I recently joined the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network’s  first virtual conference, which gathered various stakeholders from the social investment community in Asia. SEI supported the conference’s climate finance track to promote knowledge sharing and learning about the tools needed for public and private investors to fund sustainability projects dealing with climate change.

The conference was the first environmental event supported by the Strategic Collaborative Fund (SCF) to be conducted wholly online. The SCF’s goal is to foster regional cooperation and policy dialogue through capacity building and knowledge sharing.

In the conference, we already faced the challenge of communicating science to a mixed audience of experts and non-experts and convincing them of the value of prioritizing sustainable climate finance as we prepare for a post-pandemic world. An even bigger test was doing so without a face-to-face meeting with the potential funders, and thus having a chance to read their non-verbal cues.

We are entering unknown waters when it comes to communicating science in virtual conferences. Based on my observations from the event, here are some ideas for how we can improve:

Find new ways to read the room.

In non-virtual meetings, we usually do frequent quick scans of the room to get some clues about how participants are feeling: taking note of their facial expressions, posture and body language. This helps us to understand the audience reactions, so we can adapt our pitch to the unspoken dynamics.

Communicating scientific facts on climate resilience is only half the battle. Conferences give us an opportunity to understand stakeholders’ motivations – what they want and don’t want – in order to turn the conversation into action.

Reading the room in 2020 is a bit more difficult. Now the only clues are accessible through participants’ individual webcams, the chat box or social media. Juggling through multiple screens makes the job even more complicated.

The reality of virtual meetings and conferences forces us to rethink our ways of getting to know our audience. We can no longer rely on visual cues; instead, we have to be deliberate in the way we seek out their motivations.

One tip is to start your presentation by asking participants about their energy levels, the reason why they attended the conference, or what they hope to get out of your session. They can type their answers in the chat box and you can read some of their answers out loud.

For some more advanced room reading I would recommend using a live sentiment analytics tool that goes beyond counting the likes and the retweets of event-related posts. As the session happens, the tool can show in real time whether the general sentiment about the event is positive, negative or neutral.

Virtual meetings pose many challenges for more thoughtful, open and accessible science communication. (Photo: Chris Montgomery / Unsplash)

Keep the story short and don’t overwhelm them with statistics.

In virtual conferences, where participants might well be sitting in the comfort of their homes, there are many potential distractions – restless children, noisy pets, online shopping deliveries and many more.

This forces us to put even more thought into the way we communicate science. To keep the audience engaged despite the distractions we need to give them context, stories and colour. So instead of reeling off numbers, we could recount how coastal communities have mitigated climate risks through sustainable finance initiatives.

In an interesting podcast, Dr Paul Zak describes how oxytocin – a hormone related to social bonding that he calls the “moral molecule” – can be incited in our audiences through the stories we tell.

There is also growing interest in the technique of PechaKucha, where speakers are limited to 20 slides and 20 seconds of commentary per slide, forcing them to simplify the message and focus only on what’s important. There are many statistics we can cite about climate resiliency, but with PechaKucha, we focus on just a few.

None of these lessons on more engaging science communication will be wasted when we get back to meeting in the same room.

Use visual aids more thoughtfully.

Most people create meaning more easily through graphical representations of scientific information than through words alone. Data visualization, using charts, graphs and maps, provides an accessible way to understand and communicate trends, outliers and patterns, including when it comes to climate phenomena.

In a virtual presentation, however, people need time to “digest” and make the connections between the boxes in the infographic. Visual aids are great, but not always when you are viewing them on a small screen. One thing I noticed during the AVPN virtual conference was how a lot of the speakers painstakingly prepared a nice visual, only for it to look blurred and unreadable on my screen.

In some cases, maybe a couple of good photos could explain a concept better than a complicated infographic.

Take time to connect with your audience before, during and after the event.

As with reading the room, quick-fire, spontaneous discussion tends to be more difficult in virtual meetings. This means you have to work a little harder to ensure that everyone’s questions are being answered and that participants aren’t left behind.

One strategy for hosts and presenters is to reach out to your target audience before the event, maybe on Twitter or LinkedIn, to ask if there’s anything people would like to know or topics they’d want to deal with before the session or presentation.

On the meeting day, invite people to watch, ask questions and participate in the conversation. Encourage them to use the chat box, and make sure someone is monitoring it and reacting to it. Post-event, ask the participants for honest feedback, and don’t be offended by criticism – learn from it.

With the pandemic still growing, we don’t know how long we’ll need to do virtual meetings and conferences. This means we all need to learn how to adapt and communicate our work better online, and not just assume we can “wait it out” until the old world of flying around to meet face to face comes back. And it might not be such a bad thing if it never does.

The AVPN Virtual Conference was organized by the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network,  and supported by SEI under the Strategic Collaborative Fund programme.