How to always enjoy a conference

4 May 2009, in Events | 19 comments »

I’ve recently been to my 3rd web conference: Future of Web Design, in London. You can’t say I’m a conference pro — I’ve never been to SXSW or something that big (or even workshops), but I think my experience may be helpful to those of you who’ve never attended a conference and are thinking of doing it in the future.

My experience

So far I’ve been to two Future of Web Design conferences and one Future of Web Apps, all of them organized by Carsonified, and all of them in London.

When I first attended Future of Web Design, in 2008, I wasn’t living in London, and I had to pay for everything myself: ticket, flights, hotel and expenses. I didn’t regret having spent that money for a second!

Are conferences really worth it?

My advice is try it at least once. The feeling of being in a room with dozens or even hundreds of people that share your vision and are interested in the same things as you is great, and you won’t be getting it anywhere else.

I’m usually a bit disappointed about the content itself though: my expectations can be a bit too high, I suppose. Even though some presentations have inspired me to go home and do something amazing, a big percentage of the speakers focuses too much on their own portfolios and their companies and on a “how good we are” theme instead of “how good you can be”.

But there are some real gems occasionally. For example:

If your company doesn’t pay for you to go to conferences, first, they suck, second, pick a cheaper, local or a free event, save some money, book flights and hotels (if needed) in advance, share expenses with a friend, couchsurf, do whatever it takes, but just go. And maybe if you bring something valuable from the experience that you can share with your colleagues, they’ll see that it is a good investment and pay you to go next year.

Convinced? Go do some homework before you go!

Prepare before you go: whether you’re going alone or with someone else. The main purpose of these events is to network, so if you go with 3 friends and meet no one else, where’s the fun in that? You could’ve just gotten the same results with a couple of hours at the pub next door.

It’s good to know who’s going and have some names of people you’d like to meet, be it because you like their work, are interested in their specific area of expertise, or just find them interesting in some way.

Search on Twitter, Upcoming (also a great tool to look for events to attend) and Facebook — this should give you enough information about who’s coming. A lot of people are in the same situation as you and looking for someone to hang out with, so it’s OK to pop them a dm on Twitter or write a message on the wall of the Facebook event’s page.

The first time I attended FOWD by myself, I didn’t know a single soul. I searched mainly on Upcoming.org and on the event’s list of attendees for people who were in the same situation as me, and I even got a couple of emails from other people who were doing the same. It was less scary than just showing up at the pre-party all by myself.

Make business cards. You don’t have to spend a lot of money and it’s something people can keep and that will remind them of you. They don’t have to be amazing, but it helps!

Here are some of the business cards I’ve been handed in the last couple of years:

Business cards

Are you there yet? What to do during the event?

Twitter. It’s mainly a good thing. If you’re going, I advise you to start using it, you may feel left out and it’ll be easier to know where people are and what fun things are happening that you wouldn’t know otherwise. You can easily find someone’s username online but not their mobile number.

But Twitter can also be a major distraction during the presentations and a bad thing, especially if you’re a speaker! The audience can (and is) merciless and they won’t refrain from telling how your presentation sucks (you’ll have to be particularly thick-skinned if you’re from Microsoft!):

Twitter

Twitter

Twitter

Twitter

Twitter

Twitter

Twitter

If I ever were to talk at a conference, I’d make sure I didn’t check the live stream during my presentation, or I’d probably burst into tears…

In conclusion, Twitter is, no doubt, the main tool to use while at a conference. That and a mobile phone.

Meeting people

Don’t be shy and go talk to someone. This is where the preparation comes in hand, because if you already know someone online, it’s much easier to go to them and say “Hey! Are you [insert username/real name here]? I’m [insert username/real name here]! Nice to finally meet you!”. Exchange business cards, and the rest will come up by itself.

I have a friend who’s very good at grabbing people that are clearly alone and starting a conversation with them. It’s good to see how they always seem to be relieved of not being by themselves anymore. :)

Demystify the concept of internet celebrities. This is easier said than done, but it’s true that most of them are very accessible, and as lovely as the rest of us and wouldn’t mind having someone to talk to for 5 minutes. Just tell them how and why you like their work, how pleased you are to finally meet them, and how they have inspired you. Ask about how they’re liking the conference or the city so far, and you’ll have enough things to talk about for some good 5 or 10 minutes.

Follow up

Don’t forget to keep in touch with your new acquaintances: use Twitter (the easiest way), follow their work, subscribe to their blogs. Sending follow-up emails can also be a good idea: pick a few people you’re really interested in keeping in touch with and send them a nice reminder of yourself.

And do something with what you’ve learned: go do more research on a subject that grabbed your attention, create something new, start your own projects. If you didn’t learn anything, why not make sure you’re a speaker the following year and do a better job at it!

Remember: next time will be even better!

Where I’ll be next

This week I’ll be attending OFFF Lisbon 09. As usual, my expectations are higher than high, and I really hope Lisbon is as sunny as it usually is! :)

Hopefully I’ll also be able to go to Future of Web Apps 09, in London, later this year and dConstruct 09, in Brighton. If I find the time, I’ll also try to attend SHiFT 2009, again in Lisbon.

I feel I need to go to smaller meetups around London too, so if you have any suggestions, please write them in the comments section, I appreciate it!

Conclusion

As I mentioned before, this post is based on the little experience I have, and I know that other people have different opinions about these type of events.

In my opinion, going to these events has always proven to be a positive experience, mainly for all the nice and interesting people I’ve met, and I truly believe that’s what matters in the end.

I’d love to know what’s your input on these, and how you improve your conference-experience even further.

UPDATE (6th May 2009): I am going to Future of Web Apps, in London, later this year (got my early-bird ticket today), so I’ll see you there! :)

UPDATE (19th May 2009): I just got my ticket to BuildConf, Belfast, in November. Tell me if you’re coming too!

UPDATE (9th July 2009): I will also be attending dConstruct, Brighton, in September. Who’s coming?

There are 19 comments:

  1. MarcoBarbosa says:

    Nice writing yaili!

    I wish there were closer events near where I live.

    I appreciate your tips! :)

  2. Great tips not only for first timers but for those who aren’t getting the most out of the conferences they go to. Work paid for my trip to FOWD, and I would love to go to FOWA and dConstruct but I think it would be a bit much for me to ask that!

    It was nice to meet you at FOWD :)

  3. inayaili says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys! :)

    @Mike Robinson: It was nice meeting you too!

  4. Great post!

    We are 2 in our amazing (I definitely should say flabbergasting) startup, and we try to be present to web events everytime we can (and especially abroad).

    We buy the first supa early bird tickets.

    We share the conferences, which is good because my partner and I don’t have the same way of meeting people and appreciating the talks.

    And as we don’t have money (this is the fun part of starting your own business) we have to find creative solutions. It was a bit hard at first (couchsurf, hostels and so on) but now we got real friends in a lot of cities which means that more than only moving to a conf, we also move to see our friends (and stay at their places :D).

  5. Great post, as usual. I don’t know where you find the time to write them all!

    I see you put the best business cards on the top…

  6. inayaili says:

    @Jean-Baptiste: I think you’ve got it all figured out then! Making new friends is one of the most important things of going to these events.

    @Antony: I write them on the Tube and edit them at home :)

  7. Really good post. It’s nice to read this from the point of view of a conference speaker. I really like that you encourage people to interact – and yes, most Web/Internet speakers are in fact very accessible. There’s a reason for this – we are all peers – all learning together and we share vision and passion. We are all members of a community, and are equals. I couldn’t speak and be effective if I didn’t interact and listen to an entire realm of experiences.

    So I think you make a critical point there, one that inspires me to respond and say that being shy around a perceived “celeb” doesn’t help anyone, including said “celeb” who needs your input, passion and ideas more than most realize.

    Thanks for this great post! :D

  8. Stanton says:

    Great post :) The social aspect of the conference is my main reason for attending, I’ve met so many great people, and also been able to spend time with many of the people who’s work I’ve followed for a long time.

    I’d echo your advice on the celebs and remind people that they’re regular people too! and they’re just as happy to grab a beer and chat about random stuff as they are talking about their presentations.

  9. Tom Sinclair says:

    Nice write-up yaili but I hope the twitter comment of mine doesn’t put anyone off thinking of attending a conference!

    I think I’m pretty much the same with really high expectations of what to expect and as soon as something doesn’t meet that I do get irritated! But the good usually outweighs the bad, by far in FOWD case as the people I met were great and there were some very good presentations!

    Overall FOWD was well worth it and hopefully I’ll be going to at least 1 more conference this year as they are definitely worth it, even if you do have to sit through 15minutes of Microsoft adverts eugh!

  10. Awesome post, and I’m now adding Web Designer Notebook to my RSS feeds.

    It’s totally inspired me to go to more conferences and preferably alone! Would you say, however, that the more people you get to know the less easy it is to meet new people as you are spending more time catching up with the old friends? Not that catching up is a bad thing of course!

  11. inayaili says:

    @Molly: Thank you so much for giving us the perspective of the speaker. I loved your presentation last Thursday :)

    @Stanton: I agree. After one or two times you’re looking forward to catching up with your friends more than you are to watching the conference itself.

    @Tom: I hope we get a chance to meet next time.

    @Mark: That is a very good question! It stars to get a bit more difficult to meet new people because there’s already all these people you want to catch up with. But hey, I met you, right? ;)

  12. Simon says:

    Nice post. I was a little bit more critical in mine.

    The social aspect is interesting because if you’re not part of the London Social Media Clique it can be a little alienating, especially at the flagship (and less technical) events like FOWA.

  13. Emily says:

    I had a post prepared along similar lines which you’ve now made redundant Yaili, but nice work on a well written post (and not just getting there first!). Couple extra points I was going to make that I’ll add to yours here:

    If you feel you are too shy to just walk up to someone and say hello, take the opportunity to talk to the person next you while you are queueing for a coffee, or waiting for the next presentation. I’ve made lots of friends at conferences this way! Its also a good time to catch people on their own, who might otherwise be ‘hiding’ amongst a group of colleagues.

    In terms of meeting the ‘celebs’, I recommend having a question prepared – it doesn’t necessarily have to be in response to their presentation. In fact most of the ‘celebs’ I wanted to speak to weren’t presenting, but I knew they might be there and had made a point of remembering something I’ve always wanted to ask them.

    @Mark I would say try and catch up with old friends at the Pre/After parties but try and concentrate on meeting new people/presenters during the actual day of the conference. This gives you a chance to meet some people who can’t make the parties (due to time/distance or serious shyness!) and/or make new contacts who you can speak to at the after party.

  14. Andy says:

    Networking is certainly the most valuable part of any conference, I’m made a lot of awesome friends and contacts by just attending unofficial before-parties and local meetups like OpenCoffee beforehand. Even having a poke around the conference hashtag on the Twitters is a good way to get to know some attendees in advance.

    I’m organising http://www.buildconference.com later this year which you may also be interested in checking out!

  15. It’s really good to read this. I really like that you encourage people to interact and most internet speakers are in fact very accessible. Internet is an ocean of information that can help you accomplish the task. As such one can take the technology to their advantage to get right information from right source.

  16. Hi, thanks for explaining “How To Always Enjoy A Conference”. It has inspired me to go to more conferences.

  17. If you’re into conferences you should check http://www.reboot.dk and http://www.shift.pt (I’m biased … I’m an organizer at SHiFT).

    But the atmosphere is amazing, the speakers are amazing and everything is just one hell of an experience.

    Why? They’re not ‘commercial’ conferences. :)

    Reboot is next week (25, 26 of June) in Copenhagen, Denmark.

    SHiFT will be in October (16, 17 of October) in sunny Lisbon, Portugal.

    Just my two cents.

  18. inayaili says:

    Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for your suggestions. I’ve been thinking of going to SHiFT this year, but I’m not sure yet, it sounds really interesting.

    I hadn’t heard of Reboot, but I couldn’t make it this year anyway. Thanks for the info!

  19. Good Idea Daniel,
    I never fell good on such conferences.

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