Should All Conference Talks be Pre-recorded?

Posted on and updated on     6 minute read

The Code4Lib conference was last week. That meeting used all pre-recorded talks, and we saw the benefits of pre-recording for attendees, presenters, and conference organizers. Should all talks be pre-recorded, even when we are back face-to-face?

Note! After I posted a link to this article on Twitter, there was a great response of thoughtful comments. I've included new bullet points below and summarized the responses in another blog post.

As an entirely virtual conference, I think we can call Code4Lib 2021 a success. Success ≠ Perfect, of course, and last week the conference coordinating team got together on a Zoom call for a debriefing session. We had a lengthy discussion about what we learned and what we wanted to take forward to the 2022 conference, which we’re anticipating will be something with a face-to-face component.

That last sentence was tough to compose: “…will be face-to-face”? “…will be both face-to-face and virtual”? (Or another fully virtual event?) Truth be told, I don’t think we know yet. I think we know with some certainty that the COVID pandemic will become much more manageable by this time next year—at least in North America and Europe. (Code4Lib draws from primarily North American library technologists with a few guests from other parts of the world.) I’m hearing from higher education institutions, though, that travel is going to be severely curtailed…if not for health risk reasons, then because budgets have been slashed. So one has to wonder what a conference will look like next year.

I’ve been to two online conferences this year: NISOplus21 and Code4Lib. Both meetings recorded talks in advance and started playback of the recordings at a fixed point in time. This was beneficial for a couple of reasons. For organizers and presenters, pre-recording allowed technical glitches to be worked through without the pressure of a live event happening. Technology is not nearly perfect enough or ubiquitously spread to count on it working in real-time. 1 NISOplus21 also used the recordings to get transcribed text for the videos. (Code4Lib used live transcriptions on the synchronous playback.) Attendees and presenters benefited from pre-recording because the presenters could be in the text chat channel to answer questions and provide insights. Having the presenter free during the playback offers new possibilities for making talks more engaging: responding in real-time to polls, getting forehand knowledge of topics for subsequent real-time question/answer sessions, and so forth. The synchronous playback time meant that there was a point when (almost) everyone was together watching the same talk—just as in face-to-face sessions.

During the Code4Lib conference coordinating debrief call, I asked the question: “If we saw so many benefits to pre-recording talks, do we want to pre-record them all next year?” In addition to the reasons above, pre-recorded talks benefit those who are not comfortable speaking English or are first-time presenters. (They have a chance to re-do their talk as many times as they need in a much less stressful environment.) “Live” demos are much smoother because a recording can be restarted if something goes wrong. Each year, at least one presenter needs to use their own machine (custom software, local development environment, etc.), and swapping out presenter computers in real-time is risky. And it is undoubtedly easier to impose time requirements with recorded sessions. So why not pre-record all of the talks?

I get it—it would be different to sit in a ballroom watching a recording play on big screens at the front of the room while the podium is empty. But is it so different as to dramatically change the experience of watching a speaker at a podium? In many respects, we had a dry-run of this during Code4Lib 2020. It was at the early stages of the coming lockdowns when institutions started barring employee travel, and we had to bring in many presenters remotely. I wrote a blog post describing the setup we used for remote presenters, and at the end, I said:

I had a few people comment that they were taken aback when they realized that there was no one standing at the podium during the presentation.

Some attendees, at least, quickly adjusted to this format.

For those with the means and privilege of traveling, there can still be face-to-face discussions in the hall, over meals, and social activities. For those that can’t travel (due to risks of traveling, family/personal responsibilities, or budget cuts), the attendee experience is a little more level—everyone is watching the same playback and in the same text backchannels during the talk. I can imagine a conference tool capable of segmenting chat sessions during the talk playback to “tables” where you and close colleagues can exchange ideas and then promote the best ones to a conference-wide chat room. Something like that would be beneficial as attendance grows for events with an online component, and it would be a new form of engagement that isn’t practical now.

There are undoubtedly reasons not to pre-record all session talks (beyond the feels-weird-to-stare-at-an-unoccupied-ballroom-podium reasons). During the debriefing session, one person brought up that having all pre-recorded talks erodes the justification for in-person attendance. I can see a manager saying, “All of the talks are online…just watch it from your desk. Even your own presentation is pre-recorded, so there is no need for you to fly to the meeting.” That’s legitimate.

So if you like bullet points, here’s how it lays out. Pre-recording all talks is better for:

  • Accessibility: better transcriptions for recorded audio versus real-time transcription (and probably at a lower cost, too)
  • Engagement: the speaker can be in the text chat during playback, and there could be new options for backchannel discussions
  • Better quality: speakers can re-record their talk as many times as needed
  • Closer equality: in-person attendees are having much the same experience during the talk as remote attendees

Downsides for pre-recording all talks:

  • Feels weird: yeah, it would be different
  • Erodes justification: indeed a problem, especially for those for whom giving a speech is the only path to getting the networking benefits of face-to-face interaction
  • Limits presentation format: it forces every session into being a lecture. For two decades CfPs have emphasized how will this season be engaging/not just a talking head? (Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe)
  • Increased Technical Burden on Speaker and Organizers: conference organizers asking presenters to do their own pre-recording is a barrier (Junior Tidal), and organizers have added new requirements for themselves
  • No Audience Feedback: pre-recording forces the presenter into an unnatural state relative to the audience (Andromeda Yelton)
  • Currency of information: pre-recording talks before en event naturally introduces a delay between the recording and the playback. (Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe)

I’m curious to hear of other reasons, for and against. Reach out to me on Twitter if you have some. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our society and will undoubtedly transform it in ways that we can’t even anticipate. Is the way that we hold professional conferences one of them?

  1. Can we just pause for a moment and consider the decades of work and layers of technology that make a modern teleconference call happen? For you younger folks, there was a time when one couldn’t assume the network to be there. As in: the operating system on your computer couldn’t be counted on to have a network stack built into it. In the earliest years of my career, we were tickled pink to have Macintoshes at the forefront of connectivity through GatorBoxes. Go read the first paragraph of that Wikipedia article on GatorBoxes…TCP/IP was tunneled through LocalTalk running over PhoneNet on unshielded twisted pairs no faster than about 200 kbit/second. (And we loved it!) Now the network is expected; needing to know about TCP/IP is pushed so far down the stack as to be forgotten…assumed. Sure, the software on top now is buggy and bloated—is my Zoom client working? has Zoom’s service gone down?—but the network…we take that for granted.