Let’s get back to basics: Here’s how to work a conference.
Conferences aren’t supposed to be hard. Exciting, exhausting, educational? Yes. Difficult? Disappointing? Dull? No.
But we’ve all been there, either as a newbie with big dreams and a small Rolodex or as a veteran who has heard the same panel discussion once too often.
So, how does a conferencegoer make the best use of time and registration fees? We think the answer is the same, whether you’re overwhelmed and disoriented or starving for a little inspiration and creativity: Get back to the basics.
Anthony Martinez is an alumnus of AIR’s New Voices scholarship program, and was New Voices captain, helping the 2014 class navigate the Third Coast Conference. We asked him for his best advice.
1. Conference selection: Know what you’re getting into.
Conferences are expensive — registration, travel, hotels — and although they can be useful to professional development, they are not an instant ticket to a project, a job, or a career.
When Martinez first came to Third Coast in 2012, he had been to professional conferences, but not in the audio world and not in public media.
“I had only just started doing audio work earlier in that year,” he said. “In the springtime I took a community audio/radio workshop through Vocalo, which is the sister station to WBEZ in Chicago. It was very rudimentary audio production skills and crafting a little story about something going on in our community.”
Martinez is based in Chicago, the home of the Third Coast Conference, and he knew that the biannual gathering would be a nexus of public media stars and useful workshops.
Third Coast is also the biggest gathering of indie public radio producers, which made it a fit for a new producer in the field.
“I felt really, really passionate about the content of the conference and the work I was doing, and everyone was doing, but I felt like such a supernovice beginner greenhorn that I definitely felt intimidated,” he said. “I didn’t know what I had to offer or what my potential was.”
2. Education: Where to go and what to do.
Conferences very helpfully publish their schedules online. Less helpfully, the compressed time of a conference always means making tough choices between this seminar and that panel.
This is where social media can help.
“It’s important to plot out how you think you want to spend your time,” Martinez said.
Is there an existing Twitter list of conference speakers, or can you make one? (Here is ours for the 2014 Third Coast Conference.) Listening in on Twitter can give you a sense of whose ideas resonate for you.
Veterans tend to skip this step, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for new voices entering the conversation — both people who have been invited to formally teach at the conference and people who are new but taking an intelligent interest.
Once you’ve done your preconference work, don’t forget to take a few minutes when you arrive to reorient yourself.
“I always cherish whatever paperwork the conference gives you,” Martinez said. “If you’re new to the experience, it pays to spend 10 minutes with some quiet time, really poring over all of the workshops and events so that you understand where things are and what’s happening.
“More important, when you say, ‘I want to be here on Friday and here on Saturday,’ you also leave yourself open to being spontaneous and open to chance. When you meet someone, let them convince you that a different workshop might be what you want.”
3. Identify yourself: Who are you and why are you there?
If you’re new, “don’t be ashamed or discouraged because you’re not Ira Glass or running your own podcast or network yet,” Martinez said.
As a newcomer, he said, he wasted a lot of time figuring out how to present himself to other people who were there.
“I came to a way to think of myself in this group, but I came to that realization very late. It took me a couple of days — and by a couple of days in, the conference is almost done,” he said.
So his advice for newcomers is to keep it simple: Just be honest about who you are and what you’re into.
“Embrace your fresh energy and show that you’re excited to learn,” he said. “Especially in this industry, people are excited to teach what they know. You have a place. That can be a role that you fill and it’s totally cool.
“Come in with an open, positive heart, not worrying about the norm, thinking about the ways you’re different from the average conferencegoer, thinking about how you don’t belong or fit in. People are excited to have people who haven’t been part of the profession involved now.”
One cautionary note, he added: “You could spend the whole conference talking about why Tell Me More being canceled is a grave injustice and a sign of the times. You can do that and people will participate, but because the conference is such a short time and comes so rarely, take your frustration and your really strong feelings and talk about what we as individuals and a community need to do to make it a more representative, inclusive, colorful space.
“People are really interested in having that conversation and have a lot of ideas, especially people you might not expect.”
For veterans, conferences are an opportunity to recalibrate a stable network, reaching out for new voices in the field and diversifying your contacts in one very busy weekend.
Either way, chances are that you are in a position to offer something — advice, contacts, information — that will enrich the informal learning that is, in some ways, the point of gathering people for an intense weekend.
4. Networking tactics: Let’s not make a deal.
One crucial point to get clear, Martinez said: “A conference is an open experience — people aren’t hashing out million-dollar deals in a corner.”
If your agenda is to sell a podcast or get a job, you’re likely to be disappointed. Instead, focus on starting conversations and gathering information.
“We’re all at the conference not to make deals and attach ourselves, but to collaborate,” Martinez said. “Show people that you’re interested in helping — which feels weird, because it’s broad, but the more narrowly focused you are on your own self-interests, the less you’ll walk away with at the conference.
“Later, when you’re thinking about something, people come to mind because, frankly, we reach out to people when we need something, we need help, or to get at something.”
So, how do you start those conversations?
“When I was alone, I would always try to sit next to somebody who was also alone, or a small group of people who look friendly,” he said. “Personally, I don’t like networking. It’s hard for me; I’m sort of a shy person. But this conference is only every two years, and these people are more like-minded than anyone I’ll meet in the rest of the year. That wasn’t the time to succumb to any doubts or fears.”
Self-professed former shy person Kimberly Weisul wrote a useful Lifehacker piece about meet-and-greets, suggesting that it’s most effective (and perhaps easiest) to approach people when they’re in pairs, as long as they’re not in an intense conversation.
And if you don’t like small talk, dive right in: Ask your colleagues what they need right now, what’s challenging them, and what they’re looking for — or ask for advice about the things you’re working on.
5. The aftermath: Stay on the radar.
You know all of that listening you did?
As a veteran or as a rookie, you can send an email with a follow-up thought, a helpful or interesting link to a story, or a pitch based on the needs your colleagues expressed.
“That’s truly the power of networking; we don’t know everything,” Martinez said. “I can read all the articles in Current and all those things, be online all you want, and try to figure stuff out, but there really is no better way to learn than from someone else.
“Opening yourself up to receiving input from other people, and giving it, that’s what builds strong networks.”