How to Make the Most of a Multi-Day Writing Conference

July 9, 2018 § 7 Comments


Full_without_dateBy Donna Talarico

It’s conference season! Wait. I think it’s always conference season. There’s always something happening, from coast to coast—and beyond. The literary and publishing world is filled with events of all shapes and sizes where we can learn, share, network, explore, and grow. And if writing isn’t your only job, your other industry(ies) may also offer some amazing professional development opportunities.

I’ve been attending conferences since 2006 as part of my marketing career, and I fell in love. Hard. I adore conferences so much that I now run one. (It’s called HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers.)

To help you prepare for your next conference as an attendee or speaker, I’m sharing some tips on how to make the most of your event, from how to stay organized to how to stay healthy.

Take Notes…. By Hand

Research shows we often remember things better when we write them down vs. typing. I’m a big fan of hand-writing notes. If you’re a visual learner like me, you can also doodle in the margins or format your pages in a way you like for better recall. (Example: I use a lot of arrows and circles when I take notes.) By all means, jot down your ah-ha moments the best way for YOU, but consider going back to analog. Plus, you’ll have a tangible memory of your time at your conference!

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

One of my favorite conferences each year is called HighEdWeb—or, Higher Education Website Professionals—and I’ve been fortunate enough to be a speaker at this event each year since 2011. My first HEWEB, as we call it, I heard a piece of advice at the conference orientation: to go to a session I’d never think of attending. Now, for a conference like this one, the subject range is really broad, from highly technical to content, so there may be more to choose from, topic-wise, than a niche, writing-related conference. But still, peruse the schedule and find something that gets you out of your comfort zone. You may surprise yourself by what you learn—and what new inspiration you leave with.

As a professional marketer and content writer, at web conferences I’d gravitate toward the “word stuff,” but now I always take in at least one technical session so I can expand my horizons. I may not ever be a die-hard programmer, but at least by exposing myself to content from brilliant folks outside my specialty, I can learn a little more about “how the sausage is made” and meet people I may never have met.

Take Breaks & Unwind

I’ll admit that when I present at a multi-day conference, I often sit out the session before my talk so that I can have a “zen moment” before I go on. (I don’t like missing conference content, so if it’s a one-day event, I might not skip a time slot…) I found that when I’d race from one session to get to mine on time, I’d be flustered, winded even. So, I now take a moment for myself to regroup. If the event is in the same hotel I’m staying in, I’ll go to my room and not exactly meditate, but just spend some quiet time so I can be focused and ready to engage the crowd. Otherwise, I’ll find a quiet place, such as a sitting area in a far-off nook.

Whether or not you are speaking or volunteering at a conference, it can be helpful to take a breather from the action. To decompress. To reflect. At HippoCamp, we realize people may need some downtime, so starting in 2017, we introduced a Relax & Recharge room that has some tables, chairs, couches, and chargers. People can escape to this room to recharge themselves and their devices. Many conferences, in fact, have started creating “introvert corners.” So be involved in the conference as you can—that’s why you’re there!—but take care of yourself.

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Donna Talarico

Participate in the Back Channel

This is my favorite one. I should have put it first, but I wanted it to be a gem in the middle of this post. Twitter, I think, is what made me fall in love with the conference community. Or maybe it was conferences that made me fall in love with Twitter? I’m not sure which came first. But back in 2008 when I worked for an ecommerce company and we were exhibiting at the Internet Retailer conference in Boston, I did my first live-action Twitter contest. To this day, at Association of Writers and Writing Program Conference, I toss out trivia questions as part of the Hippocampus Magazine booth (with prizes.) That’s on the exhibitor side. For the attendee side, the back channel can be a wonderful place, long before the conference even takes place! I’ve seen friendships blossom on the HippoCamp hashtag (this year, it’s #hippocamp18), and then get to witness people meeting each other in real life for the first time at the event. (To help facilitate this, we put Twitter usernames on badges when they’re provided at registration!) It’s even better when I see the conversations continue after the conference.

During the conference, though, you can use the hashtag to share nuggets of wisdom from speakers—we also put speaker Twitter handles on the program to make it easy to quote them. Some people I know even use Twitter as a way to take and save notes.

I do firmly believe you should be present at a talk and pay attention to the speaker, but tweeting a few times during a session is acceptable in my book. After the conference, then, people can look through the hashtag to see what happened in sessions they didn’t attend. An active back channel is an amazing way to bring people together, to show the amazing things happening, as well as get people “watching at home” excited about the event too.

Hydrate & Take Your Vitamins

Self-explanatory and obvious, I know… but especially if you’ve flown into the event from another time zone, you may already have some adjusting to do. I know many people, myself included, who always feel a little off after traveling. (If not a cold, at least a little fatigue!) So, stay hydrated and healthy! Maybe pack some Emergen-C or Airborne.

Be Positive & Cordial

One of my favorite graphic t-shirts says, “Work hard and be nice.” It’s a fitting shirt for how I like to live life and, well, it’s also a nicely fitting shirt because the fabric is so cozy. Along the lines of that t-shirt saying, one thing I hear often about HippoCamp, from in-person feedback or post-conference surveys, is that it’s a warm and welcoming environment. I love that our conference exudes friendliness, and that’s thanks to our attendees! Each conference begins to have its own personality and vibe, and I am so proud of what we’ve cultivated together at ours.

I’ve attended conferences—in various industries, not just writing—where the environment wasn’t as nice. No matter what event you’re attending, you’re bound to find a differing opinion, a session that wasn’t what you expected, a dessert bar that didn’t have something you liked, or something else you weren’t 100 percent sure about. However, to help make whatever conference you’re attending to remain on the “nice side,” I encourage you to save any useful critique for after the event, such as in private post-conference surveys or notes to the organizers, rather than turn to your neighbor or to Twitter to vent in a stream-of-conscious-y kind of way simply because negativity can be infectious. (For example, I’ve seen some hurtful things posted about conference speakers at an event or too, and this negativity bothered me.) Instead, in general conversations and the back channel, try to be positive to one another and keep that uplifting spirit going. I think doing so adds to the energy of any event!

Find Your “One Thing”

Back at my first HighEdWeb, I also heard the line: “find your one thing.” While you will leave a conference with lots of great ideas and new information, it can also be overwhelming to have so much activity in that brain of yours. So find that “one thing” you want to focus on first. What is your number one takeaway? This is not to say you can’t implement various things. Rather, set some short- and long-term goals.

Stay in Touch

Keep the conversations going, online or off. If you exchange cards (yes, many writers still have amazing paper business cards, and I love them!) or emails with someone, follow up. Even if it’s just a quick, “Great to meet you at Conference XYZ! Please stay in touch!” One of the most rewarding things about running a conference is seeing what develops between people after the event. Book ideas. Assignments. Workshops. Just lots of collaboration between people who didn’t know each other yet. And that, my friends, is why conferences are such a good investment. It’s not just about taking in X-mount of hours of classes or meeting ABC instructor. It’s about EACH OTHER. We try to help facilitate this at HippoCamp with a conference Facebook group, at least to get people started before they take conversations offline, where the magic really happens.

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Everyone conferences differently. These are just some tips I’ve learned along the way that have helped me make the most of my professional development events, and many of them which I tried to use as a conference organizer to enrich the experience for my own attendees. Feel free to share your own conference tips in the comments!
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Donna Talarico is an independent writer and marketing consultant by day, and she also is founder of Hippocampus Magazine and its books and conference divisions (Books by Hippocampus and HippoCamp.) She loves greasy spoon breakfasts and road trips, lives in Lancaster, Pa., and has work in The Writer, mental_floss, LA Review, and others.

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