips for maximizing your learning, networking, and career development.  Sadly this is not the case this year.  The proliferation of virtual conferences is pronounced.  I’m sure all of these conferences were being held last year, but as one can only attend so many in person, I wasn’t really aware of just how many are going on.  It feels like every third email I get is an invitation to another virtual conference.

In some ways, the opportunity for learning and professional development has never been greater, but the networking opportunities have never been lesser.  Since this is the first virtual conference season for all of us, let’s look at some top tips for maximizing your learning and networking experience.

No. 1: Choose an Attendance Strategy

Attending all of the conferences would simply be exhausting.  You’d also fail to get any work done for about four weeks, which would certainly be detrimental to your career!  There are two major attendance strategies from which to choose.  Pick one and stick with it.

Strategy 1: Choose one or two Conferences and Dive In

One strategy is to choose one or two of the most interesting conferences and dive in.  Block out your calendar for the conference days, sit back with a coffee, and enjoy the festivities.  This strategy is analogous to choosing the prix fixe meal or blue plate special – you get what they give you.  On the plus side, you’ll be done with the conference learning quickly.  On the downside, you’ll get a narrow perspective, and your opportunity to speak with a wide variety of speakers will be limited.

Strategy 2: Choose the Best Sessions from Each Conference

Another strategy is to sign up for all of the conferences, then look at all of the sessions in aggregate to pick the most interesting ones from each conference to attend.  This strategy is like choosing from the a la carte menu.  On the plus side, you’ll get a variety of information most suitable for your needs.  On the negative side, you’ll be utterly inundated with reminder emails and have to navigate numerous platforms, only some of which will work some of the time.  You may find it difficult to schedule sessions over several weeks instead of all at once over one to three days.

Whichever strategy you choose, don’t deviate from it. 

No. 2:  Participate in the Chat to Show You’re There and Engaged

One of the biggest surprises this conference season is the degree to which the chat boxes have created engagement.  In some ways, the chat boxes are more effective at engagement than being at in-person sessions, because, during it-person sessions, people don’t speak to one another and only occasionally comment or ask questions at the end.  Seeing what everyone else is thinking is in and of itself engaging. 

Be sure to participate in the chat.  Choose to announce yourself early in the presentation to show others both your name and that you’re in the session.  This is an easy way to be visible to a greater audience.  I’ve found myself looking people up on LinkedIn after particularly intelligent or lively discussion in the chat boxes.  It’s an easy way to grow your network and your reputation.

No. 3: Decide to Follow Up with at Least One Person Each Day of the Conference

When you’re at a live conference, it’s easy to go up to one of the presenters at the coffee or happy hour to tell them you enjoyed their session and to start a conversation.  Since communication isn’t that simple at a virtual conference, commit in advance to contacting at least one of the presenters whose session you’ve watched each day.  If you attend a three-day conference, that’s at least three people who you can add to your network. 

Presenting virtually is usually a lonely experience.  If you’re presenting at an in-person conference, you can see feedback from the audience in front of you, but via Zoom or Hopin, you can’t see anything.  Sending an email saying that you were impressed by the performance can make all the difference.  Don’t have an email address for the presenter?  No worries – just add a message to a LinkedIn request saying how much you enjoyed the performance. 

The main thing is to decide that you’re going to send a follow-up each day to expand your network.  Make it a priority, because you have to build your network before you need your network.

No. 4: Download the Slides You Want for Later

One of the biggest challenges of online conferences is that it is easy to get distracted.  Emails come in, WhatsApp or Facebook messenger goes off, a news alert hits your phone… It’s easy to tell yourself you’re watching a session when really you’re either not hearing it at all or you’re multi-tasking (badly).  If there is a session you are really interested in, download the slides to review later.  This is an especially effective strategy where technical sessions are concerned. 

Let’s say that you need to adopt a truly risk-based approach to third-party due diligence and there’s a session on that topic at the virtual conference.  Download the slides ahead of time and print them out so you can write notes on them during the session.  If for any reason you’re unable to attend or are distracted during the session, you’ll have the slides to refer to when you go back to work on your due diligence program.

No. 5: Forgive the Technology Glitches

If you’ve attended any of the virtual conference events this year, you’ll know that there have been numerous technology glitches.  From broken links to speakers on mute, no conference has come off without a hitch.  Let’s face it – nobody knew we would suddenly need a platform capable of sending thousands of compliance professionals into multiple online breakout sessions at the same time.  It’s easy to get frustrated with the incapacitated systems, but try to be patient.  People at the organizations trying to run the conferences are doing the best they can.

Last – send a thank-you note to the conference organizers.  Not only can they use the encouragement, but having your name in front of them in a positive way may make it more likely that they’ll choose you as a speaker in the future.

Virtual conference season is strange, but there is still much to gain from participating.  Now if you’ll excu
se me, I have to go moderate a chatbox for a breakout session…