Ten virtual conferences for storytellers in 2021 (plus two possibly? real ones)

Geeking out without the hangover

We all love industry conferences. Sure, we all complain about them to our spouses – but where else can you geek out about a part of your professional life and hear from your favorite leading lights with a bunch of fellow nerds?

But they’re never in your home city, are they? There’s always travel and stress involved in getting there and taking time away from your loved ones, arranging childcare, or making vague promises to your partner about letting them have a weekend to themselves in the future…

So, one benefit to the pandemic turning the world on its head and canceling all these in-person events is that loads of these conferences are going virtual. Imagine all the cool plenaries and workshops, but without the bad 2am decisions made in a cheap hotel bar involving karaoke and shots?

Sure, a big part of conferences is the networking; establishing contacts, and finally putting a face to people you’ve only corresponded with by email – but many organizers are doing what they can to set up networking forums online, so you can still “meet” people and chat about the relative merits of your favorite social media optimization platforms or a question about that thing mentioned on p.365 of that book by that industry author that your husband has never even heard of.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking

“But Tara, how do we know which of these events are the best ones register for, to submit papers to, or to sign up to be a speaker?”

Well, you’re in luck, because right here are 11 conferences which you should totally register for, submit papers to, or sign up to be a speaker at…


Global Communications Summit: Covid-19 and Discourses of Inequality
February 26

Better get your skates on for this one, as it’s happening this Friday. At least there’s no need to book a babysitter. And it’s free.

The University of Houston’s Valenti School of Communication’s fourth annual Global Communication Summit brings together scholars, practitioners, and community leaders for a virtual exploration of the role of communication in challenging, fostering, rendering visible, and/or perpetuating lived inequalities during COVID-19.

Speakers include Mohan Dutta, Director of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation at Massey University, and the day includes a panel on Campuses, Communities, and Relationships and another on Public Messaging, Trust, and Ideologies – plus a roundtable on Vaccine Hesitancy in Communities: Mistrust and Misinformation.


Classy’s Collaborative Virtual Sessions

June 8-June 11

Classy creates tools to help nonprofits fundraise online and their website is chock-full of helpful resources including their blog which I’ve spent many hours perusing. Their conference, Collaborative, is virtual this year, and I can’t wait to check out their brainstorming sessions and network with communication folks and other like-minded storytellers. I’ve also applied to be a speaker at the event, and if you’re interested, applications are open until March 9th.


Skoll World Forum 2021
April 13-15

This social entrepreneurship conference brings together thought leaders and strategic partners at the University of Oxford to advance entrepreneurial solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Free to register.

Looks fun.

Create Good 2021
April 26-April 30

Here’s a great event for us storytellers. Create Good will be sharing stories and movements from the past year – stories of resilience, stories of strength, and stories of hope. “Through these stories paired with action, we will turn our lessons into victories,” says the website’s blurb. A $150 ticket gets you all the live sessions, plus all the recorded sessions too – or you can sign up for individual sessions at $25 a go.

They haven’t released their full list of speakers for this year’s event yet, but their schedule of talks looks fascinating, including a keynote reflecting on ‘Joy and Grief at the End of the World as We Know It’ and sessions on strategic engagement with #GivingTuesday, using chatbots for voter engagement, and building engagement in the era of Black Lives Matter.

Global Digital Development Forum
May 5

If you like to get your money’s worth out of a working day, this is one for you. Sessions span 16 hours across workday timezones from Asia to the Pacific. Oh, and it’s free to attend. Last year, more than 2,600 people participated across 154 sessions – six keynote presentations, 37 lightning talks, 72 breakout and workshop sessions, and 39 technology demos.

Here’s what the website says:

GDDF 2021 will be different from other ICT4D conferences and other online events. We are committed to community-driven sessions that explore digital development challenges and opportunities with four key benefits:

– ICT4D Focus: Explore the long-term challenges to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and your opportunities to build an open, inclusive, and secure digital ecosystem for a safer, more prosperous future for us all.
– Peer Connections: Join your friends and collaborators from around the world and meet new leaders with emerging ideas, as well as the donors and partners working with them – and you – to leverage technology solutions for greater impact.
– Your Ideas: Share your experiences and insights with thousands of other digital development professionals in exciting presentations, lively discussions, and personal conversations across multiple fora.
– New Experiences: Expand your concept of an ICT4D conference by joining innovative sessions using emerging tools, music, and virtual worlds to improve on physical interactions with your personal and professional peers.


May 4-7

Social Media Week NYC aims to be “the central meeting point for the entire social media marketing industry”, promising “main stage talks, panel debates, fireside conversations, a track of academy classes,
product demos, networking events, and much more”. It’s a bit pricey, though, with passes ranging from $179-$539.

Speakers include the esteemed Rishad Tobaccowala, formerly of Publicis, and Vice’s CMO Nadja Bellan-White – but I’m looking forward to Twitter hero David Schneider, whose long list of credits (often with arch-satirist Armando Ianucci) include writing The Death of Stalin and Avenue 5.

The theme for this year’s event is “Reinvention”, and let’s face it, it’s probably a good year for some of that.

June 7-11

“The world’s leading event on human rights in the digital age” – at least that’s what the website says. They’ve set up “fireside chats” with human rights experts as well as hundreds of interactive sessions to strategize and network around specific themes, with talks and demos, and community spaces and discussion forums.

The program themes range from AI and algorithms to civil society resistance to peacebuilding to electronic surveillance to media freedom to online hate – and much more. Plus a “RightsCon After Dark” section, which sounds intriguing. Definitely worth a look.

CoF: Leading Together 2021
June 14-17

This one’s all about the philanthropists. If you’ve got a foundation looking to do good in the world, this could be for you. There are three themes – here’s what the website says:

  • Seeking Common Ground sessions will spark conversations that challenge philanthropy to bridge divides, explore unlikely partnerships and engage with different points of view.
  • Advancing Equity sessions will feature diverse voices on issues such as inclusive economic prosperity, racial injustice, income equality and values aligned philanthropy.
  • Raising the Bar sessions will focus on sharing the best practices, resources, and tools for philanthropic leaders to be agents of change in their organizations and communities.

Tickets range from $199-$399.

They’re also looking for speakers – deadline for the call for submissions is March 19.

Social Innovation Summit
June 8-10

While the speakers for 2021 haven’t yet been announced, last year’s edition of this conference hosted celebs such as NBA All-Star Baron Davis, actor Rosario Dawson and NBC meteorologist Al Roker, alongside industry leaders including Pamela Norley, CEO of Fidelity Charitable, Blackrock’s Deborah Winshel and Barbara Humpton of Siemens.

They say it’s “a global convening of black swans and wayward thinkers”. But despite that, if you’re into technology and innovation to drive social change, then this still looks like a great event to be a part of.

It’s free to participate in plenary sessions and open networking events, but a pass to private events, roundtable discussions and VIP networking will set you back no less than $995 (though not if you sign up to be a speaker).

There are loads of videos from last year’s summit on the YouTube channel of organizers Landmark Ventures (the people behind CES) – but here’s an example of one of the breakout sessions – on “Tech for Good”.

World Social Marketing
20-22 October

Optimistic organizers are hopeful this will mark a return to actual physical in-person conferences and will be held in the Greek port city of Thessaloniki. Tickets range from 185-315 Euros, not including accommodation which is currently being offered at 130-140 Euros a night.

The call for papers is open until March 5, and they’re looking for contributions on how to address “wicked problems in a rapidly changing world”. They’re targeting the behavior change community with this, along with four themes: People and wellbeing, Systems and policy, Environment and sustainability, and Future direction of social marketing. They’ve also got a handy five-step guide to making submissions.

Web Summit 2021
1-4 November

When it comes to conference offerings with a dose of glitz, glamour, and celebrity, the highlight of the online world’s calendar is Web Summit, held each year in Lisbon. And this year it’s returning to a real-world gathering in Portugal’s capital.

Last year’s speakers included Serena Williams, Ursula von der Leyen, Kevin Hart, Eric Yuan (founder of Zoom), Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks owner), Mike Schroepfer (CTO, Facebook), Gwyneth Paltrow, Malala Yousafzai, Jose Mourinho, Cornel West, Chris Evans (Captain America), WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Tim Berners-Lee (the creator of the WWW) – and more than a thousand more. It’s the big league for sure.

‘Forbes has said we run “the best technology conference on the planet”; The Atlantic that Web Summit is “where the future goes to be born”; The New York Times that we assemble “a grand conclave of the tech industry’s high priests.”’

Hard to argue with that, to be fair. The great and the good of the tech world assembled in one place alongside the pioneers of contemporary culture, with 70,000 attendees. The Guardian calls it “Glastonbury for geeks”. Rock and roll.

Tickets are currently on a two-for-one offer at $850, but they’re also looking for founders and CEOs to join their huge list of speakers – apply here.

Women Deliver 2022
Date/venue TBA

Looking ahead, and some of you might like to plan early, there’s the Women Deliver Conference 2022, which will be held in the first part of next year, location TBA. But regardless of venue, the conference will have a major online presence and platform for remote participation, and cost somewhere in the region of $500 to attend in person.

Organized by Women Deliver, a global advocacy group that champions gender equality and sexual and reproductive health, this conference focuses on issues most pressing to women and girls. The organizers created a community survey and are now in the stage of developing the specific themes for the conference. If you’d like to be considered as a contributor/speaker, you can fill in this form.

Let me know what events I’ve missed by hitting me up on Twitter: @TaraTW, or drop in to chat at our Master Visual Storytelling Facebook group – and let’s look forward to some travel-free, hangover-free conferencing!


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