Ask the Mentor: How do I make Screen Forever online worth my while?

We all miss brunches and mingling in the bar, but online conferences can be rewarding if you show up, pay attention and set some goals, says Media Mentor Esther Coleman-Hawkins.

The Question

Mark writes: I’ve bought a ticket to Screen Producers Australia (SPA)’s Screen Forever conference [16-18 Feb 2021]. Originally I was going to go in-person but it’s now gone online. This is going to be my first digital conference ever. I’ve got the most benefit out of running into people in the bar in the past. How do I make this conference work for me?

The Answer

I went? attended? joined? watched? Whatevs! a number of conferences online last year. The first one I attended from the comfort of my bed, wearing my jim-jams while Boris blocked the screen when he stretched to clean his bum (he’s my cat obvs…). How much value did I get from that conference? Basically, bugger all. I wasted $700 to half watch a bunch of Zoom videos while playing Two Dots on my phone.

Online conferences, like in person ones, are all about how much you put in. If you’re engaged, professional and have some goals then you’ll get more than the value of the ticket back.

Read: Ask the Mentor: How do I deal with freelance rejection anxiety? 

Here are my top tips for making an online conference work for you:

  1. Join early. Not only do you normally get a better price and financially support the conference, but you get the delegate list early. And this interactive delegate list is very useful, though it doesn’t provide emails. wat
  2. Have some goals. Why are you going? What do you want to achieve? If you don’t know what you want you’ll never get it. Are you going to pitch? To meet people? To learn stuff? Write down at least 3 goals and a plan of how you’re going to achieve them.
  3. Set up online meetings in advance. You can’t run into people in the bar but you can invite them for a zoom coffee. You’re not being rude, or pushy or anything negative: conferences are about networking. Arranging a 10-minute meeting is just a practical way of doing it. You send the person a short email, requesting a 10-minute meeting and explain who you are and why you’d like to talk to them. Suggest a time or invite them to look at your online calendar so they can pick a time that works for them. Have an agenda, stick to it and follow up.
  4. Join in! Attend the session you’re interested in, ask questions over chat, send emails to the panelists to thank them or ask a follow up question.
I went to straight to the horse’s mouth, Brad Taylor who is SPA’s manager of Membership, Licensing and Inclusion to get some insider tips.

‘Research, research, research! Take part in everything you can. SPA Connect provides opportunities to engage with a variety of screen specialists through 2 streams.

‘Screenrights Roundtables are particularly useful for filling gaps in your knowledge – table hosts include lawyers, accountants, logistic specialists, pre- and post-production houses and insurance specialists. Bookings for SPA Connect are allocated on a first come, first served basis so get in quick.

‘Beyond that, when you request an individual meeting don’t include a full pitch. A short brief on you and your reasons for contacting is enough. And don’t forget your research; don’t just request meetings on a whim!’

Once you’ve got the hang of online conferences then you’re going to love the access they give you. I think this year, while the world is still in lockdown, we’re going to be able to engage in conferences that are normally way out of reach. Personally, I’m super excited about the Sheffield Doc Fest as well as the Asian Academy Awards, the Edinburgh TV Festival and MiPCom. My prediction is that soon they’ll be back in-person, so let’s jump on the online offerings this year and reap the rewards.

The reality is that I do miss the in-person experience. I really value the feeling of being in a room with people, sharing looks and laughs. I love a chat and a gossip. And I bloody miss a hotel buffet breakfast.

But once I’ve acknowledged it, there’s no point in whingeing about it. So join in, connect with people, create your own breakfast buffet and make the most of the experience.

Esther Coleman-Hawkins
About the Author
Co-founder of Media Mentors, Esther Coleman-Hawkins is an experienced TV producer, conference organiser and career mentor. Media Mentors provides one-on-one mentoring and runs workshops and networking events for people in the creative industry. Sessions with her, or her co-founder Denise Eriksen, can be booked through their website