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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Making the Most of Attending a Conference - Ideas Needed

In comments in the post Death of Magazines - Broader Deeper Coverage, Virginia Yonkers commented:
I have to wonder what you expect to get out of a conference. I have never gone to a conference with the expectation of learning anything (although it would be a nice aside) but rather to network, discuss issues, and market (myself, my institution, my discipline, my theories/philosophies).
and later
I just had two papers accepted at the AERA conference in NYC this year and am dreading it. Last year's experience was horrible when it came to the conference itself, because I felt no sense of connection with such a massive organization.

However, the learning took place when I came home and was able to read through the papers and journals I picked up while there. I also contacted some of the people whose papers I found interesting. Unfortunately, at this point in my career, I must attend these types of conferences. So I will suffer through a trip to NYC (I'm a small town girl) and give me 10 minutes of presentation.
Sadly, I've felt the same way about going to conferences. I'm going to present at the conference and I'll get together with folks for networking and discussion. I'll learn through those things, but it seems that creating a conference where I also get to have a great participation experience is not on the agenda of conference organizers or attendees. This is something I've lamented about frequently.

Lots of people chimed into the post Better Conferences and among the ideas were things like:
  • Free wifi (top choice on the poll)
  • Smaller sessions with more advanced topics and discussions (this worked great at the last DevLearn but unfortunately was at 7AM)
  • Unconference within a conference
  • Keynotes aimed at us
  • Lots of demos
  • Cheat sheets or other sharing to help you get more from the conference
But this was from the perspective of what the conference organizer should do to make it a better event. Clark Quinn told me back then that it really is up to the attendee (especially the "expert" attendee) to get more out of it.

I somewhat agree with him on this. And I've certainly tried to think through this (see Be an Insanely Great Professional Conference Attendee and Session Hopping a Practical Guide). I've also continually suggested that the key is Better Questions (see also Continuing Thoughts on Questions and What Questions Should We be Asking?).

However, Virginia's comments got me thinking. I thought about how great the conversations are at my CTO Forum where a group of peers come together. Why am I not getting value from conferences? Why is Virginia clearly dreading going to her conference? Shouldn't something that costs so much money and time offer me more value that something that's free (my CTO Forum). Something is wrong here. Maybe
As a practitioner with more experience, I'm not doing the right things to get more from my conference experience.
But what are these things? What do other people do to get more from a conference?

For more discussions on networking and LinkedIn see Networking Events in Los Angeles and Southern California, Secret for Networking at Events – Prenetworking, Pre-network with LinkedIn, Local Event Organizers Need to Adopt Social Media.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't diownplay the value of networking. For many of us, during the course of the normal working week, we can begin to feel that we are the voice in the wilderness. Having the opportunity to get together with others who think like we do is like reaching an oasis in the desert!

And there is a sense of enrichment at being able to 3D-ify your mental image of the people you know from online spaces.

While I do learn from the formal presentations, I learn as much from chatting over coffee. The sum of all the little things learned during the course of a conference adds up to enormous value.

One thing I find frustrating is when a presenter uses up almost all his/her time "speechifying" leaving little time for any really searching questions. This is particularly irksome if the entire presentation appears to based on a premise I'd like to challenge. When you only have 5 minutes for questions, you know that people are going to groan if you ask a question that will take all of (or need more than) the 5 minutes to answer.

I'd find it helpful if there was a channel that opened once the presentation had been made, so that delegates could debate the content and put forward their own findings.

George Siemens does this within the supporting Moodle of any of the online conferences he organises, but perhaps because the conference is online already, it's not a major strectch for people to participate in an online retrospective and debate.

Maria Hlas said...

Although I have been doing this for many years, I have only been to three conferences. Needless to say, at the last conference I found a lot of topics I was interested in which usually were pretty good. There were a couple I should have left (if I had only had your advice on presentation hopping that you should sit on the aisle close to the door!). But I also attended some presentations because I was interested in the speaker, not the topic. Saul Carliner comes to mind. I could have cared less about the legalities of working with consulting companies (although I worked for a consulting company at the time and I learned a lot), but mostly I just liked hearing Saul's view on things (plus he is funny). If you have attended a few conferences, you may have already met a lot of the speakers. But it is always an option to pick the speaker and see what you learn. Or maybe pick a presenter you don't know from a company that interests you.

And I would agree with Karyn's point on too much talk with not a lot of time for questions. Maybe this is a note for presenters. Cut down your presentation time and leave time for questions (yeah, I know, it's all important stuff and you simply cannot cut ANY of it out). But then that would be a great lead in for presenters to direct people to their blog to discuss issues further (nice marketing idea to drive more people to a blog - no?!). If there aren't many questions, the speaker can always go back to some of the topics and go into more detail (like the stuff they cut out). Even if I agree with a speaker's points, it is rare that I don't have areas I want to explore more or ideas that could use more real-world examples. Also, if there is a lot of stuff a presenter has to cut out to leave time for questions and discussions, they could offer up "part 2" as another session. (Geez, I am full of advice today.)

Tony Karrer said...

Karyn - I agree on the value of networking at conferences. Unfortunately, unless I think about it ahead of time, I rarely find myself effectively networking. Instead, I tend to meet up with the same few people and chat about various stuff. Definitely, planning ahead of time is a good idea.

Karyn and Maria - I personally tend to fill up almost all my time and leave 5 minutes at the end. In San Antonio I have a second session that will be mostly discussion, so that will be better. What I've always wanted to do was to offer an opportunity to meet up with folks to have further Q&A. I think I will do that from now on. Or us that as a spring board for more discussion. At the conference or online.

Karyn - I have found the same thing around trying to move from sessions to online discussions. They seem to lose steam immediately. The "burning questions" that people have during the discussion never seem as burning once you go to write it down. Not sure why.

These are good. I hope more are coming!

Anonymous said...

Maria: I'm with you on the "choose the speaker" approach. I'd go to a presentation by Clive Shepherd even if he was talking about paint drying! He's that interesting and insightful.

Tony: I would absolutely love the opportunity to talk to a presenter after a session, and judging by the crush around the "top table" at the end of most sessions, I'm not the only one! At LT2008, I really wanted to pick Itiel Dror's brain after his keynote, because he seems to be married to the idea that knowledge equates to memory and the retrieval of information from one's head. I have problems with this and would have loved to discuss it with him, but the 5 minutes at the end of his presentation session didn't seem like a good time to "pick a fight"

Anonymous said...


I tend to get a fair amount out of conferences if they are loosely structured. Of course, I'm quite guilty of losing patience and ending up at the bar, which is where my best networking seems to happen.
I hate sitting through sessions with PPT slide after slide and little to no discussion. I've been arguing about this with coordinators of a conference at which I'm speaking soon. I just don't see the value in a full Presentation and a 16-page handout. I want an interactive discussion with my participants. It's all in approach, I guess.
Speaking of that upcoming conference, I got your "invite" through the Connect application and returned some thoughts via email. I'd hate to get lost in your spam filter.

Tony Karrer said...

Michelle - I just responded to your email - thanks for the comment as well. And - yes - we will be getting together at the bar. :)

This is a good way for me personally to meet up with other folks. However, ASTD Connect only showed me about 5 people. One I already knew. 3 I couldn't figure out what I'd say to them. And you. 1 out of 5 ain't bad, but 1 isn't good.

There must be a LOT of people going to the conference that I should meet with? ASTD doesn't even have a general reception planned. How the heck am I supposed to meet up with folks?

I'm starting to think that I should plan some subversive poster campaign to meet people like Michelle. There must be a better way.

Anonymous said...

One of the problems with AERA is that there is very strict structure: 10 minutes each presenter, (usually 3), 10 minutes discussant, and 10 minutes Q & A to the group. I would love to break out of the structure, but you need to get everyone else on board, and presenters are given the venue before they even submit their papers. Unfortunately, the most restrictive structure is the most prestigious. So I'm stuck. However, knowing how Karyn likes subversive, I do try to change things up a bit and get participants moving if I can. I guess my grounding in experiential learning comes through at times like this.

In addition, the conference had (if I remember correctly)20,000 papers submitted and accepted 2,000. That is a lot of people to connect with and choose from. I think it is just too big.

Clark said...

I'm creating a list of tips for the orientation for ASTD's Techknowledge conference, and was soliciting for other ideas as well. What I've come up with fits under several categories, which you can derive from the principles of effective learning:

1. Come prepared with Questions (courtesy of Tony), detailed and across several areas: your job, your career, technology.
2. Who you want to see: speakers, authors, vendors, competitors, compatible companies
3. The technologies you want to learn about or try out
4. Colleagues: finding out who to share (commiserate :) with (not from your own company, spread out)
5. Keeping yourself ready to learn (courtesy of Jim Javenkoski): hydrated, layers for temp control, not *too* little sleep
6. Attitude - Positive, social, contributing, energetic, respectful
7. Have fun! (including looking to local watering holes for socially lubricated conversations :)

Depending where you are on the expertise curve, at the bottom you should expect to learn a lot, at the practitioner stage you should be honing your understanding, at the expert level you should be contributing.

Tony Karrer said...

Clark - can you give examples of these - even for yourself?

These match pretty well with some of my posts, but I sometimes struggle with who to talk to and about at the expo. (I feel like I've seen it already.) And how to connect to other folks.

By the way, Michelle and I are hydrating on Tuesday evening. You are welcome to join.

Anonymous said...

Tony, I agree that ASTD doesn't promote the networking well enough. Last year I led the ISD Learning Labs, which were small but intense. I did better networking there (as well as at the Wynn bar and the diner) than I did at the rest of the conference. However, I tend to network better in small groups. Unless I'm expounding on wine, I rarely do well networking in large groups, so I don't mind the lack of an opening reception.
Last year at TK I sort of floundered because there were people I knew I needed to meet and I wasn't sure how to meet them. They've tried to fix this for 08 with ASTD Connect. But have you seen much publicity on it? I happened to stumble onto it as I was poking around the site. I see that as a problem.
Kevin & I are also starting a wiki to support our sessions. That allows us to start the session early (in theory) and continue the discussion later. In the past, this has worked for me as another way to network. I wish ASTD was offering a conference wiki that included pages for every session. Just a thought for the future I suppose.
And Clark - you should join us. You're yet another person that I've read virtually but never met in person. At Learning 2007 I started making it a point to meet folks I read online.

Tony Karrer said...

Michelle I never saw any publicity on ASTD Connect. They said they would announce it about a month ahead of the conference. I never saw anything.

Anonymous said...

I usually find that I get two or three really good ideas each day at a conference and enjoy the change of pace from the regular office, PC and keyboard. I don't run around everywhere but choose selectively what I want to or need to hear and try to find some free time as well, perhaps for the hotel swimming pool or a walk. Being someplace else helps me focus just on the conference topic.

A second recommendation is to look into any pre-conference workshops, since often the problem with the sessions is that they are very short sessions, and too often they have a "panel" of three not-too-well connected pieces. A half-day workshop on a topic of interest with a small or medium sized group can be very good.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if a handout could be given out to conference participants ahead of time. Something short, about 5 pages that gives the background and overview allowing for more in depth presentations during the conference.

Or, perhaps you could have the more broad/overview topics in the morning session and in depth sessions in the afternoon. Maybe short half sessions were an advanced and focussed topic is presented and discussed.

Gary VanAntwerp said...

Tony, could you be a better networker if you could do your networking before and after the event...and not be forced to network during the event? Here’s some encouraging news on this topic: Some event producers are beginning to offer much more robust solutions to these frustrations than I've seen mentioned here so far.

Training Magazine now partners with TrainingPayback to integrate a social networking and collaborative learning platform into their conferences. Participants in their May event will be connecting with all the presenters 3 months before the conference, during the conference and for months or even years after the event.

In effect, the conference is infinite. Attendees network with presenters and other participants, join discussion groups, download session materials, listen to audio interviews, and build relationships. By the time the physical conference occurs, both the relationships and familiarity with the topics have matured, leading to a far more satisfying experience for all. The event never ends, nor do opportunities to ask questions, share ideas and continue the relationships because the platform remains available for all to use.

There’s another dimension that's increasing participant benefit from conferences: Training Magazine event participants can choose to enter their specific conference goals into the system, then share them with their network and speakers who provide resources and feedback, becoming collaborators and long-term resources in achieving the goals.

This transformation of conferences from strictly physical to blended and semi-virtual events is admittedly new and fairly exclusive at this point. But participant demand and fierce competition for attendee budgets is pushing forward-thinking event producers to quickly embrace these technologies to solve your frustrations and offer far richer experiences to participants.

Karen will be able to ask her question in that channel she wants to see opened and "speechifying" presenters will be available to discuss your questions for months after the conference. Will that help?

At the pace they're gaining acceptance by participants now, infinite and blended conferences will probably be the norm in a couple of years.

Tony Karrer said...

Gary - I am a big believer in using tools for what I call Pre-networking which I discussed in my other blog.

Funny that I've had a harder time doing this for larger conferences. It's a bit like networking in a larger room. It feels harder to me.

At the same time, I'm not sure that I buy the way many of the tools work for pre-networking. See my post on Conference Networking Tools for some discussion of this.

As for the Training Payback, I know Ray and the tool somewhat. I'm not as familiar with it for pre-networking. I'll be curious to here what the experience is with it.

I would agree that something like these tools are needed. And some effort on the part of conference attendees to participate. Or at least the organizer should get some basic information up that describes attendees.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Darlene's comment -
Elliott Masie tends to have a wiki that launches a month or so before his conferences. There is a wiki page for each session. It's a great way to start a conversation, look at handouts, etc, before the conference starts, and continue the conversation later. However, like all wikis it seems, the Masie wikis do not get used to their full potential. I think it's a great idea though.

Tony Karrer said...

Michelle - I do like the idea of the wiki, but my sense is that attendees really don't use it much. Is that wrong?