For a few short weeks in 2020, the world seemed to slow. As we’ve progressed to nearly the end of the pandemic, it looks like it has begun to speed up even faster than our pre-COVID lives once again. We have all adjusted, from the way we shop to the way we work, much of it “just in time” or with greater flexibility. Who would have thought that airlines would drop their $200 change fees?
Late last year, I received an invitation to submit a session proposal for an event in the summer of 2021. While six to nine months would be a typical timeline for a call for papers/presentations (CFP), it honestly felt disconnected from reality in our “new normal.”
Of course, some industries and fields will need this time for a variety of reasons, but I question if we need to think differently about events in a COVID-19 era. My thoughts, research and opinions from the winter of 2020 regarding the landscape and topic for this event were drastically influenced as the pandemic (and other world events) played out. While I am not arguing that there are not evergreen topics, I want event professionals to consider adjusting the timelines or flexibility in the questioning as we approach asking speakers to participate.
So, what are some considerations as you develop your virtual or hybrid event call for papers?
Unlike a physical event, the ability to attract a presenter from anywhere to a virtual setting opens the door for a larger pool of speakers. Distance, travel costs and time considerations were prohibitive for many to consider submitting to speak or contribute at an event. With virtual event platforms and tools such as Zoom, that few days commitment is now likely less than an hour. As you open your call for papers, consider casting a wider net and utilize your database of contacts and social media to leverage your networks to increase interest in participating remotely. Make it clear that presenting virtually is now an option.
Given the potential speaker diversity and increased first-time speaker count, asking a presenter in your CFP if they prefer to pre-record their session is important. Many may feel more comfortable in this format. Organizers also benefit by being able to review the content in advance and avoid bandwidth or technology issues that could happen during a live recording.
With a greater pool of potential speakers, it is essential to understand the speaker’s capability to present in a virtual environment. Much like school-aged children, more individuals are becoming accustomed to interacting and sharing content online. Consider asking questions about their comfort and experience with the technology of presenting at your conference or others. While this may not be a determining factor in selection, engaging speakers are even more necessary in the virtual and hybrid world. Organizers may also want to consider scheduling brief online interviews with submitters to judge their virtual performance and comfort with the technology if they cannot share previous online speaking engagements. Speakers who have ranked lower in the selection process or have concerns about speaking virtually maybe suited for recorded sessions to reduce the risk of live session issues.
Regardless of the speaking location (physical or online), engaging attendees and commanding (potentially two audiences) will be critical for event satisfaction. Session forums, online chat, live Q&A, and post-event discussions in community forums will present new opportunities (and challenges) for both speakers and attendees never seen prior. Gauging the interest in willingness to participate and utilize these tools should be considered in scoring potential presenters.
Speaker and Organizer Flexibility
As events move towards hybrid, asking the speaker’s interest and ability to present in various formats will be necessary in your call for papers. Some speakers may only want to speak in one format. Some speakers’ willingness to speak may evolve with changing circumstances in their personal (including vaccination) or professional lives as well as regional, national or international changes.
Should the speaker’s session be planned for in-person and must be moved to virtual-only (for a host of reasons), is the speaker still willing to present?
The further out the call for papers, the less likely a speaker would be willing to commit with certainty to an event. Organizers who have a CFP further away from the event may have to ask their speakers much closer to the event to get a “recommit” to their session in the format they selected. Some speakers may not even be willing to commit to an in-person presentation until 30 days prior. Having back-up plans, sessions and speakers will be critical. For example, if an in-person speaker is no longer willing or able to speak, do you have the ability to broadcast them to your in-person attendees, or will you replace them with another speaker who can?
Organizations want to showcase the most relevant and timely issues during their events. While many speakers are polishing their presentations moments before they present, are your speakers able (and willing) to adjust the topic(s) as the world evolves?
Organizers should also encourage (unless necessary for their topic) avoid timestamping presentation content. Even a simple reference to a day or week’s current events can highlight the change in just several weeks’ time from the recording. Providing clear language that the event has the final say to adjust will be critical.
Speakers and organizers must consider the needs for audiovisual for both in-person and virtual. If a presenter is speaking virtually, can capture good audio (most important) and clear video? Do they have external lighting? Do they have the bandwidth to present live? Are they willing to record their session if a local/regional studio if available? These questions need to be asked in your CFP solution.
Calling out important dates (that may be different based on the format) is critical in your CFP.
While easy in-person, having multiple speakers for a virtual presentation or a mix of in-person and virtual speakers adds a technical level of complexity. Designating a key point of contact and virtual leader in your CFP is also helpful. Collecting a cell phone is also critical since the person may lose connectivity.
Many events host multiple hours or highly interactive workshops, masterclasses and traditionally longer sessions. How will these work in the virtual format? Will they work in-person? Asking attendees to remain engaged for more than an hour can be challenging in the virtual world (and potentially again in-person). Will these be reserved for only in-person attendees? How will interactivity between the various audiences be achieved? Are your speakers able (and interested) to maintain this level of engagement with two audiences?
Do any of your honorariums or speaking fees need to be adjusted for this new format? Preparing and engaging with multiple audiences, potentially before, during and after your event may be more work than was previously asked of most presenters.
Don’t forget to remind your speakers during the CFP process that just because some of the audience may be virtual, supporting materials are even more important!
Creating a seamless experience for both audiences is the biggest challenge. It starts with the time zone. The shift from the default time zone of virtual being a selected time designed to accommodate most audiences to having a physical event complicates the issue. The destination once again is now the default. Some organizers are working to create unique experiences of both audiences. Others are carefully architecting the experience for both audiences. Shifting key sessions to more relevant times and providing those on-site educational experiences that can be consumed later or on-demand is the most inclusive.
Design for One Audience, Plan for Both
Education teams need to focus and build a program that appeals to your community (one audience), not just the format. Attendees expect fantastic content and top-notch speakers regardless of whether they are in-person or virtually.
As you begin to outline your new Call for Papers, consider the complexity and approaches to a hybrid event. If you need help here, see our Hybrid Event Planning Guide.
This blog post was first published by Rich Vallaster on the Personify blog. Republished with permission, all rights reserved.