What is it like to present at a virtual conference?

Graphic showing a laptop with caption: Presenting at Remote Conferences

With 'remote' conferences being the new norm, we felt it was important for students to share their experiences with presenting virtually. We asked several FSU History’s graduate students to talk about the new ‘conference-from-home’ format. Some students had participated in the FSU History Graduate Student Association-run conference in early April, others in an international conference in New Zealand in July. For almost all, these were their first virtual conferences. As could be expected, the new format had both pros and cons.

While the two conferences were on different scales and used different formats, they were both shaped by the technology available. The one-day HGSA conference offered panels for Zoom-based discussion of pre-circulated papers. The Society for French Historical Studies (SFHS)/ George Rudé conference, originally planned to be held in New Zealand, which was spread out across four weeks, consisted of webinars, salons, panels, and keynote events, ranging from entirely pre-recorded to entirely live sessions.

Kiri Raber (KR) and Lee Morrison (LM) both participated in the HGSA conference in a live zoom panel.

  • LM: “HGSA was my first virtual conference … [It] is certainly easier on the nerves to present from the comfort of your own home, but that also runs the risk of curious pets leaping into the webcam to see what all the noise is about.  Presenting through Zoom also has the added stress of [variable] sound quality and connection strength …”
  • KR: “Instead of presenting in front of an audience, I was only speaking to my co-presenters and the chair and commentator. I liked the hybrid feeling of being both a presenter and an audience member ... For in-person conferences, I normally have to sit beside my co-presenters, so it's hard to ask them questions. I really liked that I could engage more fully with the others in my panel, especially since we all had similar interests.”

Zachary Stoltzfus (ZS) and Erik Braeden Lewis (EL) presented on a SFHS/ Rudé panel for which papers and discussion had been pre-recorded:  

  • ZS: “The Rudé Conference was easy and fun to present at virtually, in part because they worked with us to record our papers beforehand then uploaded them to YouTube. This allowed us to watch and give feedback on the recording to make sure everything looked (relatively) polished before having it posted. … Presenting digitally this way is much more relaxing than presenting in person. Eventually you fall into a groove as the paper progresses, and, if you've practiced beforehand a few times, it flows freely.”
  • ZS “I enjoyed the papers I watched on YouTube, and plan on catching up with some papers I've been wanting to watch later. This is another nice thing about the digital format, you don't have to choose between papers, you can watch them all.”
  • EL: “I like that the recorded part functions as a minor publication, even if not a peer-reviewed one--anything helps at this point, especially during COVID (even with the letters saying we have special consideration for these years). It is a good idea to take as many CV opportunities as possible. So, from a productivity standpoint, it was good,”
  • EL: “I truly missed interaction with people. There were no socials, or dinners, or coffee breaks between panels, or going to the bars and talking about research and teaching (and LIFE) outside of the formal setting. And: am I sad, I didn't get to visit New Zealand? Of course. Would I do it again? Yes. Would I prefer to attend in person? Every time. “

Marina Ortiz (MO) and Daniel Arenas (DA) participated in the SFHS/ Rudé salon “Grad Stories: Choosing French History topics – A Global Future?”, which was a live event.

  • MO: “My panel was one of the live sessions. It was less about my own research and more about my graduate school experience and what led me to study French history. In preparation, our panel had an ongoing discussion in the months before about the agenda, and we had a brief practice session to make sure our lighting and audio were working well. This was a departure from a traditional conference, where many times if you do not know your fellow panelists in advance, you tend to meet them only shortly before presenting. … Our practice session was instrumental in establishing procedure for raising hands and speaking. With potential lags on Zoom, it can be hard to know when someone is done talking, so this was essential.”
  • MO: “I think the most striking thing about presenting at a virtual conference is the reach it can have, whether you are presenting a live or giving a recorded talk. It is no longer constrained to the people in a room in a particular city, on a particular day. This opens a lot of doors for people like me who would not have been able to attend due to distance and cost, and it also allows discussion to continue long after the conference concludes.”
  • DA: “On top of that, the conversation naturally flowed into an interesting discussion on how COVID is forcing historians and students to change their research and presentation techniques. Many of us have become incredibly dependent on Gallica, the Bibliothèque nationale de France digital repository and I hope the pandemic will encourage a rapprochement between historians and other fields like library science, digital history, and public history.”

Do you have any advice for students planning to present remotely for the first time? 

  • KR: “As with any conference, try to have back-up plans for the unexpected. You might have to turn your camera off, you might not be able to use a power point or any other visual aid, and it's important that you still can present your topic in an engaging way. Also, remember to mute yourself when you're not talking!” 

The upshot of going virtual: it allows for participation without travel and access to recorded panels at any time. “This alone,” felt Marina,  “is one of the best parts of the virtual format--you do not have to pick and choose which panels to attend, and if you want to re-watch one again, you can!” The downside, however, was no space for networking between panels, for socializing with conference participants. The recording of panels might be a good component to include in any future face-to-face conference, to have the best of both worlds.