Posted on January 10, 2012 by Dan Blank
by Porter Anderson, in collaboration with Dan Blank
When you attend a conference, it’s easy to simply go through the motions — to attend sessions, shake a few hands, and then walk away wondering what specific value the experience will play in your career. Here, we’d like to look at specific ways for you to increase your chances of leaving with some clear value that moves your career forward. Read the post below, and watch Porter and I chat through the tips:
Have Clear Goals
I urge anyone looking at conference-going to get as clear as possible on your reason for going.
- You’d like to tie in more knowledgeably to the overall-industry viewpoint and learn more about the business.
- You’d like to focus on a specific set of writing-craft issues or find out what publishers are doing to make themselves better able to handle their and authors’ transition to digital publication and distribution.
- You’re looking for agents who know what digital possibilities can mean to their clients, agents who can guide you through questions of “transmedia” potential in a new work and know how to handle digital rights to authors’ best advantage, hands down.
- You’d like to get a better fix on where you are in your platform development — do you understand it? Is it working for you?
- You’re not sure your approach to social media is making sense. Are the social media serving you? Or are you serving them?
- There are industry figures you’ve followed online and you’d like to meet some of your favorite instructors and coaches in person and hear them speak. You’ve spotted them on a conference’s lineup and this is your chance..
- You’d like to find others in the business who might work with you in a beta-reading group or point you toward good, professional editors and designers.
There are many good reasons to go to conferences. The trick is to be clear on yours so you can make the most of it when you get there.
Choosing your sessions
I recommend you use your reason or reasons for going as your guide. Choose the sessions closest to fulfilling those goals first. Then stretch yourself: look for one or two session slots in which you can venture into something way off your normal beat.
- If you write fiction, check out a creative non-fiction session.
- If you write YA material, jump into one session on adult literature.
- If you’re getting ready to start writing, see what you hear in a session on revising — it just might inform how you go about things from the outset.
The key is to leave some room for surprise without skipping something you know you need.
Keep in mind that any conference schedule is draining, too. Don’t be afraid to give yourself one session free if you need it. Pace yourself.
Clearly, mixing and mingling is important, if for no other reason than to find out where you are on the conversational ladder.
- Is the chat around you more basic than you expected? More advanced?
- Are you picking up things you’ve never heard of or thought about?
- Or are you being reminded of things you handled in your own work years ago?
These may be useful clues to where you stand in your own career and in the community.
On the other hand, I also recommend that you guard some time — write it into your schedule — to spend with your own work-in-progress while at the conference. Maybe it’s just half an hour in your hotel room between a session and a workshop. Or maybe it means getting up an hour earlier each day. But the experience of being in touch with what you’re doing while you’re in touch with what others are working on and talking about can be peculiarly enlightening.
By checking in with your own work while you’re there, you avoid that odd speed bump you might feel when you get back from the conference and sit down to your work for the first time in days, only to find that your context has shifted while you were at the conference and you didn’t include your own work in the experience.
If you want to be in touch with a speaker or session leader at a conference, the smart thing to do is to contact that person ahead of time, introduce yourself, explain that you’re looking forward to her or his session and ask if there might be a chance to schedule coffee or a few minutes to talk around the event.
Once you’re on the ground and the presenter is surrounded by several hundred conferees, it’s a lot harder to control the environment and to stand out as anything more than Attendee No. 463.
If you must make the initial contact while at the conference — maybe someone is there you didn’t expect — a good approach is with a card or your contact info on a slip of paper. Write what you’d like to do on that card or pager — maybe, “Is there a time we could chat for 10 minutes?” or “May I buy you a coffee today or tomorrow?–any openings in your schedule?” Smile, introduce yourself, hand over your note, and say, “I’m hoping we can speak, here’s how to reach me, I know you’re busy, I’ll just look forward to hearing from you.” And then duck out of the way for the next person. This way, you don’t make an after-session traffic snarl at the podium even worse, and you leave it to your contact to handle setting things up the way that’s best for her or him.
One big caveat: When you ask for “just 10 minutes,” mean it. Watch your watch. Unless your presenter signals that there’s more time and he or she would like to keep talking, remember and assume that lots of people need his or her attention. Next to getting a foot in the door, getting it back out is your most important move.
Respect your fellow conferees
Basic horse sense should guide you. But sometimes folks show less than equine intelligence.
Don’t talk during sessions — to your colleagues in the room or on your phone. Tweeting, texting, silent laptop operations are fine and expected. Running off at the mouth is not. If a session is boring you, sneak out quietly. If you fear you’ll forget some great point you’d like to ask your cohorts about, jot it down but don’t distract them to talk about it in mid-session.
Try not to “glom onto” somebody unless you can tell they’re up for steady companionship. We all know whether somebody seems to want to share each session with us or not. If you’re not seeing that welcoming smile each time or an “over here” wave, don’t take it personally — many folks need to meet a variety of people while they have the chance at the conference. Use that as your opportunity to find some new acquaintances of your own. Sometimes it’s fun to spend one session with a new colleague, then split up and come together for another session later and compare notes. Mix it up.
If you possibly can do it, take along a business card — even one with a picture of yourself on one side (a trick I learned with a design firm in Denmark). Zazzle.com and moo.com are two online outfits that offer inexpensive, easily made cards these days.
- Start a few weeks ahead so the cards ship to you in time for the trip.
- Don’t forget your Twitter handle. Yes, it belongs on your card, it’s part of your industry’s communications array, publishing people are big on Twitter.
- Make it simple, try to keep it professional. Hearts, flowers, storybook colors and sweet animals say something — decide what you want to say about yourself before you slap on the cuteness.
Everybody meets lots of great folks at a conference. A way to remember them is really important. Nobody will be sorry you arrived with something you could hand them, they’ll get it into their pocket and have it later when they recall that great chat you had. It’s a sign of professionalism, the same as meeting up with someone and cordially reminding her or him of your name.
Tweeting events while at a conference
I remember a tweet from a conference that made me realize I needed to do some tweeting of my own:
i’m in another great #WDC session and wearing my pink top, i look great!!!!
I’m sure that pink top was smashing, but that tweet did nobody any good. Granted, when I tweet, I do a news-conference approach because my main interest is in broadcasting publishing news and commentary to others — those at a conference with me and those who are following from remote locations.
But even if your goal isn’t as formal as mine, I’ll tell you a journalist’s secret: you learn better when you write what you’re hearing. If you make yourself tweet or text or e-mail or blog a session, you’ll get twice as much from that session than you will if you simply sit and listen. The “I just want to take it all in” concept is a fallacy. You take in less when you just sit and watch. This is why reporters make notes as a matter of habit, even when an event is being recorded. Being strange creatures, we “hear with our hands.”
Try it. You’ll get more out of it.
Following tweets from outside a conference
If you use Hootsuite or Tweetdeck, it’s especially easy to do a search for a conference’s hashtag and convert the search results into a stream. Then, you can follow all the tweets moving about a given conference easily, for days in a row, in a single stream on your dashboard. It’s the best way to keep up. And when there are some good people tweeting from a conference, you’ll find it’s the next best thing to being there.
Well, OK, when Tools of Change (TOC) sets up its live streams at an event, THAT is the next best thing to actually being in a session. The O’Reilly live feed from the Books in Browsers conference last fall set the standard, especially with Joe Wikert doing side interviews between presentations.
A good Twitter feed is the second-next best thing to being there.
Like the proverbial apples and oranges, the various industry conferences have different characters, emphases, missions, and payoffs.
In coming weeks, we’ll get ahead of several of them for you so you can sort out your best approach and make the most of your confab time.
Check out the other posts in this series:
- Your Guide to Writing and Publishing Conferences, 2012
- Preview: Writer’s Digest Conference 2012 (Jan 20-22, New York City)
- Preview: Digital Book World Conference & Expo 2012 (Jan 23-25, New York City)
- Porter & Dan
Porter Anderson ( @Porter_Anderson ) BA, MA, MFA, is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute and a journalist formerly with three networks of CNN, The Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, Dallas Observer, and other media. His weekly column on publishing, Writing on the Ether, is seen on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com .He also reviews literary fiction for Reader Unboxed. He will be live-tweeting complete sessions of the Writers Digest Conference (#WDC12), the Digital Book World Conference & Expo (#DBW12), the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Conference (#AWP12) and other confabs in 2012.