The conference seemed appealing. It would provide an opportunity to spend a few days in an intriguing city with a pleasant climate, as well as the chance to be professionally stimulated by the marvelous program the brochure promised. The reality was something else.
It’s happened to all of us. Sometimes the problems have nothing to do with the conference itself, but rather with such things as travel, lodging, and weather. But sometimes it’s a program problem — the session we especially wanted to attend was terrible; or it was filled by the time we got there, and folks raved about it later. Lots of things can cause us to second-guess our decision to attend a conference.
I’ve discovered over the years that it’s possible to creatively turn a potentially bad professional gathering into something reasonably good. What follows are some things I’ve learned from attending and speaking at hundreds of conferences:
SECTIONAL SESSIONS. Select at least two promising sessions for each time slot, and try to check them out during the break prior to the session. Look at the handouts and display materials. If you want something specific, briefly ask the presenter if your issue will be covered.
If you’re not sure which session will best meet your needs, attend the more promising, and sit in the back at the end of a row. If it’s obvious after a few minutes that the session isn’t what you had in mind, leave and quickly go to your second choice. Don’t feel that you’ve insulted the speaker. We expect this to happen — just as we know that folks who have left other sessions will shortly come to ours.
SPEAKER CONTACTS. If you are concerned about specific issues that probably concern few others in attendance, don’t hesitate to contact the presenter after the session. Most are happy to speak individually with folks who attended their session. If they have to hurry off to something else, they’ll tell you, and will then usually suggest a post-conference email exchange. Such email correspondence has often given me opportunities to clarify things I said in my presentation that mystified or disturbed my correspondents, and it’s allowed them to explore specific concerns the session (or conference) didn’t answer. Most speakers will suggest resources and/or send useful materials related to such concerns.
PARTICIPANT CONTACTS. The most valuable part of a conference may not be the formal program, but rather the informal contacts you can easily make with colleagues from all over during a conference. Realize that all who attend a session obviously have some similar interests, so get acquainted with those who sit near you during the pre-session wait. If you discover a kindred spirit, debrief the session over coffee. Such a discussion may be as professionally valuable as anything the presenter said.
Colleagues who attend a conference together may spend more informal time together during their trip, meals, and socializing than during months on the job. Setting a schedule in which each person attends different sessions allows for a rich evening exchange of ideas in an informal setting removed from job distractions.
EXHIBIT AREA. The commercial and professional exhibits generally provide an opportunity to compare a wide variety of resources in areas related to your professional assignment. Companies tend to staff their booth with informed helpful representatives, and so the exhibit area (especially in major conferences) allows you to gather much useful information in a short period.
THE COMMUNITY. Conferences are usually held in interesting communities, and so you should schedule some time to visit museums and other areas that will enhance your knowledge of things related to your professional assignment. One can easily get—conferenced out’ over several days of continuous sessions, so scheduling a recess period for yourself is almost always a good idea. Consider the local trips many conferences plan, since it’s a fine extended opportunity to interact with a bus full of folks with similar interests.
NOTHING NEW. You may attend sessions in which you already know just about everything a widely respected speaker says. This bothered me early in my career, until someone suggested that this is a reason to rejoice. If your understanding of an issue is similar to that of a respected scholar in the field, it’s an important personal validation of your knowledge. The self-confidence it provides is often important when your beliefs and judgments are questioned back home.
FROM RECEIVER TO PRESENTER. The best way to insure that the conference will be first-rate (at least for an hour or so) is to get on the program. I’m always amazed by folks who complain about sessions they’ve attended, and then admit, when questioned, that they’ve never submitted a proposal for a conference session. At some point in your career, seek to move periodically to the podium. Persist if your initial proposals don’t get accepted. If you believe that you have something substantial to offer, you’ll eventually be asked to present your ideas. It’s somewhat frightening, but also quite stimulating, to stand in front of an intelligent informed audience and explain what you’re doing, what you have discovered.
I’ve thus discovered from decades of conferences that I can profit from sessions that expand my knowledge, and also from those that validate my feelings of adequacy by repeating what I already know. Further, I can informally interact with speakers, strangers, and colleagues; and can periodically escape into the exhibits and community. Finally, I can strive to become part of future conference programs.
So if the conference wasn’t what I originally hoped it would be, I always felt that I was creative enough to adapt it to my needs, and thus create my own personal conference. I wish the same for you.