I often joke that my real job is “attending conferences and meetups,” which you may have heard if you’ve seen me introduce myself at an event. While obviously that’s not exactly true, I do usually find myself attending at least one conference per month (usually a WordCamp or something in the design and technology field) in addition to being a regular member of 3-5 different meetup groups relevant to my line of work. This June, I attended the Creative Freelancer Conference (part of HOW Design Live out in San Francisco) and immediately returned home to help run WordCamp Chicago the following weekend.
While that level of conference density is not necessarily something I would recommend for anyone on a regular basis (especially if you still need to support your client work in the meantime) I noticed a few key takeaways that were consistent across conferences:
Twitter is a fantastic tool during live events
I can’t tell you the number of times during CFC that I was asked by fellow attendees to explain what was so great about Twitter, anyway. And I don’t blame them! A few years ago I would have been right there with them, since I was only following either my friends or large brands/companies that didn’t interact with me. It felt useless (and more than a little redundant to Facebook). But then I discovered the magic of the Conference Hashtag.
An event with an active conference hashtag (#cfconf at Creative Freelancer Conference and #wcchi at WordCamp Chicago) provides a great way for attendees to share thoughts on sessions, connect and converse with other attendees, and make “conference friends,” spawning online and offline relationships that last long past the event itself. I first started tweeting during WordCamp Chicago 2011, but it’s really taken off in the last year or so as I attend more events and connect with more and more people, many of whom have become great sources of information, business resources, and friends.
I encourage you to explore the hashtags of the next event you attend if you are a Twitter skeptic, especially during a technology-focused event like a WordCamp. You may be surprised how fun and useful it can be.
What happens between sessions is just as important as what happens during sessions
The first time I attended a conference, I mostly sat in the back absorbing the great lessons the speakers were giving. I interacted somewhat with the people around me, but mostly kept to myself taking notes. It was a worthwhile experience, as it kept me coming back, but my biggest regret after the fact was not reaching out to more people and trying to get involved in the community sooner.
I love attending educational sessions that teach me something new, but I will argue that it is the relationships you build outside of those sessions that make an event more enriching and fulfilling. Attend the formal or informal networking events or parties associated with the event. Meet up with some new people for lunch or encourage someone new to join your existing group. Have some great impromptu discussions with some of the speakers after their sessions (I have noticed that both WordCamps and CFC had highly accessible speakers, and CFC even organized formal breakfast roundtables for people to delve into topics further).
The most benefits happen outside of your comfort zone
Although everyone enjoys doing things they are comfortable with, you really get the most out of an event when you step outside of that comfort zone. That could be as simple as attending a session that you might think was over your head or one that you may not have otherwise been interested in. If you are a natural introvert like me, that could also include speaking to new people you haven’t met before, or even deciding to volunteer or speak at a future event. At CFC, many of my peers got up on stage to do speaker introductions, which is a great way to get practice being up on stage in front of hundreds of people and learn to step outside of that comfort zone. If you are not ready for that, even offering to help lead a small roundtable, or being the person to raise their hand and ask a question during session Q&A are good places to start.
Being helpful pays off
As a logistics-minded person, I usually find myself driven to help when I show up to an event, even if I’m not already a volunteer. I’ll help alphabetize badges, or point people in the right direction, or figure out where we’re supposed to keep all of our portfolio supplies during the day for a networking event in the evening. But I much prefer to be a formal volunteer or organizer for a conference. In addition to the monetary benefit of getting comped for all or part of the ticket price, you get to build relationships with the people running and speaking at these conferences, who are usually great movers and shakers in the space.
That being said, it does also take up a significant portion of time, and depending on whether you need to attend some sessions it may not work for every conference. Plus, there is a certain level of relaxation and flexibility that comes from being a standard attendee (I am looking forward to that experience at WordCamp San Francisco later this month). I’d recommend a good balance between being formally involved and just attending when planning your conferences.
Stay connected after the event is over
Whether you’ve reached out via Twitter, offered to connect on LinkedIn, started a Skype Group or Google Hangout, or just gotten a stack of business cards, make sure to follow up! This is the most difficult part for me personally, but I know how important it is to nurture these budding relationships, so my goal is to follow up with everyone in some way. I plan to email the people who exchanged business cards with me thanking them for taking the time to chat, and I plan on keeping in contact with new Twitter followers via conversations.
For you veteran conference-goers out there, what other tips would you add? Do you notice a difference in terms of conference size, or type of industry? What are your favorite types of conferences to attend?