Recently, I snagged a seat for the Pro/Design Conference in New York City. I also recently submitted a proposal to speak at the upcoming WordCamp Lancaster PA conference. Lastly, I am in the midst of putting together a plan to host a design and development conference in Harrisburg. As you can probably figure out, I like conferences.

It’s only been in the last few years that I have started attending design and technology conferences and at first, I was very timid attending them. For those of you who know me personally, you probably can’t understand me being timid, but it’s true. The first conference I ever went to was a printer’s convention in Philadelphia when I was a student. The convention was mostly exhibitors showing off new technology for the large format printing industry and business office printing solutions. There were sessions being offered in the meeting rooms at the Philadelphia Convention Center focused on digital workflows for prepress, file format solutions and digital printing. The audience was mainly made up of printers and business reps that were print heavy. There were a few advertising agency directors present, and even a few designers. My mentor, Dave Stencler, took us all to the convention and some of us made the most of it, getting as much free swag as we possibly could, while others split early and headed for the closest bar (RIP Sugar Moms). I made the attempt to meet people at the sessions, but I was feeling out of place and didn’t feel like I belonged there. Stencler gave me some advice that I have taken with me ever since that conference.

“Just go and talk to people, doesn’t matter if you’re student or art director. That doesn’t matter, just go and talk and who knows what will come out of it.”

Now when I go to conferences, I make friends and acquaintances every time. Part of that comes from the fact that I am now quite gregarious with everyone and much of it comes from the fact that I am extremely interested in learning about others. I will try to make meaningful connections with people at conferences and I will learn as much as I possibly can. Connections I have made from conferences have helped me in my professional career, enlightened me to new ways of thinking and establishing process, revealed workflows for tackling projects and have allowed me to pay my good fortune forward by introducing others to people whom others would benefit learning from. Where I am at today is a far cry from where I started at when attending conferences.

When you attend a conference, you can learn a great deal about what your interests are and where they lay. When you are talking with speakers and other thought leaders, surprising things can happen; validation of your own ideas can occur or you can discover another aspect and perspective that can help you in your initiatives, be it design-related or technology-related. A good conference should leave you inspired and with ideas you can put into action to make you work smarter. That is why I believe that conferences are an important part of the creative industry, but what can you do if you have never attended one or haven’t had a good experience with one yet?

This post is about how to successfully navigate the conference environment so that you may come away with some positive experiences that made the time meaningful and enjoyable.

Show Up

Woody Allen is quoted for saying that eighty percent of success is showing up. It’s a simple statement, but a very powerful and true one. You close off an unimaginable amount of opportunities by not going to a conference. This advice is true for any situation really. Showing up is the first step. If you see a conference you’re interested and you have the means to go; go do it.

Parking

Parking sucks, regardless of where you are and where the conference is. Conference parking can be less of a head in a big city that is parking accessible. Philadelphia is a much more parking-accessible city then New York City. Harrisburg is a city that believes no one should park here ever with their astronomical street parking rates. Baltimore is a great city for parking a vehicle. If you’re staying overnight in a city for a conference, take a look at how you can get to your conference from your hotel. If it’s a easy walk, great. A cab can be a good choice from the hotel, but it’s even better if you’re going with friends. Public transportation is another option, albeit not always the most reliable. If you have to drive into a city for the conference, take a look first at whether you can take a train in. The money you would spend on gas and tolls would be traded for a comfy train ride where you can relax. If the conference has its own parking, scope out the area and try to get in early before the limited spaces are filled up. Getting in early works best if there is other stuff around the conference center for you to do before everything starts.

If there is an after party or post conference mixer, a cab is a better choice, even if you’ve parked close. Many conferences will have an after party or mixer where attendees and speakers can relax, have a drink and chat. If you drove in, be sure to pace yourself. If you took a cab or used used Uber, even better. If you have to leave your car overnight at the conference for some reason, be sure it won’t cause a problem with the parking lot attendants  or conference center staff. The last thing you want to do is leave your car, come back the next day and find it towed.

Registration

It’s best to register online as soon as you can. Make the commitment to go, pay the registration fee, and go. Provide them with the most up to date contact information for so that when you come to the registration at the event, the volunteers and staff can easily find your information and get you moving on your way. You can tell a lot about how a conference will be run by its registration process, both online and in person. A good conference has taken the time to streamline their registration process, allowing online registrants easy maneuvering to get checked in and for at the door registrants to get signed up, pay and move along. Waiting in line at registration can spark the anxiety triggers in a person as people pile in lines and begin to talk amongst themselves. When you show up early, you can register early and get through the process pretty quickly, registering later also allows you the same freedom from crowds but you also run the risk of missing out the opening kickoff. In the thick of things, it’s OK to stay somewhat insular if you’re feeling uncomfortable. Maybe you can use this time to preload some tweets for the day or read more about the sessions being offered while you’re in line. The key thing is to not hold anyone up; volunteers, staff and other attendees.

Conferences have been pretty awesome lately by giving you a t-shirt as part of your registration. This will be the first of your conference swag, make sure to have a large enough bag that can accommodate all  of your personal belongings and any possible swag you might get throughout the day without bringing a duffle bag. You’re going for mobility and ease of use while having enough space for things.

Getting over anxiety of talking with people

No, I don’t mean drink five Jack and Cokes and become fabulous. Anxiety can be very tough to deal with, especially in a situation with people you don’t know and who don’t care about you. There is a couple of ways you can deal with social anxiety in this situation. First, if you can go with a good friend or colleague it can make a world of difference. Make sure if you go with someone that you are comfortable with them in a professional and personal setting. Professional conferences can help you with work, but they aren’t an extension of the office environment.

If you’re going at it alone, it can be daunting to find like-minded folks to chat from the onset, but not impossible. First, stay off your mobile device as much as possible. It’s OK to Tweet and check out the conference agenda and look up speakers on LinkedIn, but don’t glue yourself to your device. Try to be an open as possible in your body language. One surefire way to illicit a positive response from others: Smile. Smiling engenders good feelings in others and people generally like to feel good. It’s the simplest way to invite someone to chat with you because it tells others that you are approachable. Smiling and staring at your mobile device just tells others that you’re more interested in what is on your screen then what is going on around you.

If you want to initiate conversation and chime in on a conversation between a few people, here are couple of starting phrases that can eloquently allow you into the conversation.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to butt in but I heard what you were talking about and….”

“Hey, I heard you ask that question during the session and I was wondering the same thing.”

“Excuse me, but do you know which WiFi access we’re supposed to use?”

The WiFi one is something that almost everyone will heartily jump in one and try to help you out with. It’s the one constant struggle at any conference. It’s a great way to strike up a conversation and chat with someone. Asking questions of others is a good way to open to the doors for further conversation because people generally want to be helpful and share their knowledge. You can use those opportunities to talk to someone whom you don’t know. If the conversation sours or the interest from the other is low, it’s pretty easy to just thank them and move along.

The general rule is not to talk during a session, reserve your questions and comments for others in between sessions. Talking during a session with others is distracting and rude…while tweeting during a session is typically acceptable, as long as you’re not glued to your device the entire time. Twitter is actually a great way to find other like-minded individuals attending the conference and you can “tweetup” with them, already having established a basis for talking.

Some people get over their anxiety by being aggressive in their approach and sounding negative. The old adage misery loves company isn’t applicable in this case. Negativity and elitism gets you nowhere positive with anyone. The best advice is another old adage, if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.

Approaching a speaker can be pretty daunting, but the fact is that most speakers want to talk to people who attended their sessions. If the conference you’re going to has speakers mixed in among the attendees and  you have the opportunity to talk with them, go for it. That’s a chance not only to get your specific questions answered and thought about, but it opens the opportunity for others who approach as well to hear your questions and then strike up conversation with you.

Swag

Swag is a double edged sword. At some conferences, there is very little. At others, they are giving you tons of stuff and your bag resembles a bountiful trick or treat haul. There will be no shortage of stickers at any conference; it’s another constant of any event: confusion over WiFi and plenty of stickers. Don’t just grab at swag and forget to talk the person giving it out. Learn about the company who is giving stuff out. If there is no one there at the a table full of free stuff, do them a favor and at least look them up. Swag isn’t cheap. The companies that are providing your free stuff paid a good bit of money for this as a way to market their services and goods. Even if you aren’t in the market for what they are offering, look them up and share the information with others when it’s applicable.

When you have a lot of conference swag, don’t grab at everything like a bandit and run. Make sure to leave stuff for others. Walking about the conference with a huge bag of free items and stickers from vendors can become a hindrance, it’s one more thing to carry, drop and/or lose. Every time I see a WP Engine table of full of stuff, I don’t grab at everything. I already know their services and capabilities. I’ll tell people about them and if I see a new sticker, I pick one up but if it’s a bunch of the same stuff I already have, there’s no need.

Larger swag compounds the issue. Some companies will give our drink koozies, paper notebooks and tablets, thumb drives, small posters, etc. Xforty Technologies recently gave out 100% recycled notebooks and pens that double as a tablet stylus at the Lancaster Open Source Conference. It was an awesome giveaway and luckily I have the space to tuck it away for the day…but too many giveaways like that…you start to look like a conference hoarder. In short, you’re there for the speakers, not the swag. Be responsible with how you go about picking up giveaway and do your research on who provided them.

Lunch

Lunch can be very simple. Usually a conference will list what is available around them and they may offer coupons for close restaurants. You’re free to go and eat on your own and decompress a bit after taking in the morning’s sessions. If invited to go out to lunch with others, try to go somewhere close where you can pop in for a quick bite to eat and chat with each other. The smaller group setting can really break the ice and enhance your comfort.

Some conferences will provide a boxed lunch or catering in hopes that attendees will hang out and chat amongst themselves during the break. This can be a bit daunting, but you’re not limited to that option. Dietary needs being what they are, not everyone can go in for the boxed lunch. Some conferences offer because they aren’t close enough to restaurants and eateries. This would require some internet research of what’s around and is available.

The great thing about a boxed lunch is that you are immersed with other attendees and you can all jump into conversation together over a Jimmy John’s sub and pickle. This would be a great time to meet people in a relaxed state.

Speakers

Some speakers are incredibly gregarious and generous with their time while others are a bit more standoffish. Depending on the type of conference, the structure can be setup where each session is very seminar like, with speakers coming up and talking with a presentation and you might have 5-10 minutes between each session. That kind of setup doesn’t really allot time to talk with speakers between sessions. It’s best to take notes, grab their contact information and social media handles for after conference conversation. If there is a mixer or networking event after the session, there’s your chance to go and introduce yourself to a speaker and talk. Other conferences, they allot more time between sessions for people to move around and this is a good time to make your way to the speaker and try to talk with them. Mind you, others will have the same idea and it’s very typical to see a crowd around a good speaker all wanting to discuss topics with them. I wouldn’t suggest trying to act like a piranha who’s smelled blood in the water and make a b-line to the speaker, but if you have something timely you would like to ask, be persistent but respectful. Some people think their time with a speaker is entirely their own and they can overrun their socially acceptable time. Now, if you have a question for a speaker and others who walk up to you also have same question, read their body language and see if you’ve struck a chord with other audience members and try to include them in on your conversation with the speaker. Inclusion is great because you’re respectfully showing you care about them also talking to the speaker…and it can lead to positive conversations between you and that person.

Some speakers are very knowledgable and great presenters, but they are people too. Some are just terrified of a crowd of people coming up to them after their session. It’s rare, since most speakers are fine with crowds, but some aren’t great with the smaller settings. If you a speaker seems standoffish, chances are it’s not you, it’s just their comfort level. This is pretty common at conferences where the speakers there are just getting started with public speaking and are new to how it works.

Now, a lot of sessions will have a Q/A portion. This might make you feel extremely uncomfortable, but try to ask a public question for everyone to hear. This requires you to not only pay close attention to what the speaker is talking about, but critically think about the application and process on what they talking about how it works with other aspects.  Here’s a good primer on progressive questions to ask during a Q/A.

1. Ask general use questions that others might benefit (stay away from company or very personal use case questions that can only apply to yourself).

2. Ask the speaker for their opinion on their topic (Try not to argue with them on a different stance or product).

3. Ask clarification on a item during the presentation (if you missed something in their presentation and just need to hear/see it again).

4. Ask where this idea/product/service is relevant most and how people can take part (This is a general progression question that acts like an extension to the presentation).

There are many other types of questions you can ask, depending on the type of conference you are at but generally you want to stay away from questions that only you can benefit from in a group scenario. When you hear someone in the audience give a huge backstory as part of the question and then they ask a super specific question that only they can benefit from…that is a question more suited to one on one discussion, not in a group scenario.

Mixers and Networking

A lot of conferences will end on a keynote presentation from a big name speaker and they can have an after party of sorts with attendees and speakers to celebrate the culmination of the conference. Having a drink is a great way to unwind after a busy day, but before you do here are a few things to take into consideration.

If you can, stow your bag of swag and items you brought with you in your car. That will be a huge burden lifted off of your shoulders. If you can’t stow your belongings, try to consolidate all of your stuff into one easy to carry bag (see Swag above).

If the mixer or networking event is onsite, then you can worry less about your bag and coat. Put them off to the side that’s out of the way but accessible. If you didn’t really have much with you, you can hold on to it but the message you’re sending if that you would be leaving soon. If that is the case, no worries, but if you want to hang out for a while and meet with people it’s best to convey the image that you’re sticking around. A good conference will take into consideration bag and coat checks, but most may not have the facilities for it so it’s really up to the attendee.

Alcohol is the angel and the devil on each shoulder. Use good judgement. You’re in mixed company in a semi-professional setting. Throwing back Jack and Cokes left and right isn’t a good way to calm your nerves. Sip your drink and mingle. If you don’t drink, that is fine. No one is going to pressure you. Get your favorite adult non-alcoholic drink at the bar and go from there. Some conferences will offer soda and coffee and they are great options too.

Food. Food can be odd, sometimes a conference will bring out a spread of hors d’oeuvres and small plate offerings…and after listening to a sessions all day, you might be famished. Don’t load up on these offerings. They are meant as part of a relaxed, conversational get together…not a grassland grazing for wildebeest. This is a time for people to have conversations, follow up on sessions and network with each other, having a huge pile of finger foods on a plate with your hands full gives off the impression that you’re there to eat, not talk.

Bring business cards. In today’s age, a business card might sound like a hokey artifact from a bygone age, but they are still very important. A business card is all of your pertinent contact information in one place. Make sure it includes your email address that people can use to find you online with through Linkedin. Make sure to have your title or what you do, your website, phone number, Twitter, About.me (if at all applicable). If you work in a distributed team, address may not be applicable. Maybe you don’t use About.me or Twitter. If you aren’t at least on LinkedIn, you’re missing out on opportunities. If you have company cards, great, bring enough of them to hand out to interested parties.

I can get into an entire blog post on business card design, but if you spend a ton of money on your card stock and printed features like gold foil stamping and embossing, and it literally costs you $5/card to hand out…you might want to get some more accessible cards printed up. The old adage of having a business card stand out from the card is true, but when  you take that mentality way beyond what you would find in the American Psycho business card scene, it becomes hubris. People don’t want a thick card that isn’t going to sit well in their pockets or has the same thickness as a credit card. In essence, don’t be this guy.

After the event is over, follow up with everyone you met and you got contact information from. Shoot them an email and thank them for their time and conversation. If it applies, connect with them on LinkedIn or follow them on Twitter. When you keep up with those from a conference, you’re continuing the positive experience and keeping any possible opportunities open, whether they are professional or just having a new friend.

Conclusion

Once  you’ve returned from a conference, take stock in what you’ve learned, who’ve you met and how it can affect how you work or think about a topic. There are going to be elements of a conference you’re just not going to like, but with this primer, you should be able to have some positive experiences from the conferences you may attend.

December 11, 2014

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