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6 Suggestions for Maximizing your (Virtual) Conference Experience


By Mary P. Walker, Petrus Blog Contributor & Local Charity Board Member

Most conferences offer a combination of (1) “how to” knowledge; (2) leadership development; (3) hope and support for the challenges the attendees face; and (4) insight, trends, and directions in the industry. The Petrus Virtual Conference (June 8-10, 2020), for example, offers programs in all these categories, plus opportunities to worship and honor God—something not found in MOST conferences!


Over the years, I’ve attended many conferences, on many different subjects. Just about all my conference experience has been in the physical world. That is, you get out of your normal environment, travel offsite, stay in a hotel, and attend various events. Eventually, we WILL return to that model. Yet, some of that model can be adapted to the virtual world, where, at least in the near-term, we will be “attending” conferences.


For quality content, virtual conferences have a great advantage. The conference organizers can attract more and better speakers because they don’t have to limit themselves to ones who are willing to travel or live nearby.


Another advantage to the virtual format is that the cost to attend is much, much lower. You get to learn from the best for the price of registration. You are NOT spending money on travel and hotel. So, even if I have doubts about attending a particular virtual conference, the low cost biases me in favor of checking it out.


However, during the conference, be sure to foster a “real” experience in the virtual world by getting away from your other responsibilities and using creative ways to interact with other attendees.


Suggestion 1: Plan Ahead and Be Flexible

When you are deciding whether to spend time and money to attend a conference, both content and who else are attending are important to consider. My experience is that 50% of the benefit of attending a conference is acquiring knowledge that I can use. The other 50% comes from the connecting with the speakers and other attendees.


When people with common goals, who have different experiences and levels of expertise, get together, ideas and energy jump across the room—or across the cloud. It just happens! And, although I do not have much experience attending virtual conferences, I’ve attended webinars in which attendees could interact. The same is true.


It will be impossible for you to attend all the sessions—even if there is only one track. Your brain just won’t take it—and I speak from experience here. Review the agenda ahead of time. Figure out your “must attends” first and make sure you schedule them in. Afterwards, see what time is available for other sessions, and be sure to allow time to mix and mingle (Suggestion 5).


Suggestion 2: Ask Questions

I once attended a seminar on planned giving. After one of the talks, I approached the speaker to ask a question. The speaker not only answered my question, he spent time advising and critiquing a project I was considering. This speaker is a leader in his industry and charges REAL MONEY for his workshops and classes. That one encounter was worth the entire cost of attending the event.


It’s okay to admit what you don’t know, and freely share what you do know! You make valuable contacts and friends that way. When I’ve asked questions during the Q&A part of a talk, one or more of the following typically happens for me, and I suspect it will happen for you: (1) I get valuable information; (2) the question will prompt other follow-on questions from attendees; (3) attendees will approach me afterwards and we will have a discussion, (4) an attendee will thank me for asking the question that was on his/her mind.


Suggestion 3: Be Open and Be Yourself 

I love reading mystery novels and have dabbled in writing mysteries. I have attended conferences for fiction writers because I want to learn more about the craft and I love the “vibe.” A number of years ago I attended a few conferences where let’s just say I was WAY out of my league. I was the newbie, and other attendees were award winning, VERY experienced authors.


Yet, because I was open about my inexperience, some wonderful things happened. I was late to the awards dinner due to traffic. I walked into the banquet hall and noticed an empty seat. I whispered my apologies for being late, and then asked if the seat was taken. I was warmly welcome to sit. Then I realized I was sitting at the table of a VERY FAMOUS AUTHOR and her writer friends. Later in the program, this author won THE most prestigious award given by the sponsoring organization. When I realized the company I was in, the only thing I could do was admit my inexperience during dinner conversation. This author was gracious, and we connected after the conference, where I received some valuable mentoring advice.

This great experience would not have happened if I had tried to bluff expertise or fake a personality I didn’t have.


Suggestion 4: Contribute to the Conversation 

Everybody knows more about something than 99.9% of the rest of the world. Even if you are early in your career, you know things or have experiences that could help other attendees. They want to hear from YOU!


At another conference, where again, I was an inexperienced writer, I was invited to join a panel discussion. This invitation came from a casual conversation during a break with an author who happened to be scheduled for that panel. These authors were interested in sharing insights and ideas about the role of religion in mystery novels, which I knew a lot about because of my own amateur writing and avid reading. It was a thrill for me to share what I knew with authors I admired.


Suggestion 5: Mix and Mingle 

Even if you are an introvert, try to meet other people. Make sure you are not just hanging out (in the real or virtual world) with the people you already know. There are others who can add something to your personal and professional life, and others who need your help too.


Over the years, I’ve built up the skill of approaching “strangers,” introducing myself, and engaging in conversation. For some this comes naturally, but this was something I had to learn and practice. Open-ended questions are good icebreakers, such as “What made you want to attend this talk?” or “What is your favorite technique for. . .,” “Tell me about your organization,” or “Have you tried what the speaker is suggesting?”


One ingenious person registered for the same conference I did. This person posted that he didn’t know anybody, was naturally shy, and wanted to invite others to sit at his table at the lunch. More people responded than could fit at the table. I was one of them. We all had a good time and shared our view of the industry. I met some great people and learned a lot!

In a virtual conference, it takes extra effort to connect. See Suggestion 6 for some ideas.


Suggestion 6: Relax and Have Fun 

All conferences, even virtual ones, offer some “down times,” to kick back, relax and enjoy the company of other attendees. The opportunities include: before and after the talks, in breakout rooms, offline via phone to follow up, at virtual happy hours, lounges, contests and games. We are all learning how to be less awkward through a screen, face-to-face! You will have to be creative, but tapping into the wisdom, insight, and friendship of your fellow attendees is worth the effort!


Hope to see you all at the Petrus Virtual Conference!


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