Five Reasons to Invest in Professional Development – and Yourself
May 16, 2016 § 10 Comments
By Donna Talarico
The first time I tried it, I was a sophomore in high school. And now I’m hooked. A conference junkie. That’s what I am. Ever since that inter-scholastic journalism conference in Oklahoma I haven’t been able to escape the craving to alter my brain with new things, to be inspired by others’ passions.
Professionally, my first taste of sharing expertise—and enjoying the camaraderie of like-minded people gathering from all over the country—was at Solid Cactus Boot Camp, a semi-annual conference hosted by my former company for our ecommerce clients. When I moved into higher education, I immediately hit the conference circuit – and took a chance on submitting a proposal to present at the first industry event I attended, HighEdWeb. It was accepted, and this October will mark my sixth time giving a session or workshop at this particular event and about my fortieth time presenting at a web, marketing or publishing conference. Speaking is rewarding, but I’m only a presenter for about an hour during these multi-day events; the rest of the time, I’ve got my notebook out and my attention fixated on the front of the room. It’s the learning that excites me the most.
Needless to say, I’m in love in with sharing and learning in a conference environment. That’s why adding a creative writing conference—one modeled after the most enjoying, exhilarating events I’ve attended—to Hippocampus Magazine’s offerings was a dream from the get-go; we held the inaugural HippoCamp in 2015.
I consider conferences an investment in myself, one that pays off time and time again. Here are five reasons why.
Everyone has a voice.
My favorite conferences are those which have an open call for proposals which are then vetted by a committee—this usually allows for more diversity in voices, topics and experiences. When the conference programming features a range of career experiences, I know I’m going to learn a lot. For example, at the higher education conferences, some of the best sessions I’ve attended were led by “newbs” to the industry—but they had a significant case study to share. Likewise, someone who has been in the field for three decades can impart such wisdom on attendees. The same can be said for the creative nonfiction genre. We can learn from everyone; all professionals have something to share. And if they can do it in a confident, compelling way in front of a crowd of colleagues, it’s pretty exciting.
Everyone has similar experiences.
Everyone is different, of course. Our projects, our personalities, our backgrounds. But what I mean here is that life-long bonds are formed at conferences of all kinds because they bring like-minded people together. But perhaps it’s more special when it comes to a gathering of wordsmiths. When we writers are at home, we can be misunderstood. Our intentions questioned. Our dreams get pushed aside as family and (survival) job obligations take over. Non-writer friends and relatives can support us in some ways, but they don’t always get what we’re going through. But, ah! A conference full of a hundred or so (or thousand, depending on which event we’re talking about!) writers offers the chance to mingle and chat with those experiencing the same challenges, maybe even prompt deep, meaningful conversations, complete with tears, that last until 3 a.m., which is what happened to me at AWP 2016. People leave conferences inspired because of the content and new-found knowledge, but perhaps the head home even more invigorated by the conversations outside of sessions.
Everyone takes something away.
We all come away from a conference with scribbles, ideas, connections. Frankly, that can be overwhelming. I’ll pass along some wisdom that was shared with me at some point during my conferencing: find your ONE thing. What did you learn at the writing conference that you can implement immediately? Sure, you’ve got lots of plans after leaving a multi-day writing event, but you won’t be able to do it all at once. Cull through your notes and find that, as trite as it sounds, golden nugget. Start there. Over time, you can put to use other things you’ve learned.
Everyone has a chance to be seen.
I wrote earlier in this piece that the ROI—return on investment—for conferences has paid off for me. Sure, that’s a marketing term, but it’s appropriate here. See, just like a vendor or event sponsor considers setting up a booth at a conference as a marketing expense, I consider conference registration as investment in myself as a professional (and creative) writer. I’m learning, but I’m also making myself visible in my industry. I’m not talking as a speaker, but as an attendee. Just by being present, and perhaps active on the Twitter back channel, you have a chance to connect, to get your name out there, to have the most fruitful experience you can imagine. Many of these connections happen organically, but sometimes conferences offer structured sessions that allow us to get uninterrupted time with someone who can offer advice—sometimes opportunities. So maybe you’ll find a critique buddy, the perfect editor for your manuscript, a potential client, an agent, a lit mag publisher, an MFA program director who needs more instructors – or just a really good friend. If people remember you and stay in touch after the conference, consider that some good ROI. One year after the inaugural HippoCamp, I’m still discovering how some attendees have connected and found ways to work together, cheer each other on.
Everyone can share something.
While most independent professional development conferences—the ones that are for peers, by peers—do not offer pay outside of keynote speakers, they do offer us an opportunity to be seen. Submit a proposal present at an upcoming conference; if accepted, you’ll probably save some on your registration, but going along with the previous section, you’ll get to connect with others in a really meaningful way. You will have a captive audience with which you can share your stuff. Dazzle them with your knowledge. Answer questions with confidence. By speaking frequently at the same type of events, I’ve developed a platform in certain areas. Going back to ROI, this credibility has led to future speaking engagements – and freelance projects. Well-paying freelance work that has allowed me to leave my full-time job. See, you never know who will be in the audience, who you will eat lunch with, who you will grab a taxi (or Uber) with. Who you will inspired. Who will have an “Aha!” moment while you’re at the mic. When you speak up, cool things happen. Try it! (Even think beyond writing conferences to whet your speaking whistle – as nonfiction writers, our knowledge could benefit local business, nonprofits, you name it!)
I could carry on for many more words about my love of conferences and why I feel they’re a worthwhile investment in personal and professional development. But I’ll leave you with this: we need to continuously hone our craft, stay up to date on industry and technology trends, and find the motivation to push through our work. There’s no better way to recharge your spirit and refill your brain than by attending one (or more) writing conferences each year. Just a little bit of peer pressure; you know, in hopes that you may also become a conference junkie, too.
Donna Talarico is the founder/publisher of Hippocampus Magazine. She has nearly two decades of experience in marketing, communications, writing and media, most recently as director of integrated communications at Elizabethtown College (2010-2015) in Pennsylvania. (She has past lives in radio and ecommerce.) Now an independent writer and consultant, she speaks at higher education and publishing conferences, writes an adult learner recruiting column for Wiley, and has contributed to Currents (a higher education trade publication), Guardian Higher Education Network, mental_floss, The Los Angeles Times, Games World of Puzzles, The Writer, and others. She has an MFA from Wilkes University and an MBA from Elizabethtown College. She loves road trips, national parks, board games, greasy-spoon diner breakfasts and museums.