Emerge mini-conference and the challenge of presenting online

On Monday 16th January I presented to online attendees of the Emerge Mini-conference for Web Heroines. Web Heroines is a project with a mission to:

… inspire, engage and inform women showing how bloomin’ marvelous the digital world can be.

As I explained to .NET Magazine when I was contacted by them to comment on my involvement, I’m not comfortable with women only groups and events where they encourage an “us and them” attitude. I don’t think we do ourselves any favours if we simply huddle up in a corner together. However, given that there are fewer women involved in technology, it doesn’t hurt to make sure that those of us who are working in the business are visible. If only so that women thinking of this industry as a career can see role models, see that there are women working right across the industry.

I presented new material on “Launching a Product“. This is something I have been wanting to speak about for a while, and was based on our experiences launching Perch two and a half years ago. I had some nice feedback on Twitter after the event and I hope that the attendees enjoyed it.

The problem with presenting online is it is really difficult to get a feel for if the attendees are enjoying it. Essentially I was presenting to my own computer for an hour, trying not to get distracted by cats wandering around the office car park. None of the clues I pick up when presenting live are there. I’ve done a few online presentations now and the only way to get a feel for how it went is to check Twitter and hope someone says something about my talk!

My desk in the office with two laptops, a screen and my headset
Set up and ready to present to the Emerge mini-conference

I had some encouraging feedback on Twitter from this presentation but it led me to wondering how we can improve the feel of an online conference for speakers and attendees. In addition to feedback when presenting onstage, another important place I get feedback after a presentation is in the breaks afterwards. It isn’t about people coming up and telling me they loved it, but rather the questions they come and ask. The ideas they want to discuss. Then I know that the things I have said have hit a chord with a person, and may also pick up something that should be added to the presentation another time.

For attendees an important part of a real world conference experience is discussion with speakers and with each other. The online conferences I have been involved with have generally had a short period of questions after the presentation. Is there a good way to facilitate a more relaxed question and answer session, perhaps using IRC or similar?

With many companies cutting back, employees may find they don’t have the budget to travel to conferences, so I think online conferences are valuable and here to stay. However with so much of the conference experience being the bits between the presentations, I wonder if we can partly create that atmosphere for speakers and attendees albeit in a virtual way.

Kim on the 22 Jan 2012:

Hi Rachel

I was listening to your talk last Monday (and thoroughly enjoyed it). I enjoyed the online conference as a whole and hope they’re here to stay, but I agree with the points you raise about interaction. As well as being able to converse with the speaker it would be great to also be able to chat with other delegates directly before/after a talk too. IRC would be good, maybe also skype(?). Also, to get instant feedback on your talk, you could you could register it on http://joind.in. You could encourage listeners at the start and end of the talk to visit your page and leave feedback (and you can upload yr slides there too) :)

Thanks for a great talk, and best of luck in the future with Perch.


Matt Carey on the 23 Jan 2012:

Rachel, what software did you use for the online conference? Is there a standard out there or are different conference organisers going with different solutions?

Rachel on the 23 Jan 2012:

Emerge used GoToWebinar, but every conference I have done has used different software. There are a whole heap of different things out there. I’ve only ever used them as a speaker so don’t know how they differ as an organiser.

Matt Carey on the 23 Jan 2012:

Thanks Rachel. I was wondering if there was a common system in use which caused the problems (lack of interaction etc).

Rachel on the 25 Jan 2012:

Just thought I’d let you know that I was listening to the talk. It was very useful and I have just changed my hosting following your suggestions (something I had been worrying about for a while). It was great to access this conference from home- I’m sure I wouldn’t have had time to attend in ‘real life’.

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