By Scott Berkun, March 2003 (edited Aug, 2016)
Conferences are what you make of them. If you’re not sure why you’re going, or what you want to get out of the experience, you’re unlikely to get it. This essay gives one perspective on conferences, and how to make them more valuable and engaging experiences. Professional conferences take a very conservative approach to training and education, forcing attendees to take responsibility for getting value from the experience.
(Planning good conferences and training events is it’s own challenge).
Conversations are more valuable than the sessions
The surprise is the most interesting moments are not spent in the sessions themselves: it’s in informal interactions with other attendees. The lectures and sessions might provide new ideas, but they’re one-directional, and you can get the content of their slides or books later. However, the unique, personal, and insightful conversations you have with other people can only happen at the event.
This means that you need to prioritize spending time socializing with other people. If the conference is well designed, there should be many opportunities to meet people, through small group sessions or social activities. But if there aren’t there are always things you can do to make them happen on your own.
How to spend your time
When I look at the advanced program for a conference, here’s how I rank the different kinds of sessions:
- Contribute: Most good events have ways to participate and you should. Anyone can submit a paper, panel session idea, or workshop proposal. Some events have lightening talks, where anyone can talk for 5 minutes. By far the best way to meet interesting people is to participate. Even the process of submitting something is rewarding: you’ll spend energy refining your interests, which improves your ability to talk about them on the fly. Some events have volunteers who help run the event and they’re often younger and more social: joining their ranks gives you a circle of people you share at least one context with.
- Workshops: Some events have slots for one leader and a small group to work together. These are often the most enlightening sessions, as they are interactive and can go much deeper than a lecture can. Even in a bad workshop, since you’ve all shared a half day together, it’s easy to find people to socialize with over a beer, under the guise of “want to get a drink to talk about what we learned (or didn’t)?” Sometimes the conversation over drinks is better than the workshop.
- Informal Gatherings (SIGs / BOFs) : Some events have signup sheets for reserved spaces where anyone can lead a conversation, and anyone can sit in. Often these are dull, as a good conversation does still require someone to lead it well. See my advice on running unconference sessions for how to do these well.
- Panels : A panel session has 4 or 5 invited speakers sharing a time slot together. In better panel sessions, there is a diversity of points of view, and everyone is comfortable sharing them. But too often, panels are terrible. The panelists shy away from the intended topic, or avoid disagreeing with their co-panelists. For these and other reasons, panels are a wild card, and often result in a fairly bland experience for everyone involved. When it works though, and the right people are invited and facilitated by the organizer in the right way, it can be the most enlightening session you’ll see at a conference.
- Posters: Some conferences have poster areas, where professionals or students put together summaries of their work. This can be fun, as it’s a passive way to skim what people are up to, and can be more stimulating towards asking questions than reading online. Some events will have a set time when the authors are around, leading to conversations about what they’re working on.
- Demos: Some conferences have demo sessions, where each person or team gets 10 minutes to demo something they’ve made. This can be fun to watch if the time limits are short.
- Paper sessions: At more academic conferences, there are paper sessions, where the authors of selected paper submissions get a chance to talk for 15 minutes about their paper. This is a terrible waste of time for conference attendees. First, the papers are available online. Second, these folks were accepted on their ability to write a good paper, not on their ability to engage or communicate through a presentation.
How to build a plan
Before the event take the schedule and mark anything that you’re attracted to. Circle the sessions that look interesting, and if two or more occur at the same time, flag the one you want to go to first.
Then during the event, you already have an outline for what to prioritize. Have a plan to bail after 15 minutes if you’re bored (Siting near an aisle or towards the back makes this easier). Odds are it’s not going to get better. Simply go to the next session in that time slot that interested you. Repeat the same thought process. The result is that you maximize your time spent in sessions you will actually enjoy, and minimize your time spent bored, hoping things will get better.
If you run out of interesting sessions to go to the trade show or entrance area. An easy way to meet people is to simply chat with the folks in the booths. They’re often very social and happy to answer any questions. I’ve had some of my best conference experiences in conversations that started this way – especially at the cheaper booths, it’s not marketing folks, but the actual makers and creators.
Organized Social Events
Most conferences have scheduled social events, but often it’s so loud or large that it’s hard to meet new people. Often, by the night of the event many people have already formed cliques. If you’re alone, these events can be intimidating.
If you can manage it, you want to try to have met enough people in the workshops and other sessions in the previous day, that you can wander around at the social, and say hi to people you’ve already met. You’ll be able to politely join conversations and meet more people. If you have a few drinks, or get the right mindset through non-chemical means, it can be great fun bouncing around between different groups.
Make your own gatherings
Everyone wants to socialize, but few are willing to take the lead. It’s not hard. Nearly everyone needs to eat and wants to make new friends over drinks, they just need an invite or a nudge. When the last session of the day begins, everyones is thinking about what they’re going to do later.
Try to set yourself up with a plan early in the day: ask people you meet in sessions what their plans are. Often they’ll say that don’t have any, which is your ticket to make some.
Pro tip: tell everyone you connect with during the day to simply meet at 6pm at the main hotel lobby (or preferably the lobby bar). It’s an easy plan, easy to remember and low commitment. Then once you have a group, decide on a nearby restaurant and go (this is often better than staying in the noisy, distracting, generic hotel bar). People will appreciate you taking the lead, and this approach really doesn’t require much effort. Worst case you are in the bar alone, but odds are high other attendees from the event will be there, and if you introduce yourself, you can likely join up with them.
Take advantage of the trip
Conferences give you a chance to see a different part of the world. Don’t waste it. If your organization paid for your travel, take advantage of their investment. See if you can stay an extra night at their expense, or use vacation days. Wise managers know the entire idea of sending you is to give you new perspectives and ideas, and some of that can best happen outside of the event itself.
- Avoid chain restaurants and stores. You can go to these places at home. If you have to pay out of your own pocket for better/more interesting food or experiences, it’s worth it. Also stay away from hotel restaurants. They tend to provide decent but safe and tame food choices.
- Stay at the conference hotel if you’re new, but otherwise.. If you want to maximize your chances to meet and socialize, staying at the conference hotel has advantages. But otherwise, take stay in a more interesting neighborhood. Having a walk each morning through an actual neighborhood (rather than the sterile places conferences centers often are) gives a different perspective, far more interesting than merely taking an elevator ride to the conference level of the same hotel.
- Take a road trip. Early in the conference ask around for people who might want to take a short road trip one night, or skip out on one afternoon’s sessions. If you end up going with other conference attendees, you have no reason to feel guilty about this. Your odds of learning something, and making connections are greater if you do something together outside of the conference, than if you do something inside.
The benefits and drawbacks of going with coworkers
It’s common to attend a conferences with coworkers. This can be great. You’re likely to bond more, and spend time together in a way that doesn’t happen at work. I’ve made lots of friends from work by meeting them for the first time at conferences. It’s natural that if you work the trade show booth with someone, you’re likely to learn a lot about them, and have a chance to meet people who may share your sense of humor.
However, if you have 2 or 3 friends that you’re traveling with, you might find it easy to fall into a pattern where you spend most of your time with them. If it’s assumed you’ll all eat dinner together every night, you’re not going to meet new people. One trick is to go to dinner together with coworkers, but require that everyone bring someone they met at the conference. Or agree that at least one night, everyone had to go out on their own.
Relax and have a good time
Many folks take conferences way too seriously. They’re too uptight and worry too much about being efficient with their time. This works agains the large goal of growing and learning.
I’m not saying that business trips should be covert vacations. Instead, I think everyone should think about what the real learning opportunities are. They tend not to happen if you’re fixated on cramming in as much knowledge or sessions in as short a time as possible. Instructional design and educational psychology principles support this: the first rule of training you learn is that most people don’t learn very much when they are under stress.
And as much as we like to think we’re critical to our teams and companies, they can live without us for a few days. Plan your time before your trip so that while you’re away, you can stay away. Tell your coworkers you’ll online be online at set times during the day (office hours), or that you’ll only be checking email in the evenings.
If you have people that work for you, set them up to cover for expected situations that might arise. Give them your hotel phone number or cell, and let them call you if they need you. Otherwise, you don’t need to check in or check your email every day. Really, you don’t. You think you do, but you don’t.
How to justify going to conferences
These days its harder for folks to justify attending conferences. I have a few suggestions that might help towards making the case to go.
- You are an asset to your company. All assets require maintenance and enhancements. If instead of being a person, you were a piece of machinery, part of the corporate budget would go towards maintaining and upgrading you. Well, despite being human, you are an asset to the company. They should be investing the same percentage of budget towards maintaining and upgrading your skills as they do for the rest of the corporate assets.
- Offer to train others in what you learned when you return. You can pitch your trip to a conference as a way to bring back skills and knowledge to the rest of the organization. If you have any experience in training or teaching, you can use that as your justification to attend instead of other co-workers. Get extra copies of the tutorial notes from other sessions. This is often a cheap way to get some extra coverage.
- Trip report.Arguably one form of teaching others, the trip report is a write up of the sessions you attended, written for other folks in your group. The best trip reports make it easy for folks to dig up the right reference, or trigger people to come ask you questions. There’s rarely much value in 10 page trip report documents: no one reads them. Instead, a 2 or 3 page summary, with URLs and pointers to stuff for specific questions gets much more mileage.
- Connect the value of the conference to business goals. If ease of use or customer satisfaction are company or division goals, you can claim that sending folks to conferences on those subjects will help pull in more expertise and knowledge towards helping the business. This argument puts less of the focus on your professional goals, and more on the company.
- Recruiting. One of the reasons to send people to conferences is to recruit for open positions. If your team has had trouble filling certain jobs, or know that new openings are coming for your group, you can offer to do recruiting work while you’re there. Most conferences have job posting boards, or allow you to rent a booth for your company at the trade show.
- Professional development. If you have career discussions with you manager, tie your career goals and future development to specific kinds of training or growth opportunities that you need. This might force you to rethink which conferences you’re going to (the cool conference might not be the one that’s likely to help your career/skill growth the most). In some organizations, folks will get to go to conferences provided they are presenting or participating in a session. If you don’t know what your group’s policy is, ask.
- Split the costs. If you believe the conference is needed for your professional development, then you should want to attend regardless of who pays. Offer to split the costs. Or ask just for the time off without having to use up vacation time, and you pay your own way. This can be a way to prove the value of the conference, if you return with great stuff and teach others on your team. But it can also set a precedent for you paying your own way. You might position it as a trial: if you can show that it’s valuable, your manager will pay next time.
Random tips that didn’t fit anywhere else
Some of these might be general travel tips, but they’re related – here goes:
- Don’t use the conference bag, or lug around all the crap they give you. First, it makes you a mark as a tourist to carry the conference bag around outside the conference. Second, traveling in packs of people all using the same bag, all wearing name tags, makes you look like a cult member. You rarely need to lug around all of the stuff they give you (I recommend dropping off the proceedings at my hotel room as soon as I get it). Instead bring a light bag, with enough room for the small conference handbook/schedule, some paper, a pen, maybe something to eat, and some business cards. Travel light. You’ll feel much better at the end of the day if you haven’t been carrying 15 lbs of stuff all day. Don’t bring your laptop so you can read your email. Go talk to someone instead.
- Don’t wear your badge outside the conference. There is nothing sillier than a grown adult with a name tag (Unless it says Rupert or Cornelius on it). When you go back to your room, or leave the conference hotel, you are no longer at the conference. Take the badge and put it in your pocket, or with your wallet/purse so you don’t lose it.
- Ship your proceedings and stuff back to your office. If there are proceedings and other materials, such as books you’ve purchased, arrange to have them sent back to your office. Find a nearby shipping store, and drop off your stuff the day before you leave. This saves you the burden of packing 10 lbs of stuff into your luggage or carryon. Sometimes the conference center has a little office that will do this for you. It’s usually not too expensive and you may be able to expense it.
- Sit near the back if your not planning on staying. If I’m at a conference that has concurrent sessions, which most do, I usually plan on bailing if I don’t like it in 10 or 15 minutes. Knowing this, I tend to sit in the back. It makes it easier to leave without annoying people or the speaker. The downside to this tip is that sitting in the back does make it harder to connect with the speaker in the first place. An alternative is to always try to grab an aisle seat.
- Ask lots of questions. Learning is a contact sport. If you don’t make your experiences engaging for yourself, you are guaranteed to be bored. Talk to speakers, paper authors, booth people, the folks sitting next to you, whoever. Ask for recommendations for books, websites or other conferences. If you don’t become an active participant in your own learning, don’t be surprised if not much of what you experience is relevant to you.
- Some conferences serve breakfast, some don’t. Know this before you end up 15 minutes into the first session, sitting in the middle of the room (making it hard to get up and leave), and realize you’re starving. Same for lunch or snacks. Sessions tend to start early, so you probably won’t have time to grab something before the conference if you don’t plan for it.
- Get some exercise every day. Yeah, I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again. Your mind functions better if your body has been active too. Most hotels, especially the fancy corporate conference center types, have nice weight rooms or pools. Take the time to get some exercise at least every other day. Skip a morning session or skip out early if you have to, to find time for this. If you hate exercise, and are in a city, go for a long walk instead of taking a cab.Personally, if I don’t exercise every day I’m really not a nice person to be around, and I struggle with sitting and listening for hours on end.I stress out easier, and am generally less happy.I think most people are more likely to enjoy the conference,and return home healthy if they break a sweat a few times while they’re away.
- Take smart notes. Think about what the notes are good for – you’re writing for the future version of you. What level of detail do you need?
Finding conferences to go to
There are a few different places to go, depending on what field your looking for. ACMis a good place to start for any computer science related field. Most of their subgroups have annual conferences. Google searches with your topic of interest + “conference” can often be the fastest way to find leads.
Last notes and conferences I’ve attended
Your mileage may vary on all of the above. Everyone has different travel and learning preferences. So I don’t recommend following this essay very closely. Instead, I hope it helps to raise some questions and thoughts about what you might want in a conference, and how you might go about getting the most of the time you spend there.
For reference here’s a list of professional conferences I remember going to.I’ve been to many others, but these are the major ones I can remember. The recommendations in this essay may be biased towards CHI since i’ve been there a few times:
[ Too many more to list]
CHI 2002, Minneapolis, MN
CHI 2001 Seattle, WA (Presented)
CHI 2000 The Hague, Netherlands (Presented + Interactionary!)
IDSA DesignAbout 2000, Seattle, WA
Interact 99, Edinburgh, Scotland, (Presented)
Tech Ed 99, Dallas, Texas (Presented)
CHI 99 Pittsburgh, PA
Microsoft PDC, San Jose, CA 97 (Presented)
Internet World 97
Internet World 96
WWW7 Paris, France (Presented)
CHI 97, Atlanta, Georgia (Presented)
CHI 96 Vancouver, BC, Canada
CHI 95 Denver, Colorado