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Surviving large conferences

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2014. Surviving large conferences. [to appear from 8 April to early May at the Society for Technical Communication's blog site]

Conferences are the lifeblood of a profession: they’re where we go to gather support for existing beliefs, learn new things that challenge those beliefs, and chat with really smart, really interesting people face to face, a need that even the best social media can’t satisfy. Frankly, conferences are a ton of fun. But “fun” won’t convince employers to spend thousands of dollars so you can attend. For that, you’ll need to make a convincing business case, and that case is not about you: to be persuasive, it must emphasize the problems you plan to solve for your employer. If you’ve got a bean-counter boss, you may even need to quantify how the new, improved you will repay the travel cost in improved productivity.

However, persuading your boss to send you may be the easy part, since you’re a skilled communicator and you know your audience. The hard part comes when you arrive at the conference and realize that neither your education nor your work experience has prepared you for the next 3 to 5 days, when you’ll be immersed in a sea of people who are generating an even larger sea of information—and nobody taught you how to swim. And having dipped your toe in those waters, you’ll want to come home with enough new tricks to persuade your boss that sending you was a worthwhile investment and that they should send you again next year.

That’s what this series of blog posts is for: to teach you how to swim those salty waters and enjoy it, while also benefiting your employer enough that they’ll send you to the seashore again next year. In the upcoming posts in this series, I’ll provide some suggestions about how to survive a large conference and benefit as much as possible from the experience:

Try these strategies and you may even enjoy the experience enough to try it again in subsequent years—or even to get involved as a speaker or organizer.

Arriving at the conference

Plan to arrive early and leave late, particularly for conventions held at times of year when flights are routinely delayed (e.g., winter, hurricane season, any flights passing through Chicago’s O’Hare airport). Apart from providing flex time to recover from missed or delayed flights, to overcome jet lag, and to get to know the venue, you’ll have a chance to visit a new city at someone else’s expense. I always book a vacation day so I can see the sights or visit local friends. Exploring the host city before, between, and after presentations also provides time to absorb what you’ve learned. You can’t do that if you’re constantly accumulating new facts and not giving them time to settle into comfortable patterns, thereby transforming short-term thoughts into long-term memories.

The afternoon or evening before the conference is when you should develop your plan of attack. (Preparing a strong preliminary plan will support your business case for attending the conference, but speaker schedules often change before the program is finalized.) Pick sessions that are most relevant to you, including those you used to make your case for attending. That’s Plan A. However, be sure to have Plan B and maybe Plan C available: speakers get sick, are called away by family crises, or sometimes describe their presentation poorly. Sometimes they’re just not very inspiring. If you spot the problem early, and if you’ve found another option just down the corridor, you can jog there quickly enough to catch most of the important points.

Learn the lie of the land before the sessions. You’ll need to know where the key rooms are—including bathrooms, since you’ll probably be drinking tons of coffee—and figure out how to efficiently move between them. Well-designed conferences provide ample time to move between sessions, but speakers sometimes run long and many organizers leave insufficient time between sessions. Moreover, you might want to waylay someone before they leave, or you might get snagged yourself. It can take a few moments to arrange time to chat later before you can move on to the next session.

Plan to attend some presentations that aren’t central to your interests, and embrace serendipity. Occasionally, I’ve recorded the wrong room number or organizers shifted speakers to new rooms to accommodate overflow crowds, and I’ve found myself listening to subjects that unexpectedly became real mind-stretchers. As Robert Heinlein noted, “specialization is for insects”. The more you know about a broad range of subjects, the more mentally flexible you’ll be—and the better you’ll be able to respond to unforseen challenges.

Attending the presentations

If you’ll be attending a conference that, like the STC annual conference, provides copies of speaker notes or even formal papers before the actual presentations, skim this material before the sessions you’re planning to attend. This not only confirms your belief that the session will be worth your time, but also primes you with enough context that you can spend more time listening than taking notes. You’ll also be surprised at how coming to a presentation prepared focuses your subconcious on thinking about what you’ll hear, leading to more and better learning once you’re listening. This exercise will also help you to come up with intelligent, focused questions about topics that weren’t covered in the handouts.

That being said, take copious notes, but don’t just record the speaker’s words, particularly if they’ve provided a detailed handout that already contains those words. Instead, link the most interesting bits to your workplace or your life to make those thoughts meaningful and memorable. Budget some time at the end of the day to organize and clarify your thoughts. I used to prefer taking notes on paper, but my laptop is more efficient because I don’t have to transcribe handwritten notes. The saved time can be used to edit my notes; what seemed perfectly clear while I was listening to a speaker with most of my attention rarely seems so clear a week later, but it usually still makes sense at the end of the day, when the information is fresh and I have time and energy to clarify the unclear. If I’m still not sure, I can always track down the speaker and ask for help.

Communication should flow both ways, so don’t just listen. Share your expertise when it’s relevant. Some of my best conversations have occurred between sessions when someone took me aside to discuss the point I raised and ask for more information—or conversely, when I ambushed someone who spoke up to make a clever point. Ask questions. The cliché that the only dumb questions are the ones you didn’t ask is very true. (If you’re worried that they’re really dumb, e-mail the speaker. Then only the two of you will ever know.) Apart from filling gaps in your knowledge and correcting misunderstandings, you’ll be complimenting the speaker. When I present at a conference or give a workshop, questions are signs that I’ve stimulated interest and gotten my audience thinking. Few things scare me more than speaking into an echoing silence; it may mean that I’ve described my topic so well I’ve left no question unanswered, but more often it means I’ve lost my audience.

Socializing

If a conference were only about reading the handouts and making notes, there’d be little point in going. The overwhelming advantage of attending is the chance to meet the speakers and ask the questions they didn’t already answer. This can lead to fascinating discussions, and sometimes even long-term collaborations.

Make time to socialize and to network, network, network. If you’re an introvert, eavesdrop on public conversations with the other introverts. Better still, make an effort to initiate conversations. Most conferences offer general or special-topic networking sessions, often disguised as lunches and parties. These are a great place to meet people with common interests who you might not otherwise meet. There are so many interesting people at any conference you can’t possibly meet them all, but trying to meet a large number is worthwhile; some will become lifelong colleagues or friends. The more people you know, the more help you’ll have to solve thorny problems—or the more people you can brag to about your victories, knowing they’ll understand why you’re so smug. If someone offers their business card, don’t just file it; write notes on it to remind you who they are and why they interested you enough to justify keeping their card. Send them an invite to FaceBook, LinkedIn, or any other social media site you frequent.

Bring more business cards than you expect to need, but don’t neglect more modern tricks. For example, if you have a smart phone, you can “beam” your contact information to a new friend’s phone using an app such as Beam It! for the iPhone. Since apps tend to only work between devices of the same type, learn how to send a text message or e-mail with your personal information, ideally in the standard vCard (.VCF) format so they can import it directly into their contact-management software. See, for example, "How to share a contact card using iMessage" for iPhones and "How do I send a contact via SMS?" for Android phones. Gmail users can create vCards directly. Since you may have information you don’t want to share, create a conference-specific vCard that contains only the basics you want new colleagues to receive. You can always provide more information later.

Last but not least, spend some time in the vendor showroom. Apart from the many useful and funky tchotchkes being given away, many vendor reps are also technical communicators, and are bored from standing idly by while souvenir hunters pillage their chocolate supply and ignore them. They can teach you a lot, particularly if they’re experts in the software or service their booth is selling. Some may even be seeking new employees; if you make a good impression, they might ask for your résumé. You’ll also find occasional treasures, such as my cherished “Write or die!” t-shirt from MadCap.

Caring for yourself

If you haven’t attended a big conference before, you’re probably thinking it’s easy peasy: after all, you’ll be sitting around all day letting other people do all the hard work. Veteran conference-goers know better. Spending several days learning a bunch of new things and interacting with a bunch of strangers who might just become new friends takes a surprising amount of effort.

Conferences are exhausting, so pay attention to your body’s signals and learn when to quit. You can’t take in everything that’s interesting at a conference, and you shouldn’t try. You only absorb so much information at a time, and by the end of the conference, your brain will be like any other overused muscle: tired, aching, and unable to do more work. You can delay that moment of mental collapse by making time to do more than just take notes: Relax in the bar with a freshly drawn pint while chatting with someone, or gather a group and go out to dinner. Share what you’ve learned, tell them about particularly great speakers, and get to know them as people. Or just skip a session here and there and let your mind and body wander.

Exercise and eat your veggies. The constant mental stimulation of a good conference consumes enormous amounts of energy, but it’s all mental energy. Your body needs attention too. Donuts and the chocolates handed out by vendors provide fuel, but it burns too quickly and leaves no reserves in your tank. Coffee will keep you going, but by the end of the conference, you’ll find it providing less of a pick-me-up than it did the first day. Particularly at conferences that provide buffet meals with a cornucopia of high-calory delights, budget some stomach space for the healthy proteins and vegetables that will sustain you through a long day. Then get outside and walk to clear out the fug from too many people breathing the same recirculated air and replace it with fresh air. If you can, make time to visit the hotel’s exercise room; if not, organize an expedition to that great restaurant the concierge recommended, a brisk 15-minute walk from the hotel.

Returning home

Because you promised to help your employer using what you learned at the conference, be sure to report what you learned. Summarize the “take home” message and its relevance for your workplace. Distribute this summary to everyone who needs to know, send copies to anyone who might benefit from knowing, and make the summary available to anyone who might like to know. The more coworkers you reach, the stronger and more interesting your workplace network becomes.

Unfortunately, it can be challenging to maintain your energy and excitement in the face of the institutional obstacles that arise after your return from a conference. Most organizations resist change, even if they nominally sent you to the conference to help them change. Lower your expectations, and plan to accomplish change gradually. This takes persistence and patience, and you won’t be able to accomplish everything you hoped. Seek small victories that earn you enough credibility that you can propose larger changes in the future.
If you’re really smitten by your experience, volunteer to help with next year’s conference. I served as the Writing and Editing stem manager for the 2005 Seattle STC conference, and though it was exhausting (I was also speaking that year), it was my best conference ever. Alternatively, volunteer to present a topic next year. If you’re new to public speaking, choose a low-pressure format such as a “progression”. Progressions are like buffets, with the audience moving between the speakers to hear short, focused snippets (typically, 15-minute topics from four or five speakers). The short duration lets you master a small topic, which increases your confidence that you can present it well. Moreover, after the first time you present the topic, subsequent run-throughs for the next audience are easier. This will give you enough confidence to co-present a meatier topic with colleagues—often people with shared interests who you met at last year’s conference. Finally, give a solo presentation when your skills are up to the challenge. If you do a good job, people will approach you throughout the conference to learn more. (When I keynoted at the STC India conference, I spent 3 days talking without a break. It was wonderful, but draining, and my voice had faded to a croak by the end of the weekend. I’m still in touch with many of the people I met there.)

All of this advice applies equally well to small conferences. If you’re not sure you’re up to the challenges of the annual conference, look for smaller regional or local conferences where you can learn the necessary skills under less pressure. Most of all, look at the opportunity to attend a conference as a precious gift and an opportunity to learn and make friends in ways that can be difficult when you’re up to your ears in deadlines.


©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved