Essays · Work

Attending a Conference

I’m currently at a conference for the work I do that actually pays the bills. This one happens to have over 1,700 attendees from all over the country. I’ve attended a half dozen of these over the years, and here are some ways I’ve learned to not be a jerk at these things.

Be patient. Yes, hotels often specialize in conventions, but things happen when hundreds of people all arrive around the same time. There may be lines. There may be an error with your registration. Your hotel room may be missing, say, a chair. You are probably tired from your trip in, and that is totally understandable. And you don’t have to put up with things that are unacceptable (if you need to refrigerate medication, they need to provide you a fridge), but just take a deep breath, pull out your book, and try to relax. It’s going to be a long few days, so conserve your energy.

Meeting New People
Folks, I am not good at or generally interested in “networking.” In fact, I hate that term because I think it sounds a bit creepy, although I suppose it is straightforward: meeting someone with the hope of using them at some other point, and not because you’re genuinely interested in getting to know them.

I think that also sums up why I hate doing it: it takes a lot of energy to socialize, and I’d rather do it with people I’m hoping to really get to know better. You know, friends.

That said, I have met some really nice people at conferences, and I’ve found it’s gotten a little easier over the years. I’ve learned that it’s not that hard to just introduce myself and then ask a couple of questions about what they do at their home agency or what the typical issues are they have to deal with. If the conversation is flowing naturally, then I’ll stick around for a bit; if not, I just say “it was great to meet you; I know there are a lot of folks here so I won’t keep you. Enjoy the rest of the conference!”

Picking Sessions to Attend
I know a lot of people who pick a primary and a back-up, because let’s be honest: they aren’t all going to be amazing. Sometimes the abstracts don’t really match what the discussion will be, or the speaker is challenging to listen to (i.e., you can’t keep your eyes open). If you do have a back-up or just know that you might need to leave, it is imperative that you sit near the back so you can make your exit with as little disruption as possible.

If you don’t need to leave? Please sit as close to the front as you can. As someone who has presented at a few of these, it’s obnoxious to come into a room with everyone clustered at the very back. Especially when I have slides and I can tell people are straining to see. This isn’t high school; the ‘cool kids’ can still sit in the front.

In smaller sessions, don’t be looking at your phone the whole time. Checking every once in awhile is fine, but if you’re so bored that you just want to scroll through Twitter the whole 90 minutes, it’s less of a jerk move to just leave. Again, as a presenter, it’s pretty discouraging if I look out and see some people who seem to never look up.

Finally, double – and triple – check that you are where you are supposed to be. If you’re in a hotel with multiple conferences going on, check that the food set out as snacks is for your group and not another. And if you’ve been asked to cover a meeting for a colleague, make sure you’re in the right one. These are of course totally hypothetical situations, and definitely did NOT happen to me just this week.

Asking Questions
Oh sweet lord I hate this one with the fire of a thousand suns burning inside of a volcano. I often try to leave larger sessions early if I can so I don’t have to listen to all kinds of absurd shit. Some tips:

1. Jot your question down ahead of time. Doesn’t matter if it’s on your phone’s memo app or your Starbucks cup; just please don’t wing it. There’s usually a limited amount of time, and other people would also like to ask a question.

2. Say quickly who you are and where you’re from and maybe a line that provides some context. For example: “Hi I’m Leslie Knope with the Parks and Rec Department in Pawnee, Indiana. We only have four staff members, so I was wondering if you had thoughts on how to prioritize the ten projects you propose every Parks Department take on?”

In this case, you’ve got your name, job (title usually doesn’t matter, so leave it out unless it’s critical to your question), and location. You’ve shared the uniqueness that you need addressed (not a lot of staff), which provides context for why you want to know which of the ten things the speaker presented on are most important.

3. Unless the speaker engages you and elicits a response, don’t consider it a back-and-forth. If you need clarification, ask them when the session is over. If you find yourself having trouble with this one, consider either handing back the microphone to the moderator or stepping away from the microphone stand to remove the temptation.

4. Don’t ask a second question until there is a lull and no one else is asking their first.

5. Do not, under any circumstances, use this as an opportunity to share a five-minute-long story about your awesome project, or your political views, and then wrap it up with “don’t you agree?” Literally no one cares in that moment. So just stop.*

6. If you think something critical was left out of the discussion, ask about it, but be thoughtful with how you phrase it. If it’s something factual that can be checked (“I’m wondering why you didn’t apply Rule 742 in this case, when it seems to require it”), be 100% sure that it is relevant; it’s pretty embarrassing when people ask such pointed questions (usually in an accusatory fashion) and then turn out to be super wrong.

If it’s more of an opinion or something that requires discussion, consider approaching the speaker after the session.

7. Acknowledge the response with a smile and nod or a mouthed “thank you” when they speaker is done.

Final Thoughts
There are I’m sure a million other things I could talk about (and if I missed something you’re particularly interested in, let me know here), but this is a start. Oh, one more thing. Yes, it is a work event, but don’t forget to have fun and learn something. People have cool, interesting things to share.

*If you really need to share the story, start a blog. Someone will probably read it.

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