"I got the letter inviting me to give a talk at IPAC'20 towards the end of last year. I’ve attended IPAC (and before that, EPAC and PAC) for many years, and it was hugely exciting (and more than a little daunting) to be given the opportunity to speak at the opening session of this year’s conference. I’d given similar talks before at smaller workshops and meetings, but this was a whole different ball game.
I started planning the talk a few months ago. I was about halfway through writing it when the COVID-19 crisis started to take hold across the world. At first it wasn’t clear whether it would affect IPAC, but in March as things started to escalate with more and more countries going into lockdown, it was clear that the conference was not going to go ahead in the usual format. With a few weeks to go before the conference, all the speakers got an email asking if they’d be happy presenting a ‘virtual talk’. I thought this seemed a good idea; obviously it’s very different to presenting in person, but much better than doing nothing at all.
Andy Smith recommended an app called OBS Studio, which made it very easy to record video from my screen and my laptop camera, as well as audio from a microphone. I had some issues getting the sound right from the inbuilt mic in my laptop, and ended up using a cheap wireless headset. The sound quality seemed OK, and I cleaned it up a little bit in Audacity. We’ve got three children at home, but I’m lucky enough to have a separate room I’ve been using as a temporary office, and I could ensure there was no distracting background noise for my talk.
My usual approach to a talk would be to put the slides up and talk around the bullet points; I always felt that that was the best way to engage with a live audience. I don’t normally refer to notes whilst talking as it means I’m constantly looking down at them and engaging with the audience less. But as soon as I started recording this talk, I realised the usual approach wouldn’t work. Every hesitation and stumble seemed somewhat amplified, and I found that I kept stopping and re-recording because of that. So I wrote out a full script for the talk instead, printed it out and put it next to the camera. I recorded the talk in chunks of 2-3 slides at a time and joined the whole thing together using FFmpeg. Occasionally I’d decide I wasn’t entirely happy with a section so it took a few takes to get it right. I thought that a ‘talking head’ might be distracting for the whole talk (and would make it more obvious I wasn’t doing it all at once!) and anyway would get in the way of some of the slide material. So I only included my camera video for the first and last slides, which seemed to work well.
As it was an opening plenary talk, my video went up on the first day. I had a relatively clear diary that week, so I’d been able to commit to lots of time to respond to questions. I was really pleased to see so many questions coming in; it was great to get so much engagement with the audience. I thought that the format worked well too (questions submitted as threaded comments, rather than a ‘live chat’), allowing me plenty of time to write a considered response to each one. And having names attached to each comment means I’ll be able to get in touch with some more people working in the same field and expand my network, something that’s not always possible in a face-to-face Q&A at a large conference. After the conference the speakers received an email from the organisers to say “thanks”; it was absolutely amazing to see that my talk had the most views of all the IPAC talks! The others that I watched were all really good quality, so I feel really privileged that my talk attracted so much attention.
I’d definitely consider doing a ‘virtual’ talk again, and I think the format has worked well. It’s not a substitute for a full conference including the poster sessions and random encounters with people that tend to spark ideas. But I think it’s proved that some form of remote attendance at these events is possible, and I’d like to see more of that in the future as we try to reduce CO₂ emissions produced through travel."
Watch Ben's talk below:
Other presentations from this year's conference are available until September on the IPAC website.