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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Why do we charge registration fees for virtual events?

“Why do you charge registration fees for virtual events? You are not flying speakers in, there are no accommodation or catering costs. You are not printing any conference material!” Yes, you are absolutely right! All of these are valid points in the world of virtual training. And yet we are still charging registration fees. Why?

As a non-profit organisation and with training being one of its five missions, EMBL sets its fees at the lowest possible level to just cover the costs of the events program. These are:

Staff

It sounds incredible, but virtual events turned out to be more time-intensive and demanding in terms of staff support than we thought. We are now busy scheduling test runs with speakers, populating virtual platforms, coordinating the timely and high-quality delivery of pre-recorded talks, providing technical support and trouble shooting – all things we didn’t have to do for onsite events, or previously had support with from our onsite service staff. In the past year, our team has even grown in order to be able to deliver the 31 virtual courses and conferences that took place in 2020.

Behind the Scenes at the EMBL Conference: Transcription and Chromatin (27 – 29 August 2020). Previously only one conference officer was the main coordinator of an onsite meeting. Now there are always two people onsite, splitting the tasks of monitoring and communication with the participants, speakers and audio-visual technicians.
Software

Unfortunately, virtual events cannot be run solely on Zoom. That would have made everything much easier, but attending a conference or course is so much more than listening to the talk. Participants look for interaction, networking options and avid peer exchange. So our courses’ and conferences’ programmes incorporate a range of networking and knowledge-exchange sessions such as meet-the speakers, bar mixers, pub quizzes, speed networking and poster sessions. In order to meet these requirements we make use of paid solutions which offer all these benefits and are easy to navigate for the users.

Training

New software means new set up in terms of design and maintenance, and to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible during the events our staff require appropriate and sufficient training to be able to operate it.

Sponsorship

With all our events turning virtual, income from sponsorship has decreased accordingly. Normally at a conference you would see several companies exhibiting in the Advanced Training Centre foyer, but with the meetings taking place entirely online, there has not been as much interest in virtual sponsorship. While we are being creative with what we can offer our sponsors, they also miss the face-to-face interaction with our participants.

Marketing

While the onsite costs have decreased, getting the word out still requires the same amount of budget (if not more!). How do we make sure you hear about us and the virtual meetings we are organising? How do we stand out from the other virtual events that are currently out there? Would you hear about our meeting if we used the traditional channels as before? In most cases, we have had to add on to our marketing channels and campaigns to increase awareness about our virtual programme.

Fellowships

EMBL offers various types of fellowships to support scientists to attend our events. An advantage of the virtual format is that with lower registration fees and no travel to cover, the funds stretch much further.  We are finding that we are able assist more applicants than ever before to attend entirely free of charge.

 

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CABANA – not just a shelter from the sun

You may have heard the name CABANA floating around the EMBL training programme, but you may not know exactly what it is. Here we present a handy guide to the project, its origins and where it stands now almost three years on from its launch.

PHOTO: CABANA logo
PHOTO: CABANA logo

CABANA is a capacity strengthening project for bioinformatics in Latin America. It aims to accelerate the implementation of data-driven biology in the region by creating a sustainable capacity-building programme focusing on three challenge areas – communicable disease, sustainable food production and protection of biodiversity.

Want to know more about the project? Check out this video from the CABANA consortium.

With just over a year left of the project, funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) – part of the UK Aid Budget, the capacity building element of the project is ramping up. A big part of the project is running a series of training events for the Latin American audience, something that began with the centralised events team within EMBL-EBI, but is now increasingly being operated in Latin America by the partners themselves.

CABANA has virtualised its training programme for the rest of 2020 and has committed to a fully virtual 2021 programme too. Check out the latest events on offer, or visit the new virtual training portal for the e-learning options.

Follow the CABANA project on Twitter or Facebook for the latest news and updates.

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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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10 tips for presenting at virtual events

By guest bloggers and EMBL AV experts Christopher Höhmann and Jan Abda

Virtual events are on the rise, largely due to the necessity to adapt to the physical distancing enforcements and travel restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

EMBL is continuing to offer advanced training for the scientific community as safely as we can, with many events pivoting to virtual. With speakers spread all over the world with different internet connection speeds, technical support and varying levels of experience with virtual presenting, the EMBL Audiovisual team have put together a guide on how to make sure your presentation is smooth and you come across as professionally as possible for your digital lecture.

  1. Choose your location wisely

Make sure you choose a location without a window in the background, as this will result in a high contrast, causing you to appear dark and hard to see. Make sure the background isn’t too busy, or has anything that might draw the attention away from your talk.

Be sure to have a neutral background with nothing that might distract your audience
  1. Pick a quiet room

When selecting the location for your presentation, make sure there is no loud background noise and that you won’t be disturbed. Who can forget Prof. Robert Kelly’s live BBC broadcast starring his adorable children as unexpected guests!

Make sure the room is quiet and you can sit comfortably
  1. Use a headset

Ideally, use a headset in order to ensure the best possible sound. It may feel a bit strange at first, but your audience will thank you for it!

Check out a review of some of the best options here.

  1. Use a wired connection if possible

If you have the option, connect your device directly rather than relying on a wireless internet connection. This will help avoid any possibly wireless instability or network breaks.

  1. Avoid using the web browser

There are many different streaming software options out there. If there is a video conferencing app available for the event you are presenting at, for best results download this in advance to use for the live stream rather than relying on the less reliable web browser version.

  1. Close other programmes

In order to save bandwidth and processing power, close all unnecessary applications on your device before your presentation starts. This will result in a smoother streaming of your talk.

  1. Share your entire screen – carefully!

It always comes across better if you share your entire screen rather than just your keynote or PowerPoint presentation. Just be sure to keep in mind that as soon as you share your screen, everything that you can see can be seen by your audience, so be aware of what you have visible!

Troubleshooting on Macs

If you have a Mac (running Mac OS Catalina 10.15), you may have some initial problems with sharing your screen. If this is the case, try the following:

Go to System Preference → choose Security & Privacy  → select the relevant app under Screen Recording and tick the box.

The (VC) app will have to be restarted in order for the changes to take effect.

  1. Unshare before question time

When you have finished your presentation, end your screen sharing before the Q&A session starts. Your audience wants to see YOU when they are asking questions about your presentation, not the final slide of your talk.

  1. Make it readable

Remember, people will be watching your presentation on different devices with different-sized screens. Make sure your digital presentation is clear and that the font is readable – if you can’t read it easily, neither can your audience.

  1. Test, test, test!

At EMBL, our AV team will test the setup and conditions with you before the live event. Make sure that you carry out the test with exactly the same set-up as you plan to use on the day to eliminate the risk of any nasty surprises.

 

So now there’s nothing stopping you from giving a smooth and polished presentation at your next virtual conference. Take the time to get familiar with your streaming applications, practice and test the software in advance, and you shouldn’t have anything to worry about!


Check out our tips on how to give a good scientific talk and how to become a better scientific presenter!


Jan Abda and Christopher Hoehmann are dedicated Audiovisual Technicians in the EMBL Photolab, and are responsible for ensuring the technical aspects of our onsite and virtual conferences and courses run as smoothly as possible. We would be lost without them!

 

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