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FEATURE: Conferencing online – We could get used to this

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced conferences to go online, writes CDKN’s Mairi Dupar. Conference organisers are learning fast how to make a success of this. They are showing how virtual conferencing could easily become the norm, for climate reasons, even when lockdown restrictions ease.

Around a third of the world’s people are estimated to be in some form of ‘lockdown’ at present, in order to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

This has meant an end to mass gatherings in most places – and a change in the way that conferences are run. The pleasures of direct social interaction and networking are gone (for now). When conferences happen, they are online.

The pandemic is an indescribable human tragedy that no one would wish for and that everyone wants to end as soon as possible. But the lockdown restrictions have brought an unplanned benefit: reduced mobility and depressed industrial activity has lowered air pollution dramatically. In so doing, the lockdown has created a window of clear skies and a dip in greenhouse gas emissions.

Given where we are, this moment allows us re-assess what we need from face-to-face conferences. Could we get used to virtual conferences and embrace them in the future – even when lockdowns ease – simply because it’s the right thing to do for the climate?

In this blog, I share some personal observations about virtual conferences and what makes them productive.

Virtual conferencing: the art of the possible

I had the pleasure of taking part in a fully virtual conference organised by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), on 20-22 April 2020, the Placencia Ambition Forum (PAF). The PAF provided a platform for an informal stocktake of climate policy ambitions in the midst of the pandemic and a chance for climate policy experts to debate how to ‘keep the drumbeat of climate ambition alive’ in these times. It was geared to professionals who are involved in UNFCCC negotiations and in delivering the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

The Forum ran over three days during varied time slots which fit the normal waking hours of participants in island nations across the Pacific, India and south China and Atlantic Oceans.

The format included high level plenary talks from world leaders – António Guterres (shown above right), Patricia Espinosa, Dean Oliver Barrow (Belize Prime Minister), Achim Steiner – all of which were pre-recorded and set the political framing for the more interactive discussions. These were supplemented with livestreamed sessions – including from the Environment Ministers of Belize and Chile, and with AOSIS Chair, Lois M Young. Thrown in the mix were several regional and sectoral dialogues, where participants were more actively involved.

The regional and sectoral dialogues each involved a panel of speakers with well-honed presentations and several discussants. Participants posed questions and comments to the speakers, verbally and via an online chat box. Real-time chats in the online chat box also emerged organically among the participants themselves.

The spotlight on key areas of challenge and innovation in climate financing and implementing climate action – across the virtual breakout sessions – made for an invigorating three days. I was both deeply impressed by the quality of the experience and buzzing with ideas by its end!

The platform used for the PAF was Zoom, with television production elements to make it more user-friendly. It was complemented by other digital channels.

The organisers prepared neat ‘takeaways’ that made it easy for participants to share content with others. First, AOSIS provided social media cards with topline messages, cool graphics and a memorable hashtag (#SIDSLead), all of which I and others used generously throughout the conference. These facilitated further conversations on twitter, Facebook, linkedin and other social platforms, around the conference topics. Second, the organisers made a digital magazine within 48 hours of the Forum’s end, with both written outcomes and embedded video clips – as well as a link to all audiovisual presentations and images.

Tyrone Hall, AOSIS Communications Lead, reflects on preparations for the PAF as follows: “We tried to put on a show of sorts to intrigue and nudge along an otherwise extended and technically difficult dialogue. From a strategic communications perspective, I would appreciate seeing more efforts to incorporate communications at the outset to achieve more of this. Communications is so much more than buzz and colour when it’s treated as a strategic function that supports the core work, and especially so when we are trying to engage virtually.”

Preparation is key

My recent experience as a participant at the PAF and a co-organiser of smaller virtual events led me to reflect on what makes them successful – and what would keep me tuned in to future online events.

Immaculate preparation seems to be the underpinning for success: I suspect that if you feel over-prepared, then you probably have it about right.

Preparedness isn’t just about the hosts and presenters having their material lined up. It’s also about thinking through, carefully, how you can help the audience to anticipate and make the most of the event when you meet together in real time.

To lay the groundwork, you need to be clear on your overall conference objectives: what do you want the participants to do differently as a result of having taken part? In CDKN’s Communicating climate change: A practitioner’s guide, we share a structured approach and case studies on how to frame climate issues and establish event or campaign objectives.

A checklist: M.O.T.I.V.A.T.E.

To plan and deliver the virtual conference in detail, I suggest this mnemonic (‘memory aid’) that sums up a checklist of actions: M.O.T.I.V.A.T.E.

M – Map both the detail of the agenda and the overall pace of the conference. This has several aspects. Consider how the content and format of each session will support the overarching conference objectives. Intersperse ‘predominantly listening’ sessions with ‘predominantly contributing’ sessions for participants. The variety will help retain people’s energy and attention. Also, schedule adequate breaks for people to stretch and refresh, and come back, ready to focus. Last month, I attended a different, all-day virtual workshop that comprised brilliant, back-to-back sessions; however, the organisers had omitted to leave time for breaks, so I began to fall behind as I was forced to step away for food and basic exercise throughout the day.

O – Online and offline elements work together: Where possible, enable people’s real-time participation to be supported by materials they have accessed beforehand, and/or materials that are circulated afterwards. Aide-memoires help the content of presentations to ‘stick’ in people’s minds and participate more fully ‘in the moment’. Let participants know that slides, recordings or briefings will be available so that they don’t scribble madly during the session and miss out on some chances to listen or contribute. Of course, documentation prepared by the organisers or presenters also helps participants to share content with their colleagues, too.

T – Technical rehearsal is essential: People don’t want to log on and then find the speakers fumbling with their microphones. Hosts and speakers need to rehearse thoroughly to ensure the run-of-show goes smoothly. It’s also good to have a technical safety net prepared in case it’s needed. (On the first day of the Placencia Ambition Forum, the organisers hoped to embed the livestream in their own website but it crashed. However, they saved the day with their Plan B: they swiftly emailed registrants to divert them to another website, which worked perfectly, and no time was lost.) Other tips to deal with technical failure include: consider booking slightly more presenters and/or commentators than are strictly needed, or line up a colleague who could step in with prepared remarks at the last minute. In every virtual workshop I’ve attended this year, at least one scheduled speaker has dropped out due to connectivity issues.

I – Inclusive scheduling makes a difference: For reaching international audiences across time zones, scheduling is key to optimising participation. It’s not just about time zones, though. Depending on the demographic of the target audience, and cultural and social mores that affect them, they may be less available at certain times of day, and this could be a consideration. For example, at present, many office workers around the world who can work from home are trying to oversee their children’s education at the same time. Any virtual conference in morning hours is likely to depress attendance by parents who are home-schooling. When it’s tough to find a timeslot that includes everyone, a good option can be to repeat conference sessions at different times of day, to boost inclusivity.

V – ‘Value added’ will attract and retain participants: Organisers should consider what gives the conference added value for participants, why is it more worthwhile for them to attend, rather than simply reading a research paper, or watching a video online? What do they get out of the interaction? This should be a guiding principle of each session.

A – Augment the communications in the virtual room with conversations on other channels such as social media and email – encouraging and enabling participants to share key quotes and links to further sources of content in their professional networks.

T – Trust makes for more engaging online conversations. A tip for trust-building is: make it easier for people to identify the others in the virtual room, so that they are motivated to stay tuned in and are confident to contribute. Encourage people to share their full names, organisations and job roles. If feasible, have participants turn on their video for the session or for a few moments at the session start or when they are speaking.

E – Establish rules of engagement or ‘etiquette’, to make a pleasant and productive experience for all. This could take the form of explicit instruction on how participants should interact: for example, by waving an electronic hand, or writing in a chat box. You may also consider whether you mute and unmute participants’ sound through central controls, to reduce background noise or inappropriately-timed interventions, or whether you ask people to control their own audiovisual settings. You can set the tone of discussions with your own form of language, both verbal and written.

Seeing the up-sides

And finally, a closing reflection: while those of us who participated in the PAF may have lost elements of social interaction from going virtual, there were physical aspects of conference travel that we didn’t miss one bit.

There was no waiting in airport lounges, no loss of sleep on uncomfortable flights, no jet lag when we reached our destinations. No hassle of saving receipts and accounting for travel expenses on our return (and significant financial savings to our organisations, of the travel foregone!)

And for those of us who are in lockdown with close family, we didn’t have to part from them at all. We enjoyed these personal benefits, above and beyond the carbon savings from the flights and physical conference services avoided.

I hope these reflections and tips to ‘M.O.T.I.V.A.T.E’ will prove helpful for all readers who are getting to grips with virtual conferencing. Leave comments in the box below, with notes on your own experience as a participant or organiser at a virtual conference. We look forward to hearing from you!


Image (upper right): UN Secretary General António Guterres addresses the Placencia Ambition Forum, 20 April 2020. All other graphics (c) AOSIS and partners for the Placencia Ambition Forum.


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