How to Navigate Your First Conference (With a Sense of Humor)

By Joshua Danton Boyd August 18th, 2014

Music festivals can be fun. Film festivals might be interesting. But if you really want to be around a large crowd of people in a strange environment full of benign shenanigans, go to a professional conference.

If you want to get everything you can out of a conference, look up panels and speakers and plan an itinerary. It’s like when you go to a music festival and strategize the most efficient way to get to stages where your favorite bands are playing. In this case, however, you hopefully won’t get so drunk you pass out in the corner of the dance tent by noon.

On a more sober(ing) note, you should take notes. Speakers often post the slides of their presentations online, which can be a helpful refresher, but if you ever skipped a university lecture and planned to rely on the slides alone, you’ll know that this method typically isn’t the best way to learn.

Try it: Go through this set of slides and you’ll see that vague outlines of important talking points only get you so far. You’ll have a much better experience bringing your own notepad, tablet, or audio recorder. The last thing you want is to miss, misremember, or completely forget lectures.

While at the BrightonSEO marketing conference, a speaker made a passing reference to a few free stock images sites—it wasn’t a major aspect of the talk nor featured in any of the slides, but it was significant to my interests—so I wrote down the suggestions. And since I saw five additional speakers that day, I would never have been able to remember the specifics afterward.

On the other hand, there are probably some parts of any conference you’ll want to forget.

No matter how enticing the panel description sounds on a glossy one-sheet, be prepared for some discussions to be boring and/or pointless. At one conference, someone from Google came to speak about the relationship between SEO and content, which could’ve been insightful, but it became apparent this was some one-size-fits-all talk, not at all suited for the advanced knowledge of the attendees.

However, since it can be tough to predict what parts will be good and bad, it’s always smart to make sure you’re properly equipped. Bring chargers for your devices. You should be tweeting during the event, and you don’t want to miss a chance to connect because your iPhone battery barely runs longer than an episode of Sherlock.

Conferences are great places to build a social media network. Events will usually have their own hashtags, and many attendees will be scrolling through during the day to look at the people using shameless puns in every post. You really have carte blanche to tweet about speakers, the event itself, or even about good nearby restaurants—anything people will engage with. I pick up 10 to 20 followers doing this at each conference, many of whom become useful contacts.

On a related note, beware of jokes. You’re likely talking to a varied audience, so your jokes might not connect with everyone. If you’re not sure you’re funny enough, think before you submit. It’s not worth the hassle pissing people off with a feminist dig, an anti-feminist dig, or any joke that remotely has anything to do with feminism.

If you make it through the day unscathed, prepare to benefit from extreme networking and copious amounts of free swag. If the conference has an exhibition section where businesses set up stands, it’s a good idea to wander around and introduce yourself, even if you’ve no intention of signing up for anything. Accept all business cards (might be worth dedicating a pocket to them) and have a proper look through when you’re back home. Then, dedicate another pocket to free stuff—who doesn’t need 100 new pens?

Finally, once the official business is over, go along to any post-conference drinks or parties. I once reaped the benefits of free ale and a karaoke machine, which is magnificent enough to overcome even the most boring conference. Regardless, you can chat with people in a more relaxed way, always the best option for making new contacts.

As a last resort, you can always pray to the gods something like this doesn’t happen at your conference:


Image by Doug DuKane
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