MA Candidate in Conflict Transformation & Social Justice
COVID-19 has been referred to as the great pause, where so many plans are put on hold till we can meet again. Large events in particular have been greatly impacted, and it still remains unclear when they will be permitted again. As a postgraduate, this can be particularly concerning as conferences offer unique opportunities to learn and share research. However, if you still wish to go forward with conference planning, I can offer a few strategies to do so.
Recently, I was part of leading a postgraduate committee that successfully transformed our plans for an in-person conference to a virtual one. The ‘True’ Stories: Contesting Narrative of Violence Conference had only recently put out the call for papers when the lockdown began. Fortunately, the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute and HAPP supported the committee’s decision to move the conference online and we were able to continue advertising for submissions. After much hard work, the conference on 25 & 26 of May 2020 brought together activists, academics and practitioners to examine how, why and whose stories of violence are told in deeply divided societies. Over 190 people signed up to attend the live virtual event, reaching audiences across 19 countries. This was much more than initially expected. Split over two days, the conference included 10 speakers from several countries and two keynote addresses from Theo Wilson (activist) and Anand Pandian (John Hopkins Professor of Anthropology). The presentations, highlighting many systemic issues, were particularly timely in providing the opportunity to discuss narratives of injustice and dominant discourses. (Many of these presentations are now available online at https://www.qub.ac.uk/Research/GRI/mitchell-institute/ResearchandImpact/true-stories-contesting-narratives-of-violence/.) The striking success of the conference came down to the commitment of the committee and the support of the university.
Below is a basic guide to planning a virtual conference. Though it by no means covers everything that you may need to do, I hope that it might inspire you host your own conference.
Our conference was planned using two tools, Eventbrite and Zoom, because we wanted the event to be free and open to the public. Both have great features which made the planning more streamlined. Eventbrite allows for guests to easily sign up for an event, is a great tool to communicate with and automatically monitors impact. The sales recap feature records and places the information you need into Excel sheets automatically. You can also schedule automatic email reminders for attendees. Although you should have a professional email set up for the conference, it can still be easier to reach attendees with Eventbrite. By this point most people are probably familiar with the free Zoom Meetings; however, in order to support a large number of attendees at one time, it is essential to have the Zoom Webinar* feature. There are different levels of this which will determine how many attendees you can have—fortunately for us, HAPP graciously shared their professional account. The webinar option is more secure, as attendees cannot share video or sound. Instead, interactions like questions for speakers can be done in the chat or Q&A feature. Should you know and trust a guest, the host can temporarily promote them to co-host to share video or sound. During our conference we had one person in charge of the tech (the host), controlling who had the ability to screen share and whose video was spotlighted. Overall, Zoom Webinar has a more professional appearance when utilized properly. This leads to the next aspect to consider—roles.
* Should you choose to use Zoom Meetings for your conference, some of the following will not be applicable.
For a Zoom conference to be as smooth as possible, it is important to have very clear roles. The following are some suggested roles for during the conference itself and prior. There can be overlap in these roles, and multiple people can share some of the responsibilities.
During the Virtual Conference:
- HOST – The “host” is actually the term used by Zoom for the person in control of the technical aspects of the conference. They will be in charge of scheduling the Zoom Webinar itself and must carefully select the security features. They can set up practice sessions to familiarize themselves with everything. During the conference their job will be to make sure the right person’s video is spotlighted, take over control of screensharing if there is a problem and control who can or cannot join an event. For our conference, we allowed automatic entrance without the “waiting room” because we wanted the host to be free for other issues. This works on webinar since regular attendees don’t have video or sound. Should there be a problem, the host can remove someone. In our conference, the host was also in charge of playing a PowerPoint slide show during breaks. It is crucial this person have a steady internet connection.
- On-Screen Host – This person is in charge of welcoming everyone to the conference and introducing the speakers. Their job will be to ensure transitions are smooth on screen, muting themselves and turning off video between to ensure there is no sound interference. They must always be on the ball, reading questions from attendees or thinking of their own to ensure a successful Q&A period. They can also be in charge of the closing—or you can choose to make that a group discussion.
- Chat Monitor – This person will introduce the speaker bios into the public chat and respond to questions in the chat (if that is a feature you choose to allow). They will be in charge of making sure no one is a zoom crasher and alerting the host to any issues. They can place written reminders of the end of breaks into the chat too.
- Speaker Liaison – this person ensures all speakers are ready and prepared to speak during the conference itself. They can do this by sending private messages in the zoom chat, a Whatsapp message or email depending on the needs of the speaker. Prior to the conference, they are in charge of communication with the speakers, collecting all PowerPoints (so the host can share it if there is an issue) and collecting bios for the programme.
- Back-Up Support– This team member is there in case something unexpectedly goes wrong and a role needs to be filled temporarily. You never know what will happen, so it is important that all team members stay connected throughout the chat.
- Email Monitor – This team member will need to check the official email to make sure no attendee is having problems. You might be surprised at the number of last-minute zoom link requests.
- Live Tweeter – This team member can live tweet pictures or quotes from the event.
Prior to the Conference:
- Committee Lead – This team member is in charge of organizing meetings, connecting with the supporting institution/school and making sure each task is completed. They share notes from each meeting and help assign tasks if no one volunteers. They will have to set meeting agendas and ensure cooperation among team members.
- Call for Papers Writers – These team members will need to carefully write a call for papers inviting submissions based on the appropriate theme.
- Keynote Liaison – This team member is in charge of working to ensure keynote speakers are kept informed and provide the necessary publicity information. Likely, they will have performed the initial contact and remain in touch so that there is consistency.
- Speaker Liaison – see above.
- Designer – This team member will be in charge of the designing logos, programmes, certificates and other publicity aspects to prepare for the conference. Once all the speaker info is collected they place it into the programme, create posters and design media for the publicity team. They also create a PowerPoint to be played during breaks of the conference.
- Attendee Liaison – This team member will be in charge of the Eventbrite and setting up emails to go to attendees with the zoom link. They will need to send the zoom link a few hours prior to the conference, and a reminder email at conference time. Also, after the conference is over, they can send the follow-up email with links or surveys.
- Publicity Team – These team members are in charge of publicizing the conference on social media (setting up event accounts is a good plan), university accounts and other appropriate media. They will need to coordinate hashtags, post frequently and connect with the QUB publicity team. They should also email the call for papers to other universities and follow their social media accounts to advertise the conference.
- Team Member – They provide ideas and suggestions, volunteering for tasks as they are able.
TO DO LIST:
Though some may seem obvious, it never hurts to be share! This to do list is about what must be done after you establish the basic plan–pick a theme, write a call-for-papers and set a date. It does not include everything the team must do or the dates by which to do them, but is meant to give you a pretty thorough idea.
- Set up an official event email, Eventbrite (some details can be changed later), and social media accounts.
- Publicize the call for papers everywhere (and don’t be afraid to look outside of the university system or global north).
- Do a countdown for the call for papers deadline (and later the conference itself).
- Have each team member read over speaker submission and suggest keynotes.
- Get keynotes signed on, and decide when it is best to feature them in the conference.
- Select the speakers, collecting abstracts and bios for the programme and connecting to their social media. If you plan to record, send out publicity waivers.
- Pick a time that works for speakers and international attendees. (We found 2-6pm to be best as our speakers were primarily from Europe and North America.)
- Ensure that each speaker has an appropriate time slot and knows their time limit.
- Set a deadline to collect all PowerPoint presentations from speakers, that way if there is a technical issue, the host can share it for them.
- Heavily advertise the updated Eventbrite link, emphasizing space limits (and continue this until conference).
- Announce the Keynote Speakers – connect to their social media (at least 3 weeks before the Conference) and publicize across several platforms.
- Announce the schedule, including all speaker names/times (the next week) and publicize across several platforms. Update the Eventbrite to include this schedule.
- Share the official programme with attendees (via your official email account since Eventbrite doesn’t let you share) one week prior to the conference.
- Repeatedly send out the programme again until your deadline to sign up closes.
- Prepare a PowerPoint to play during breaks (*if you wish to use music, make sure it is royalty free).
- Hold a practice zoom webinar with your team members and (if available) speakers to practice screen-sharing and the various settings. You can invite friends to be test attendees too. Make sure everyone is comfortable with their roles and has the information they need.
- Set up the conference zoom meeting, being sure that all co-hosts (speakers and team members) are invited via zoom and the desired security features are selected.
- Send out the zoom link to all attendees at least 5 hours before the conference. Send a reminder email just before it starts too. (You can schedule this via Eventbrite)
- If you are recording the event, hit record at the start.
- While the conference is happening, be sure to take notes to use during the closing to thank everyone or live tweet.
- Send thank you gifts and certificates to speakers
- Send a thank you email to all attendees and speakers with appropriate links to the recording. (We recommend cutting the recording down to individual speakers to make it easier to watch.)
- Celebrate! You successfully hosted a conference with international reach.
Should you want to learn more about the ‘True’ Stories: Contesting Narratives of Violence Virtual Conference, feel free to check out our website: https://www.qub.ac.uk/Research/GRI/mitchell-institute/ResearchandImpact/true-stories-contesting-narratives-of-violence/.
If you have any questions, you can also reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. There may be a bit of delay in response, but we will get back to you when we can.