Looking back on a year of organising virtual events

Exactly one year ago, the Covid-19 pandemic hit Europe. All on-site events had to be cancelled and we had to rethink our entire program. Our Course and Conference Officers worked really hard to create a virtual equivalent of EMBL’s on-site training offering.  We successfully launched our first virtual conference and many more followed. 

The learning curve was steep and so was the stress level. But when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Two of our Conference Officers, Nathalie and Diah, share with us their experience from being in the eye of the storm, the lessons they have learned and some tips for organising a virtual meeting.

Conference Officers Nathalie and Diah
Conference Officers Nathalie (left) and Diah

How does organising a virtual event compare to organising an on-site event?

Diah: “It is a different world, but equally fun! Organising a virtual event is harder than people think and often more challenging. Not getting to see anyone in person and mastering all sorts of virtual platforms can be quite tough.”

Nathalie: “Some of the milestones we have are the same, for example: preparing the website, programme, opening registration, emails with participants and invited speakers, abstract review and selection… But a huge bulk of the work is totally different: instead of booking buses and ordering catering, we are setting up Zoom webinars and populating the virtual platform.

The massive change has been adapting to the new tasks we have to do and how we should do them consistently for all our events. In our team we have numerous working groups looking at areas of event organisation and creating guidelines, procedures and templates that will help us all. It really is a whole team effort!”

Read: Why do we charge fees for virtual events?

What kind of feedback do you get from participants, speakers and organisers?

Nathalie: “The feedback I have received from speakers and participants has been great: they are so happy we converted our event to virtual instead of cancelling/postponing it. Initially a few speakers were disappointed for the event to turn virtual but the same people commented afterwards that they were impressed with how well it went. What is wonderful is that it is still so beneficial for them in their continued research.”

Diah: “Very humbling! Many agree that onsite face-to-face events are somehow irreplaceable but at the same time they are amazed at the number of benefits virtual events offer too! They give you more flexibility: you don’t have to travel across the world. Also, some people feel more comfortable asking questions in the virtual format. ”

What is the most important lesson you have learned about organising virtual events?

Nathalie: “It’s been necessary for us to turn to virtual events but the lessons we have learned are that virtual events are effective, valuable and have many advantages! We’ve noticed that participants feel more comfortable asking questions during Q&A, that virtual talks have had a wonderful response, that virtual networking works well and you can meet different people from all over the world just at your desk!

On a bigger scale, virtual events mean less travel and a lower carbon footprint and they are more inclusive as they allow some people to participate who couldn’t have done so before. This is hugely important and is a very positive outcome of this difficult situation and it will have an impact on how events are organised in the future.”

What do you miss most about on-site events?

Diah: “The buzz when everyone arrives and the ATC is full of people is very exciting – after all the planning, everyone is there! And my favourite moment is the end of the conference: everyone is smiling and happy and you wave goodbye to the buses that leave EMBL. That sense of relief and accomplishment at the same time. I miss that!”

Nathalie: “Parties! One of the best things about the onsite events is meeting the speakers and participants you’ve been in touch with for months and when it comes to the conference party, it is really fun to see everyone let their hair down and enjoy themselves! And taking silly pictures at the Photobooth with people is something I loved and a really cute memento of the conference. That is a small thing I miss too!”

What in your opinion makes virtual events better than on-site events?

Nathalie: “The inclusiveness: more participants can take part as there is not the same financial barrier (travel, accommodation) and people can join from anywhere in the world.”

Diah: “Virtual events are resilient. There is no need to cancel an event because of the weather or a disaster. Participants can attend the event from anywhere!”

Conference Officer Diah wearing a face mask in an empty auditorium during a virtual event
Conference Officer Diah working a shift in an empty Auditorium

A common criticism is that networking doesn’t work well in the virtual world. What is your experience with virtual social events?

Nathalie: “I think it is great to see how Zoom breakout rooms allow people to mix in small groups or 1-to-1. Particularly the speed networking translates very well.”

Diah: “It’s my favorite part of the programme and I am amazed at how well it has been accepted and running so far. We have had live-streamed concerts and participants love it. At one conference some of the scientific organisers even stayed for the whole duration of the social session and wanted to continue mingling even after it had finished.”

Read our blog on virtual speednetworking.

Top tips to keep in mind while organising a virtual event?

Nathalie: “First of all – be open-minded. There are so many new technologies out there and different things you can try!

Have clear guidelines and templates: you use so many different apps and systems that saving time when setting things up can be a lifesaver!”

Diah: “I would also say: Test, test and test. Glitches are always likely to happen, so be prepared and stay calm.”

Read our blog for more tips on how to organise a virtual event

How do you see the future of EMBL Events?

Nathalie: “I hope we will embrace this new world of virtual events and have effective hybrid events in the future: allowing for face-to-face interaction for those who want to come on-site, but also giving the opportunity for those who prefer to join virtually and get the benefit of being part of the event without having to leave their home!”

Diah: “I think hybrid events will take a central place in the format of EMBL Events in the future. But whatever the format will be, we will keep improving and finding the best way to support the scientific community.”

Looking back in general, what are your thoughts?

Diah and Nathalie: “It has been very rewarding during the last year to see how we at EMBL have been able to adapt to the situation we have found ourselves in and been able to ensure that we can still provide a platform for scientific exchange. The aim of EICAT is to provide excellent training to scientists, and, despite the challenges, this is being achieved virtually for the first time! We are really proud of being able to provide opportunities for this exchange of knowledge and research.

Personally, this time has also been one of continuous learning for all of us on the team. We have developed our skills and experience in a number of ways and massively increased our knowledge of online platforms and tools! It has truly been a time of teamwork as we have adapted into the virtual event world and we are grateful to everyone involved: our marketing team, our Photolab technicians, designers and scientific organisers. It has been a challenging but very valuable learning experience!”

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New year’s resolutions…and how to actually stick to them!

A new year, a fresh start!

After a well-deserved break and with enough time to think about last year’s achievements, you start off the new year with a clean slate.

That paper really needs to be published as soon as possible, you finally have to start networking, you want to learn how to use R, be less distracted by other things in your home-office, and you definitely want to impress everyone with a great talk at an important conference.

Sounds great! However, the thing about New Year’s resolutions is: most people can’t stick to them. By the time February comes around, chances are that you have already given up. Here are some tips to help you stick to your New Year’s resolutions:

List of New Year's resolutions

One goal at a time

Don’t make a list of goals that you try to achieve all at the same time. You may be an intelligent soul, however, we humans are just simple creatures. People are most productive when they focus on 1 or 2 priorities, instead of a whole list. So, focus on one thing, finish it, and then go on to the next. That way, you are more likely to succeed.

A (wo)man with a plan

It’s called a goal, not a dream. Your goal should be reachable and realistic. Define the goal and steps needed to reach the goal. Make it SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Example

Goal: you want to learn more about data visualisation so you can use it in your articles.

SMART goal: I will attend at least 1 course in 2021, to learn more about data visualisation.  I will make a list of possible courses by February 1st, in order to meet my goal in time.

See how your goal comes to life by making it SMART? I bet you are more dedicated to achieving your goal now that you have these specifics parameters.

Make it a habit

It’s all about creating good habits – and that takes time. If you want to finish the paper you have been working on for ages but keep getting distracted, make it a habit not to check your email in the morning. That way, you can stay focused on your long-term goal. Try this for at least 2 months and it will feel like you have never done it any differently before.

Reward yourself

Yes, you are an adult and it might seem silly dangling a carrot in front of your own nose, but it works. So reward yourself with something nice. Just a note: if your goal is to stay more focused, don’t reward yourself with indulging in an hour-long Reddit rabbit hole, but rather with something completely unrelated to the resolution. Perhaps pick up a nice meal at your favorite restaurant instead.

Support network

Tell your colleagues, friends, and family about your intentions so they can support you. They might be able to give you a pep talk when you are down, some tough love when you are slacking, or maybe they will even join your efforts.

Tips & Tricks

Don’t invent the wheel yourself. Not knowing how to do something might leave you postponing it endlessly. Luckily for you, there are always tips & tricks that can help you out. Looking for tips on how to create a virtual poster? Or to record a short talk no one will forget? Or how to avoid awkward silences during networking? We’ve got you covered!

Possible New Year’s Resolutions

If the pandemic has worn you out and you are feeling pretty apathetic about your research, your job or your life, these possible New Year’s Resolutions might help get you off the couch.

Become more focused at work

Home-office life is hard on everyone, but there are things you can do to become more focused. First, you need to examine why you are distracted easily. That way you can define your SMART goal.

If you check your email all the time, set a goal not to check your mail until 1 pm every day. Or if your workspace is a mess, try to create a more peaceful environment. Or maybe you aren’t focuse, because you don’t have an overview of what needs to be done. Try making a structured plan with a timeline. If stress is the underlying problem, try meditating or sign up for mindfulness. 

Make yourself more visible

Showing off your skills and potential doesn’t come naturally to everyone. For most people, it is hard work making themselves and their research visible.

Networking: A goal for this year can be to have at least 5 network conversations with people in your research field. Update your LinkedIn profile, join networking activities and schedule meetings with relevant people. Don’t know how to start? Take a look at these tips from EMBLs career advisor. 

Presenting at a conference: Making yourself visible by giving a short talk or a poster presentation would also be a great goal.  If you are going to present a virtual poster, these tips might help you out. Have you been selected for a flash talk? Don’t take this lightly and prepare yourself using these tips. 

Gaining skills or knowledge

A good researcher always tries to keep up with the newest insights. Read the latest articles, get relevant newsletters, and follow relevant accounts on Twitter. But sometimes you need to step up your game a little – apply for a course, join a conference, or take training in personal effectiveness or leadership.

Subscribe to our newsletter to be the first to know about new conferences and courses.

Do you have New Year’s Resolutions? We are curious to know about them. Drop us a message or a Tweet. 

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How to present a memorable flash talk in 12 easy steps

Flash talks are a great way to give an introduction to your work, and whet people’s appetite for your research.

Generally flash talks last for 1 to 2 minutes, and presenters are normally allowed one simple PowerPoint slide or, in the case of virtual events, a 1 – 2 minute pre-recorded video. But is it really possible to present something really memorable within such limitations?

Here are some things to take into account when preparing your flash talk to make sure the audience remembers you, and contacts you after the session to find out more. Because that’s the goal, right?

1. Keep it brief

You should definitely start by giving a very brief introduction that makes people understand why your work is interesting, and ends by saying how people can contact you afterwards. Of course you can say where you’re from and your affiliation, but the critical thing is to attract to people’s attention.

2. Cover the basics

Answer the following questions:

  • Why is it interesting?
  • What is it about?
  • How did you do it?
  • With whom did you carry out the work?

3. Connect with the audience

For live events be sure to always look at the audience – don’t lose eye contact. Keep scanning the room for the duration of your talk, and definitely do not turn your back to them. In the case of a pre-recorded video, treat your camera like an audience and talk directly to it.

 4. Leave the audience asking for more

Try to build up the anticipation and attention of the people who are listening and watching– put out something you’ve investigated but don’t tell them the whole story. You want to leave them hanging and intrigued enough to want to find out more.

5. Be dynamic

Your flash talk is going to be short so your audience will generally be paying attention to you. Build up to something where you clearly emphasise one or two points. These are the sort of things that are going to bring their attention to the most important parts. Be enthusiastic – if you show that you’re really into your science people will come along and want to know more.

6. Don’t be afraid to use visual tools

If it’s relevant, there is no problem with using props in your flash talk. Alternatively, make your talk visually memorable by using dynamic diagrams, graphics and images. Videos will normally not be possible for live flash talks, so don’t rely on these.

7. Avoid special effects

It is possible to make something visually memorable without going overboard on big special effects such as PowerPoint animations. If your science is good it doesn’t need any fireworks.

8. Do the unexpected

If it fits with your character, you can try to make people laugh. Doing something that the audience is not expecting can be very effective. We’ve seen everything from interpretive dance to a guitar-accompanied talk – anything is possible! Just make sure it matches to who you are so that it appears natural.

9. Include your poster number

Definitely, definitely, definitely include your poster number during your flash talk! It will make it much easier for people to come and find you later on at the poster session.

10. Be a slide minimalist

As already mentioned, diagrams, graphs and images are great when you have only 1 or 2 slides at your disposal. Make sure though that there is a minimum of information on your slides to try to bring people into the main message – focus on the thing that you want them to remember.

11. Practise!

Like all talks, you need to practise beforehand! Even if you want to bring across that you’re relaxed and everything is quite informal there is no way around it – you’ve got to practise to be prepared.

12. Stick to the time limit

With a flash talk this is so important – the time limitations are extremely strict, and you will be moved off the stage when your time is up, or your video won’t be uploaded to a virtual event platform. So make sure you have condensed everything into the time provided, and don’t go over or you may be stopped mid-sentence!

Check out these examples of great flash talk slides!
Single-slide flash talk by Fariha Akter
Multi-slide flash talk by Pablo Gonzalez-Suarez

Original video with Dr. Cornelius Gross, EMBL Rome, and Dr. Francesca Peri, University of Zurich

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How to visualise biological data

Isn’t it always the way? You have amazing results, but you can see your colleagues’ eyes glaze over when you try to explain it to them. Why not try to present your data in a visually appealing way, and make sure all eyes are on your work? 

 1.     Make the data speak for itself

When you start to think about visualising your data, try to make them as standalone as possible. If you are presenting the work – for example, on a poster at a conference – make sure the visualisation is clear and comprehensible, so that people can grasp the concept without you needing to stand there and explain it.  

2.     Ain’t nobody got time for that!

One thing you have to realise – people want information, and they want it fast! They’re not going to read the captions, they’re not going to read all the beautiful text you’ve written, so the more you can put directly on the visualisation to help people understand it, the better.

3.     Drama, darling!

When you start talking about creating illustrations for more broad communication other factors come into play – use dramatic elements, make it eye-catching, appeal to human emotion, make it relatable and appealing, or possibly even controversial! It needs to stir emotions!

4.     Determine your target audience

Obviously if you’re going to publish in a scientific journal it’s really important to be accurate, because you’re trying to communicate with peers who have a similar level of knowledge to you. If you’re on the front page of the New York Times it’s probably more important to engage people and get people interested.

5.     Understand the concept

If you’re looking at complex multivariable relationship start by looking at the individual variables, and make sure that you understand what’s going on at a low level before you try and do something more complex.

6.     Don’t skip the planning phase

Decide on the concept. Sketch your plan. Draw a storyboard. Record narration if required. Once these processes are done you can move onto the design, and then we go into the design, modelling and animation process – depending on which medium you’ve chosen for your visualisation.

7.     Find patterns
By visualising biological data, scientists can see patterns. Find these patterns and make them stand out, and in doing so you’ll be able to better communicate your ideas to others and get them excited about your science.

8.     Filter, map and render
There are 3 main steps to getting your work visualised:

  • First you filter the data to find exactly what you need
  • Then you map – this might be working out how the data corresponds to the spatial layout of the visualisation
  • Then it’s time to render – this is how you then encode the change or the signal on that map you have created.

9.     Keep it simple
Don’t try to put too much information in. Think about what needs to be removed to keep the message as concise and impactful as possible. It’s more important to get people excited about what you’re trying to show them than to convey every last detail 100% correctly.

10.  Determine your software
There are a number of tools out there that you can use to look at different types of data. Having visualisations that are done in Keynote or PowerPoint can be just as good as long as you know they’re useful.

Graphics programs such as the Adobe Illustrator Suite enable us to create a wide range of things. An excellent tool for scientists to create visualisations is a software program called R. It’s a programming language and an environment for interactive data science and data


 Get inspired!

Check out these pages for great visualisation!

https://vizbi.org/Posters/
https://beatascienceart.com/

 

Original video with Janet Iwasa, Hadley Wickham, Seán O’Donoghue and James Proctor

 

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How speed networking could work at your next virtual conference

With events going digital, professional training has become increasingly convenient and accessible. While getting the latest scientific research developments from the comfort of your home has never been so easy, sitting alone in front of a screen significantly diminishes the chances of meeting new people and collaborators – a benefit of on-site meetings that is considered one of their most important assets.

Most meeting organisers realise that and offer various networking opportunities and socialising incentives as part of the programme. One of the methods we have implemented to facilitate social interaction at our onsite as well as virtual conferences is the so-called speed networking – a networking session where people swap conversational partners every 5 minutes with the aim to meet as many people as possible and exchange information about their research or the project they are currently working on. The session is normally scheduled  for the first day of the conference so that participants can later go back to the people they have met during the speed networking session and continue the discussion.

What should you talk about during the speed networking?

5 minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, so it is important that you focus on the essentials. Start by introducing yourself then go into more detail. Are you looking for collaborators? Or maybe a new job or a postdoc position?

How can you do that in just 5 minutes?

  • Prepare a 20 second blurb about yourself
  • Keep aware of the time factor – there should be a countdown on your screen
  • Stick to the vitals
  • Make sure to take notes next to their name so that you can later go back to them for reference
  • Most importantly, have fun and relax! 🙂

What if you don’t finish your conversation within the allocated time slot?

  • Before the time is up, make sure you suggest the next step
  • Message them directly on the available discussion platform with a suggestion for a follow-up meeting
  • After the meeting, be sure to e-mail them with a suggestion for further exchange.

Why not check out our list of upcoming virtual events to see where you can try out your speed networking skills!


For tips on how to do speed networking at onsite events, check out this video.

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