How to Get the Most from Your Virtual Conference Meeting

Due to COVID-19, many traditionally in-person conferences have gone fully online or convened hybrid meetings with some in-person and some online attendees.1

Hybrid or online conferences are novel for biblical studies. So, we’re all learning as we go to varying degrees.

But with the following 8 steps, you can help set yourself up for an enriching meeting where you focus on biblical scholarship rather than the technology for delivering the meeting.

  1. Have your software and hardware ready.
  2. Plan what sessions you will attend.
  3. Connect early.
  4. Don’t be afraid to break the ice.
  5. Don’t hog the line.
  6. Come to learn.
  7. Focus on the sessions you attend.
  8. Take notes.

1. Have your software and hardware ready.

Well before your first session, be sure to install (or update) and test any software as needed, like Zoom. Also, test your speakers and your microphone.

By getting all of the technology set up early, you’ll avoid last-minute troubleshooting frustrations or delays immediately before a session.

Also, if you’re presenting or otherwise likely to speak during the session, try to arrange to use a headset or dedicated microphone.

The microphone built into your webcam, laptop, or mobile device can do in a pinch. But the audio will be much better for the rest of the attendees if you’re able to use a dedicated microphone.

2. Plan what sessions you will attend.

Depending on the particular conference’s choices, one of the nice things about virtual meetings is that sessions can be offered on a broader schedule. They can also be recorded for later viewing if you aren’t able to attend live.

But these upsides are also downsides if you try to consume too much of the meeting. Just because you can be in or rewatch more sessions in a virtual meeting doesn’t mean you should.

Instead, be choosey. Use the conference program or planner to find the sessions most pertinent for you.

That way, rather than giving surface engagement to a wide array of sessions, you can go all in on the few that most align with your interests.

3. Connect early.

In my first fully online conference, I was scheduled to presented a paper. The morning of my paper, I got on to connect to my session in what I thought was enough time.

It just so happened, however, that my computer also decided that it needed to reboot to install an update that morning too. 😐

I ended up still connecting to the session on time even after the reboot, although with a bit less margin than I would have liked. But if I hadn’t had the buffer provided by trying to connect to the session early, I could easily have been late for my own paper.

Don’t let that happen to you. Instead, connect ahead of a given session with enough buffer to handle any last-minute issues that arise.

4. Don’t be afraid to break the ice.

“Zoom rooms” and the like do a great job facilitating the structured interaction that occurs in person during paper presentations and discussion times. For the unstructured times before and after a conference session convenes, virtual rooms introduce some special awkwardness.

When you attend a conference in-person, the room allows any number of things to happen before and after the session.

You can sit quietly by yourself. Or you can converse with one or a few other attendees in that session. There might be still more people in the room sitting by themselves or talking in their own groups.

But in a virtual room, everyone attending the session is all in the same group. That can make interaction before and after the session pretty awkward.

If you’re talking to one other person, all the rest of the attendees are listening in on your conversation. But the alternative is for you all to sit around staring at each other while you stare into your webcams.

Any way you slice it, the unstructured time before or after a session is going to be awkward. So, try your best not to worry about the awkwardness.

If everyone’s having a staring contest, feel free to do the same. But also don’t be afraid to break the ice by making some light small talk, especially if you know someone else in the session.

You’ll get to catch up with a colleague. And if anyone else jumps into the conversation, you might meet someone new too.

5. Don’t hog the line.

At the same time, there’s another principle that goes closely along with the fact that you can break the ice. And that is that you shouldn’t hog the line.

A virtual meeting room is a shared communication space. So, in one way, that room is simply another iteration of the concept of “party line” telephone service.

Given that similarity, similar etiquette applies. If you break the ice, be sure also to leave enough space between or after you do so so that others can chime in if they want as well.

And particularly before the session, it goes without saying that the small talk needs to give way easily to the moderator when it’s time to bring the session to order.

6. Come to learn.

Whether you’re giving a paper or listening to one, come to learn and contribute.

Come to learn from the presenters about their work and contribute to the discussion of it. Or come to learn from the audience about yours.

Either way, if you come to learn and contribute rather than to impress, you’re likely to do more of both while also lessening the time you’ll spend faced with imposter syndrome.

7. Focus on the sessions you attend.

Nowadays, it doesn’t take attending many academic conference sessions in person before you notice something. During a session, some portion of the audience will be focused on … their email, Facebook, Twitter, the program book, or really anything besides the session they’re physically attending.

Maybe, they’re “multitasking.” But even if they are, studies show they’re not really paying attention.

I’ve been guilty of this practice in the past too, particularly later in a conference when sleep deprivation has tended to set. But while it might help with staying awake, getting adequate sleep is a much better approach that will also help you pay closer attention to the sessions you choose to attend.

As you “multitask” between two or more increasingly complex tasks, your ability to track with either at the same pace drops precipitously. You’ll typically need to elongate the time you spend on the multiple tasks you tried to bundle.2

That creates problems when you try to combine two incredibly complex and language-intensive tasks like listening to an academic paper and checking your email or social media.

In addition, the easier you make it for your brain to “escape” an academic paper into the world of your email or social media, the more difficult you make it to maintain focus the next time around on a different paper or cognitively demanding activity.3

Plus, if you craft for yourself a very selective conference schedule to start with, you’ll already have biased your schedule toward the sessions that you find more worth attending. And if they’re more worth attending, they’re more worth attending to while you’re in them.

8. Take notes.

Taking notes in a session is a great way to help keep your mind from wandering off—let alone wanting to seek out distracting stimuli like email or social media.

It’s also a good way of helping you retain the content of the papers you attend, whether or not you look at your notes again afterward.

In a virtual conference, you’ll already have some electronic device running when you’re attending a session. So, you may be inclined to take your notes digitally on that same device.

If that works for you, that’s great. But handwriting notes can provide benefits you don’t get if you’re taking notes by typing.4

(If you want to store notes digitally after your conference, Rocketbook has a great notebook-scanner app pairing that makes digitizing handwritten pages very easy.)

Conclusion

It can take some work to get the most from an academic conference. That’s true whether the conference is in-person, online, or some mixture of the two.

But with some forethought and preparation, a virtual conference can provide a great opportunity for you to hone your craft in biblical scholarship.


  1. Header image provided by Compare Fibre

  2. Multitasking: Switching Costs,” American Psychological Association, 20 March 2006. By contrast, habitual tasks that require very little attention can be more successfully combined with other tasks that require more attention (e.g., folding laundry while listening to a podcast). For this reason, Greg McKeown suggests distinguishing between multitasking and multifocusing. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 219–20; cf. C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212–15. 

  3. Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (New York: Grand Central, 2016), 157–59. 

  4. Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Psychological Science 25.6 (2014): 1159–68. 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.