In the new normal, I've been doing a lot of virtual conferences lately. And after my initial misgivings about not being able to interact personally with my panellists and audience, I've actually discovered I rather like it.
It helps that after nearly thirty years in television, I'm very comfortable with looking at myself onscreen and dealing with guests through monitors and headphones. And I've found, somewhat to my surprise, that a virtual conference has advantages that offset the lack of face-to-face contact.
Crucially, panellists and speakers tend to be more at ease. They're in their own environments, whether that's home or the office. They haven't had to get through a busy airport or navigate traffic in a strange city. They don't have to worry about appearing on stage in front of a live audience. The virtual conferences I've hosted recently have all been very relaxed affairs, and therefore more engaging and rewarding for attendees.
The Q&A session is also easier. Participants enter their questions on their screens, which allows the moderator to come to them as and when necessary. It makes the session more flexible, as there's no need to wait until the designated time for questions in the schedule. It also gets round the problem of people being too shy to put their hand up in front of others. It completely cuts out the issue of poor acoustics or mic failure (always awkward when the panel can't quite make out what the audience member is asking). And best of all from the moderator's perspective, the questions are succinct and to the point as they have to be typed into a box. No more long statements which eat up the allotted time.
Virtual conferences have their own problems of course; the camera has to be positioned correctly so the audience isn't looking either up your nose or at a close-up of your forehead. Noise-reducing microphones and headphones are a must. Correct lighting is vital but tends to be the last thing panellists consider. And, of course, making sure there are no distractions or interruptions is also important. Cats are lovely, but not in the middle of a high-level global debate.
I think it's clear it will be a while before things go back to the way they were. The days of big global meetings may not return for some time, even when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available. Effective and appealing virtual conferences must become part of the toolkit for businesses and industries.
My next virtual conference is for London Global Cancer Week with speakers from Roche, UICC, the Breast Cancer Welfare Association in Malaysia, and Ghana's National Health Insurance Authority. Do check it out - register at lgcw.org.uk and join us at 1100 GMT on Friday 20th November for a discussion on improving support for women with cancer.