Online Conferences: Maximize Success Through Effective Conference Design

 Guest Contributor: Karen Niles, Professional Development Consultant

Associations and TechnologyOne of the biggest benefits of online conferences is the chance they give you, the program developer, to flex your design muscles. Because of how online conferences are built, they maximize your ability to provide quality content and design a good learning experience for your participants.

Where to begin

The starting point is a conference topic that focuses on solving a specific problem for a specific audience. Your subject-matter experts, their presentations, the live interactions and resource materials should have a consistent and coherent relation to that problem. For maximum effectiveness, carefully select a small group of presenters to support your goal, and brief them thoroughly on what you are trying to achieve.

How to improve the core content of the conference

The core content of your online conference will be pre-recorded (PowerPoint) presentations, synched with speakers’ narration. Begin by reviewing a draft of the speakers’ PowerPoint decks in advance, and you can vet the recording as well. Here are some of the quality-control opportunities this provides:

  • Detect and correct “content drift”. Content drift is the tendency of a presentation to develop in a slightly different direction as a speaker works on it over time in isolation from others. Reviewing the presentation in advance gives you time to address this problem.
  • Establish consistent terminology. This promotes clarity for participants, and relieves speakers of the need to define their own terms.
  • Set the stage for your speakers. Create an introductory presentation that gives a good overview of the problem, a bit of its history, and basic facts and figures. Then your speakers can get right to the meat of their presentations without researching or reviewing the same introductory material.
  • Avoid gaps. If a significant point of view is short-changed, you have time to figure out how and where to address it.
  • Help each speaker make the most of his/her natural presentation style. The conference platform iCohere uses a slide-by-slide recording process that makes it easy for a speaker to re-record a slide or a sentence that doesn’t come out as intended.

Tips for developing participant-centered engagement activities

A common misconception with online conferences is that participants have limited opportunity to connect and engage. Beyond the recorded lectures, you have enormous scope to design opportunities for your participants to engage with the content in productive ways. Case studies and sample problems are excellent engagement devices. Encourage participants to share solutions and comment on each other’s ideas. Create discussion areas devoted to different sub-topics, and allow participants to start their own new topics. The more your participants interact with the content, the better able they will be to apply what they’ve learned.

An integral part of most online conferences are live text chats or webinars with presenters. In these, participants can bring questions, challenges, and concerns to the forefront. As the conference designer, your role is to develop interesting discussion questions to kick-start the conversations.

Contrast these conference design opportunities with the typical “call for papers” used with in-person conferences. A call for papers is speaker-centric and topic-focused. You tend to end up with a large number of presentations whose quality won’t be known until it is too late to do anything about it. Your online conference, in contrast, can be participant-centered and problem-focused—an orientation that can win you raving fans and repeat customers.

About the author:

Karen Niles has worked in the field of professional development since graduating from Oxford University in Oxford, England. She has served in leadership positions with distinguished organizations such as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Council for Exceptional Children, and the U.S. Department of AgricultureGraduate School.  She specializes in strategic planning, needs assessment, program design, delivery, management, and evaluation of continuing education programs.

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