Thursday, June 10, 2021

7 Tips for Networking at a Virtual Conference


A picture of my at-home workstation during
a virtual conference in a pandemic.

Virtual conferences have been a standard part of organizational life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Accessibility for folks who can't travel was such a positive outcome for advocacy groups that I predict we’ll see them continue to offer virtual components to conferences even when we can gather again. So many new activists were able to participate! On the other hand, it’s been difficult to recreate networking opportunities through our computer screens.

My first virtual conference felt rather unsatisfying. Sure, I learned new information by watching speakers, but I longed for the relationship-building part of an in-person conference. I didn’t feel like I met many new people and resolved to do better with each successive conference.

Since then, I’ve learned a few ways to make the most of networking during a virtual conference. Every conference is different depending on which platforms they choose and how they choose to use them. But they usually contain some common features - like zoom meetups, pre-conference chat discussions, and Q&A opportunities - that can raise your visibility and help you get to know people. 

RESULTS uses the Whova platform to host the conference event, info,
and community discussions. This is a screen capture of the agenda window.

My main piece of advice is: get in there and participate! But how? Here are my seven tips for making the most of a virtual conference:

1. Be Positive

Humans gravitate to people who are positive and encouraging. I believe this is especially true in when virtually interacting with a group of strangers. You might possess a razor-sharp, wry wit in face-to-face encounters yet that never seems to come through well in typed comments. I’ve seen things go awry when someone takes it upon themselves to criticize someone else’s answer to a getting-to-know-you ice breaker question. I mean…what the heck? If their preference isn’t racist or hurtful, don’t “yuck their yum” (as the head of my kids’ school would say).

I have another reason for staying kids attend RESULTS conferences with me online. As a mom, I wouldn't want to write anything out on those apps that I'd be embarrassed for my kids to read! So, assume the best intentions of people, lay off the all-caps key, and remember that it’s even easier to walk away from an irritating situation on a computer than it is in real life.

2. Ask Insightful Questions

A picture of me raising my hand.

I’ve been in conferences where participants were shy to ask the first question. It made for many awkward pauses in Q&A sections. Now, I try to come up with at least one question before the session even starts. A thoughtful question can help get the ball rolling (great for everyone) and make a good impression on others (great for your networking).

To inspire ideas for questions, read session descriptions beforehand and maybe even google the speakers. Keep your question concise and on topic. Pay attention during the session to make sure you won’t ask about something that was already covered. Most of the time, virtual conferences just have folks write questions in a chat box, but if you get to turn your microphone or camera, be sure to say your name and your city before your question.

3. Be Helpful

A friendly, helpful attitude is a way to attract positive attention from attendees and organizers alike. For instance, I attended a writing conference where everyone first joined a main room while all session content was in several breakout rooms with different names. People could step out and interact in the main room anytime, but there were often clueless participants in there trying to find their way around, too. I was one of the clueless people at first! To help others costs nothing and creates a lot of goodwill.

4. Expand Your Social Media Network

Logos of Facebook, Twitter,
and LinkedIn
We can’t hand anyone a physical business card, but virtual conferences have the advantage of displaying names of participants. Some use large zoom rooms where you can see names underneath pictures. Some conferences use apps that list all the participants with profiles, so you can see if you share similar professional or social interests. Take advantage of the ability to see names by connecting with them on social media platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. That way you can continue your conversations well after the conference is over.

5. Stay On Topic

When overzealous participants fill the conference apps with off topic links or comments, it can be super annoying. It can also push relevant posts so far down that others can’t find information they want. If the conference app lets you share articles, make sure you share links to pieces related to the focus of the conference. Some people try to connect with others by sharing different interests, but sharing too many unrelated posts and articles can have the opposite effect by irritating fellow participants.

6. Try Out New Technology

My teens love to tease me about how I don’t like to download new apps to my phone or computer. I’m turning into an old curmudgeonly lady who doesn’t like to learn how to use new-fangled things. But if you don’t commit to learning to use each conference platform to the fullest, you’re excluding yourself from networking opportunities!

CARE held a virtual 75th Anniversary event with that used “proximity voice chat” to create a cocktail party experience. (Anyone who plays Among Us is familiar with that tech) We uploaded pictures of ourselves, so we could move our avatars around the screen. If you moved closer to another group of avatars, you could converse with them. If you moved farther away, you couldn’t hear them anymore, much like an actual party. There was also a screen in the virtual room that had some content playing. I could have just parked myself by the movie screen and simply watched the recorded content since I was clumsy at using the unfamiliar platform. Instead, I made myself use it and connected with old and new friends in a way that was really engaging!

7. Make Space for Others

Yes, networking requires you to be visible and active, but take care not to dominate the conversation. For instance, if you share so many articles and links in the conference app that it pushes other people's suggestions right off of the visible list, you've essentially cut them out of the conversation even if you mean well. (I've made that mistake before) 

You can participate in a way that helps others be comfortable in sharing their thoughts. I believe the best kinds of interactions are ones where you create room for others to shine, too! Pre-conference chats are not quiz shows where you need to be first with the best answer.

By the way, this is especially important advice for white folks. Virtual conferences have not removed the habits of white privilege. I try to promote myself in a way that demonstrates an ability to be kind, humble, and sensitive to others.

What are YOUR tips for networking at virtual conferences?

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

DIY Civics in the Summer

My daughter and I leaping in front of the U.S. Capitol building

In the summer after a normal year, social media would be bursting with creative ideas to prevent kids from losing academic ground over the long break from school. These discussions are especially important in 2021 to protect the fragile gains our children made during virtual learning. But after all COVID-19 put us through, parents who had to share workspace with kids on Zoom class are probably not into reading posts about making math fun or enticing kids into doing a grammar worksheet.

I fall into that category for sure! Truth be told, we’re exhausted. I won’t require a lot from my offspring over the summer. But the past year has taught us that there is a subject none of us can afford to ignore: civics.

Citizen engagement doesn’t get a ton of attention in school. Reading, writing, and arithmetic get top billing and STEM classes (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are super fashionable. Yet even in regular “American Government” social studies curriculum, students rarely learn how to engage with members of Congress beyond voting. That’s a shame, since the past year demonstrated all kinds of ways that government policy shapes our lives…for better or for worse.

COVID-19 hit people living in poverty and communities of color harder than the rest of America. It exposed all kids of problems in our nutrition safety net, housing policies, and health systems. Government policies for vaccine rollout and mask-wearing affected everyone. Voting rights and systemic racism came under the microscope, too. Citizen engagement is critical for a functioning democracy. This is a lesson our kids need to learn well before they graduate from high school.

I've never come across a camp focused saving the world using personal political power, so I’ve always taken a Do-It-Yourself route to teach my kids about democracy. Now, I have teens who are influencing policy all on their own! Here’s my five-step plan for introducing kids of all ages to impactful actions.

  1. Pick an issue your kids can understand

    There’s no shortage of causes that need help. Start with something they can already understand for their age. Even the littlest littles understand people shouldn’t go hungry. Grade schoolers can understand the importance of school (even if they didn’t enjoy virtual learning). Older kids may already have concerns about our climate crisis and gun violence.

  2. Find a reputable organization to give you basic talking points

    Advocacy groups have websites with great info, so you don’t have to start from scratch with your kids. Most of them have pre-written sample letters, too, so you can see what specific action you can request from members of Congress at this moment. Here are a few links with sample letters on various issues:

    Global Education (from RESULTS)

    Air Pollution (from the Moms Clean Air Force)

    Low-Income Housing Assistance (from RESULTS)

    Hunger (from Bread for the World)

    Gun Violence (from Everytown)

  3. Look up your members of Congress

    Use to find your two U.S. senators and your U.S. representative. I recommend doing this step with your child for a couple of reasons. First, sometimes you need the “zip code plus four” if your congressional district is a little tricky. They might need help to find the zip code lookup. Second, you can learn about your members together by clicking around the information on govtrack.

  4. Write a letter to Congress

    This 7 year old was well able to compose
    a handwritten letter to a U.S. senator
    If your kids are skilled enough to write note to Santa or Grandma, they can write to their members of Congress as well! Help them to write their own letters to members of Congress. Here's my blog with tips on exactly how to do this with kids using a simple format.

    Discuss the topic with them before they write and help them think about their own reasons for supporting the issue. Absolutely let them know how you feel, but be prepared to listen. You might learn from them!

    Encourage them to personalize their letter and deviate from the script if they wish. Kid-pictures are always welcome. They sometimes end up being passed on directly to a senator or end up being tacked up on an aide’s desk because they are cute and unusual.

    When my daughter was in 2nd grade, she noticed as we looked up our Congresswoman’s name and address online that it was Jan Schakowky’s birthday. She added “Happy Birthday” to her letter. I was so surprised that when we got a response, Rep. Schakowksy wrote a personal note thanking her for the birthday greeting and responding to the individual details of the letter. My grownup mind would have never thought of adding that personal touch, but my daughter made a thoughtful connection.

  5. Celebrate!

    My kids met Rep. Jan Schakowsky
    at a 4th of July parade
    If you feel comfortable with gatherings this summer, top off your lessons with a field trip to a 4th of July parade. Most members of Congress travel back to their states and districts to march or ride in Independence Day parades. A little detective work can turn up which ones they will attend, so you can take your kids to see the target of their advocacy.

    Also, be sure and celebrate when you get responses even if your senators or representatives don’t agree with you. Your kids still took an important step to tell Congress how they feel. With enough pressure from more letters from more people, they just might change their minds. Brainstorm about how to get more letters. Ask the entire family to write? Invite friends to write? Write with a scouting group?

First grade Girl Scout Daisies make a colorful banner for their
senator about empowering girls through education.
If your child takes a liking to your letter-writing exercise, there are more ways they can take action. If they are old enough to have an email account, you can help them take an online action to contact Congress or the President. Or, they might like to actually call a congressional office on the phone or make a video showing other people how to call-in to Congress

Whatever you choose to do, I encourage you to find an issue that will make the world a better place and help your children feel they are a part of the democracy we live in!