How to attend a conference you can’t go to (sort of, at least)
No matter your field of work, there is probably a conference for it. And, unless your employer pays for it, it is going to be expensive and time-consuming to go there. So this might not work for you, or not right now. That doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from a lot of things that are happening there to help you along and join in for at least some of the fun. Some recommendations below (and please add yours).
Conferences are gatherings of the experts and the curious, the supporters and the critics, the ones established and the ones looking for a way in. The latest is shared, connections are made, conversations are had. There is a lot of magic in that mix.
If you could go, you’d probably look to get at least some of these things out of that conference:
- Insights and trends:
- New “toys”, new ways of doing things
- Meet the “gurus” in your field
- Position yourself as someone who knows things and who knows people and who is at least up to speed if not driving the latest conversation (to possibly work towards a more prominent role in your field or at least safeguard your employability)
- Leads for your business
- Reinvigorating your engagement or practice within a field, a set of clients, an industry, a community of practice, a topic ecosystem. Or test if this is for you if you are currently doing something different.
Figure out what you want to get out of it. It might be more than one thing, and they might have different weightings. The clearer you are, the better steps you can take towards it with what you have right now, and then looking to expand it. And most of the steps will boost your own practice and connectedness in the long run, regardless of your immediate, shorter-term goals. It will also be a lot less anonymous and a whole lot more fun.
The internet is your friend (at least for that)
The good news is, the internet is your friend. There are many ways to achieve at least some of your goals. This is a long game and if this is a field you care about, you are likely going to be around for a few more years/decades. It’s OK. Start where you are.
Some conferences have live streams (e.g. the Drucker Forum) which is fabulous, some post videos later on their YouTube channel (e.g. the House of Beautiful Business). Do your research beforehand and make a plan how and where you want to engage (and yes, you can ask them as well how to tune in remotely while you are already interacting on social media).
Here are some ways to join into conversations and “meet” people:
I am most familiar with Twitter (main residence) and LinkedIn (secondary residence), a lot of the general principles work similarly cross platforms though. For the specifics of platform algorithms, what gets traction and why/how varies, you might need to do a bit of research for that if you want to get that granular. Or trust that doing something will be better than overthinking it to then do nothing. Go forth, and fine-tune as you learn and gain more experience (not a bad general operating principle anyway). If you use other platforms and you have found them helpful, please share so we can all learn.
Set yourself up for success. Make sure your profile says something that resonates with the topic. Even if it is “curious about…”. Less lyrical is usually better. Put a picture in so you look like the human you are.
Search for the conference on twitter. Follow the organizers. Find people in the org team and follow them (twitter plus the website should get you started, with a bit of LinkedIn). Remember the #hashtag for the conference. The better-organized ones will tell you, or you are going to have to lurk a bit on the day to see what emerges. Often it is literally the name (Thinkers50 is @thinkers50 is #thinkers50), sometimes it helps to look what happened the year before (#LTSF19 was the Learning Technology Summer Forum 2019, I have a strong hypothesis for next year’s hashtag…). You get the drill. If you really want to dive in, set up notifications in the lead-up.
If the speakers are on twitter, follow them. If they are sharing articles or media they feature in, go have a look. If they are on panel discussions or in interviews, have a listen. Your learning and your developing a sense of that person starts right then and there. Share what resonates and if discussions emerge, join in. As humans, we want our work to matter. No matter the cruising altitude of “thought leadering” the person is at, it is always lovely to hear back. If you connect, be specific, and be personal. It’s you talking, not the synthesis of their top 10 amazon reviews. Don’t be creepy-salesy.
During a lot of conferences, a lot of people will tweet key quotes, or pictures of key slides etc. That is a great way to be in the loop and you can share, interact, learn from that. How much this will happen is a bit arbitrary and will vary across industries (check what happened last year to get a sense what the “scene” is like). Some conferences (like Learning Technologies) have a social media squad to help with that (full disclosure: I covered both events in 2019 and it is a fab experience), and often they publish ahead of time who is in it, whom to follow and how the coverage works etc. Some conferences also have different hashtags for parallel sessions so you can be in several places at the same time by the magic of twitter. Bookmarks are your friend so you can follow up with topics or people later.
If the event is important for you, block time. I have taken vacation days to be able to follow an online stream for a conference and found it useful, sometimes time zones also work in your favor so you can catch at least some of it during non-work time and improvise your own fireside chat from the comfort of your armchair with a nice beverage (why not make it a thing…).
Follow the active people. If you follow a field for a while, you will recognize some “usual suspects”. You will also find that you don’t have to go to a conference necessarily to meet them. There are local meetups, coworking sessions (in the case of the UK L&D community) and lots of other ways to meet people you are curious about. I found people fairly approachable on twitter if you are nice and reasonable (be nice and reasonable, this is a community with real people and the reputation you are building will amplify the good and the bad).
The above also applies to LinkedIn to some extent, people tend to post less often, less immediate, but the longer reflection pieces after the fact also allow to keep the conversation going thereafter, at a different pace and level of depth. This also takes some of the stress from the live interaction. I found it easier to start following people before the conference, and to then connect properly (via connection request) later. People who don’t know you yet are more likely to accept a connection request once they have liked 17 of your insightful tweets and at least vaguely recognize you. Also, you might want to use the desktop version so you can add a brief message referencing the conference and common interest, rather than just clicking the connect button on the phone.
Also search Medium, lots of people blog there around conferences. People also increasingly use Instagram stories, snapchat or other media, if that is your playing field or if you are curious — go and join the fun there. Share what else you have seen work, I’m curious to learn.
Connect with people
This also works ahead of the conference. Look at the speaker lineup. Follow them and their work. Get into the groove of what they are currently thinking and writing about if you aren’t already. For some, twitter is a stream-of-consciousness and it is easy. For others, less so. Some post on LinkedIn or on their own blog etc. Or they get interviewed by mainstream or specialized media. You probably have a full-time job already, but get started with what you have and start getting just a little bit more plugged into the conversation and keep building on that. Follow what interests you, who tickles your thinking and who you resonate with.
Do this with whoever does and says helpful and interesting things and resist the urge to filter by perceived fanciness of job title. Also, don’t just go for the big 3 names that everyone already knows. There are lots of interesting, committed people out there doing fascinating things, making an impact in the field, helping others out. People grow, and people move around. So do you. Networks are a lot less hierarchical and that is the beauty. The whole point of a conference is to expand your range and meet new people so please go do that. Also, (aside from some algorithms), this is not a numbers game. A few deeper connections are likely going to serve you much better, and, if you are an introvert like me, are going to be a lot easier to form.
Depending on the conference, there is a vendor section, a careers fair, or none of these, just some distinguished individuals from the sponsoring organization. Find out who they are and what they do if this speaks to you (e.g. if you are tech- or tool-scanning and it is that kind of event, or if there is a career fair). Get in touch if things resonate but do your homework first, e.g. don’t ask “what sorts of roles do you have” if their website has a well-furnished career section etc… Also, conferences are expensive to run so if you contact a sponsor anyway, why not reference their conference support.
A lot of organizations involved will take the opportunity to publish whitepapers, articles, hold webinars/virtual demo sessions etc. around the conference. As long as you catch when this happens, you can get this without physically being there. The whitepapers etc will of course reflect the view of the organization (“why X is the future and by the way here is my product/service X”) and further their cause, but reading broad and wide and with a critical eye, this will still help you catch the conversation. Over several years this will also help you catch trends, what stays, what is a flash in the pan, etc etc. and who the people are you gel with and whose philosophy you like. All good points to help you finetune your radar as you grow into a field. And we all are going to be in this for years if not decades, so take the long view.
Amplify the good stuff AND make your point
Retweet or like is a first step (that lets everyone you follow see this too). The next step is to add your comments, examples, what this did for you, link it to context, share background (don’t just retweet the slide, add the link to the study/article), ask questions (you don’t have to like it to engage with it constructively). Constructively being a key word here. Rules of what your grannie would recognize as good constructive engagement with other fellow humans fully apply at all times. Particularly when you disagree. Be prepared to back things up (just like you would be in a face to face conversation in that conference hallway). Social media can get very loud, and people who do a certain topic for a living might not be the ones who shout the loudest. I have followed many a constructive exchange on twitter and have learned a lot from the people sharing generously, so let’s keep things that way.
Write down what you said you were going to do, and do it. Sooner rather than later. Few people do, surprisingly enough after all the leadup and high energy during, so this is a differentiator. For you personally in what you will get out of all that content, what you will retain and apply beyond the quick buzz. And for the connections you are starting to build.
Remember when your grannie told you to write a thank you card to that neighbor who helped you out? She was right. She still is — arguably you now have a host of ways at your disposal to express gratitude and postal addresses are surprisingly hard to come by for some people. But pick a channel that works and say thanks where thanks are due or a nice thing. When in doubt, do it.
And remember: All of this is meant to be fun and sociable. Like a real conference. So don’t stress yourself out. Be playful and the lovely person you already are. There are lots out there, and these are good steps to find more through a shared interest.
What else are you doing that is helpful? Tools, topics, ways to connect? Please share!