Can everyone hear me? Does my hair look OK? What does the audience think about what I just said? Did I answer the most important questions? Some of these worries are the same now in the Webinar Age as for an old style Pre-COVID-19 in-person conference presentation, but many are new. In a webinar setting it is very difficult to get cues from the audience. Solution: organize an honest feedback channel, separate from your audience.
This is just one of the things we have learned at the Center for Philanthropic Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam from transforming an in-person conference to an online webinar. The day before yesterday we organized our Giving in the Netherlands conference entirely online. We had planned this conference to be an in-person event for 260 participants – the maximum capacity of the room that a sponsor kindly offered to us. We were fully booked. Registration was free, with a €50 late cancellations penalty.
Then the ‘intelligent lockdown’ and physical distancing measures imposed by the government in the Netherlands made it impossible to do the conference as planned. After some checks of various presentation platforms, we decided to move the conference online, using Zoom. We reworked the program, and made it shorter. We removed the opening reception, break, and drinks afterward. We first did 3 plenary presentations, and then a panel discussion. Total length of the program was 90 minutes.
We pre-recorded two of the three the presentations (using Loom) so we could broadcast them in a zoom-session. This worked well, though it was a lot of work to create good quality sound and a ‘talking head’ image in the presentations. We have learned a lot about audio feedback loops, natural light effects, and the importance of a neutral background for presentations.
In the preparations for the symposium, I also benefited from the experience moderating the opening plenary at the ARNOVA conference last year. In our online format, instead of having volunteers going around the room, I gave the audience the opportunity to pose questions through a separate online channel, www.menti.com. The online format even had an advantage compared to the hotel ballroom stage setting. During the interview I was able to keep an eye on the questions channel, and I could secretly look at my phone as colleagues sent me texts and emails identifying the questions as they came in. As a result, the discussion went smoothly, and the audience was engaged. After the unilateral research presentations, the panel discussion was a lively change of scene. I interviewed three sector leaders in the Netherlands about COVID-19 effects, and again presented questions from the audience.
Overall, this was a good experience for us, proving that it is possible to do a traditional symposium in an online setting. We also learned that it was a lot of work. You need new audiovisual skills that you don’t learn in graduate school.
You need a team of people working behind the scenes to make it work. We had a moderator, Barry Hoolwerf, introducing the house rules, broadcasting the pre-recorded presentations, and giving the floor to the live speakers – unmuting their microphones and allowing their video to be visible on screen. We had two people, Arjen de Wit and Claire van Teunenbroek, monitoring the questions channel, selecting the most important ones.
Finally, we learned how important it is to test, learn and adapt. We tested the presentations for a smaller audience that we gave a ‘sneak preview’ and learned about technical issues. The test was additional work, but worth it because it took away most of our worries.
You can watch the presentations (in Dutch) here: https://www.geveninnederland.nl/presentatie-geven-in-nederland-2020/. If you’re interested in the book you can download it here: https://www.geveninnederland.nl/publicatie-geven-in-nederland-2020/. A visual summary of the book in English is here: https://renebekkers.files.wordpress.com/2020/04/giving-in-the-netherlands-2020-summary.pdf