Recently I presented a keynote at an online conference for a little over 450 attendees about how to host engaging virtual meetings. At the end of the one-hour demonstration, I asked attendees how they felt after participating in an extremely active chat. The chat filled up as participants immediately responded with words and phrases like “energized”, “connected”, “fun”, “I feel like I learned more”, and “time flew!” But, not all the comments were positive, one person wrote “annoyed”.
Sometimes we see attendee push back about the chat. It can be distracting, they say. I have some theories as to why this is but, first, let me tell you a story about my first in-person conference experience.
I attended my first conference in my early 20’s. I remember walking into Chicago’s McCormick Place and realizing the conference and expo filled the entire venue. I was there all by myself, and I was on a mission to find a supplier for the company that I was working at. Every day I traveled from booth to booth talking to anybody who seemed to have what we might need. Aside from those conversations with exhibitors, I spent my time alone, but I noticed other people making connections and having meaningful conversations. The next conference I vowed to do better. After a few conferences and some trial and error, I learned I could meet people by sitting with others during lunch and by striking up conversations before sessions.
There is an in-person conference learning curve and that learning curve analogous to our current attendee’s experience as they participate in virtual conferences for the first time. Virtual attendees are experiencing a chat learning curve.
Watching the presentation and simultaneously participating in the chat is a learned skill. Long-time attendees find that even a high-speed chat stream doesn’t overwhelm them anymore; if anything, it energizes them. Many find that listening to the speaker and chatting makes them feel like they are connecting with the material better. The chat makes learning richer. They learn that when there isn’t an active chat they can click away and do other work, but when there is an active chat, they stay engaged. In the chat, they also start to form connections with other attendees; it is one way to network virtually.
So when we hear that the chat is annoying or distracting, it might be, for that first-time virtual attendee right now. Over time they will likely come to enjoy it as much as the majority of their colleagues do.