How to Survive & Thrive at Conferences
In recent years, I’ve had the pleasure of attending a variety of both state and national conferences, including several trips to FETC and a trip to ISTE in Atlanta last year. With these conferences under my belt, I’ve learned a few strategies for managing large conferences. Giant conferences like ISTE can easily be overwhelming to both newbies and conference veterans alike. With some good planning and preparation though, large conferences can be amazing, life changing experiences. Here’s some of the strategies I’ve learned.
1. Save your back and organize your stuff
I spent a few conferences trying to be all cute and stylish with a fancy messenger bag and/or shoulder bag. And by the end of the day, my shoulders and back were dying. So I’ve come to embrace the backpack as my mode of carrying stuff at conferences. Yes, it does make you look a little like a college student. But this is a professional conference, not a fashion show, and you can still get some beautiful backpacks that don’t wreck your look. I bought my favorite backpack right before FETC 2015, and it was a lifesaver for me. It’s technically a men’s backpack, but Lululemon has fabulous prints, and it allows me to be super organized. There’s a place for my water bottle, my business cards, my wallet, my laptop, my glasses. And my back doesn’t kill me by the end of the day.
I also highly recommend Timbuk2’s laptop backpacks – they have lots of great styles and many of them are TSA friendly too.
And while we’re on the subject of comfort, invest in a pair of comfortable, professional-ish looking shoes. Now is not the time for three inch heels or tight dress shoes. And pack some Moleskin for the inevitable blisters.
2. Stay hydrated and fueled
I can’t emphasize this one enough. You want your body and your brain running at full capacity so you can soak up all the awesome new ideas you’ll get at your conference. Letting yourself get dehydrated and not eating enough food is setting yourself up for a hangry meltdown. Don’t be like me and forget to eat your breakfast, then scavenge at a vendor event and get dirty looks for packing extra apples in your backpack.
Caffeine is good for keeping you alert, but be careful not to overdo it. I usually tend to buy my coffee in to-go cups at local coffees shops when I’m at conferences, but if you like to bring a travel mug, I highly recommend this Contigo one – it’s the only one I’ve found that can be completely spill-proof.
I’m a big fan of reusable water bottles, so I always have my Swell bottle on me. They keep drinks cold, don’t sweat all over your stuff, and they’re pretty stylish. But you can always buy a plastic bottled water and refill it too. The main thing is to make sure you’re drinking enough water.
Try to pack some snacks with you everyday in case you have to delay a meal. I usually keep a couple of apples and Epic bars in my bag for when I need them. And make sure to block off time to eat lunch everyday. Fifteen minutes in between sessions doesn’t count as enough time for lunch – the lines will be way too long and you’ll be rushing.
3. Don’t overschedule yourself
There’s SO MUCH AWESOME going on at these conferences, it’s impossible to see everything you want to see. You cannot physically attend every session, see each vendor in the vendor hall, and participate in every event. Most conferences have apps or website dashboards that let you favorite sessions – start by favoriting everything that you’re interested in, and then make a separate schedule somewhere else (like in Evernote) where you figure out what your absolute priorities are, ie. what you’ll actually go to. You can still have your favorites as a back up if one session doesn’t work out. As you block out your time, be sure to leave some time to eat, visit the vendor hall, socialize, etc. And learn to be okay with not seeing everything – you will burn out quickly if you try to do it all. Plus, you want to give yourself some flexibility to be spontaneous 🙂
4. Connect with your tribe
Socializing is the new networking. Make sure you allow for plenty of time to meet people. Large conferences are a great time to meet your Twitter friends and PLN face-to-face. There’s often social events focused on particular groups (like the ISTE Librarian’s Network social) and these can be tons of fun. It’s also great to just hang out in the blogger’s cafe or other social lounges and strike up conversations. Some of my best conference experiences have been getting to know other awesome educators.
Make sure you have some awesome business cards to give to people so that they know how to get in touch with you. I was inspired by Gwyneth Jone’s awesome tutorial to make my own mini Moo cards and I love them.
(Disclaimer: I get a discount on my next purchase if you use this link)
5. Find what learning style works better for you and stick with it
Some people thrive on big keynote talks. Some love to get their hands dirty in intense, hands-on workshops. Some love to browse the poster sessions and glean a ton of new ideas in one fell swoop. Find what learning style works best for you and stick with it. Personally, I find the big keynotes too much of a hassle to get into, and poster sessions overstimulating (although I’m giving one this year, so we’ll see how that goes). I tend to like more focused hands-on sessions and lectures that focus on one or two new ideas or skills.
6. Make time for downtime
I’m an introvert by nature, and by a certain point in the day at large conferences, I feel the need to get away from things for a bit. Find a quiet corner (preferably with an outlet), and take some time to chill and reflect. You’re putting all sorts of information and stimulus into your brain at these conferences – allow yourself time to process everything that you’re learning and take a breath. You’ll be glad that you did. Sometimes I like to put my devices away while they charge, break out a paper notebook, and jot down what I’ve been learning and thinking about throughout the day. A device break can be good for you.
7. Stay charged
One of the worst things ever is having your device die in the middle of a conference and suddenly being unable to take selfies with your EduHeroes, type up notes on a session, or jam out some tunes. Okay, it’s not the worst thing ever, but it still sucks to have your phone die. Carry a portable battery charger with you and all the cables you’ll need. I love my Jackery Giant+ as it can charge my phone multiple times, charge two devices at once (great way to make friends) and it fits easily into any backpack or purse. I also bring a travel surge protector that I use to charge my devices in my room overnight, as there’s never enough outlets. While we’re on the subject of cables, I’m a big fan of Cocoon Grid-It Organizers for keeping track of all my cables, dongles, chargers, etc. They have lots of sizes and fit easily into most bags.
PS. If you’re a presenter, I highly recommend this Keyspan Presentation Remote. It makes you look much more polished than clicking through your slides.
Vendor halls can be huge, so make sure you have a plan
8. Have a vendor hall strategy
The vendor halls at these types of conferences are massive – you could easily spend the entire conference just talking to vendors and visiting their sessions. Make sure you have a plan for how you want to tackle the vendor hall. I personally tend to be pretty ruthless about my vendor time. I plan out who I want to see and I take a map of the vendor hall to plan which rows I’ll visit each day. I block out specific blocks of time to visit. If I’m not interested in what the vendor has to offer, I politely but firmly decline any offers of literature. I do enter some giveaways, but I don’t spend a lot of time on them, as it takes away from time when I could be having valuable conversations with vendors I want to meet. One of the best parts of the vendor hall is seeing cool products in person, so I spend a lot of time at the vendors that I am interested in. If I get a business card from someone, I jot a quick note on it to remind me why I took it. If I do end up with literature for a vendor that I’m not interested in, I discard it. I only take swag if it’s something I will actually use.
Bear in mind, this is just how I handle the vendor hall. Everyone has a different way of exploring the vendor hall and that’s fine. Just make sure that you have a plan.
9. Share it out
Our professional learning should be social. Not everyone can make it to every conference – by sharing what you learn, you empower others in their professional learning. I’ve participated in many conferences vicariously through the tweets of others. I’ll often live-tweet while I’m in a session and copy and paste my tweets into Evernote, which also lets you share your notes with others. It’s also great to Instagram, Vine and blog about your experiences. Don’t keep all the great things you’re learning to yourself. And make sure that you use the correct hashtag (the conference will usually tweet it out) so that others can find your posts.
10. Have a post-conference plan
Once the conference is over, take a deep breath and relax. But not for too long. You don’t want to lose all the awesome things you just experienced. Take some time to process everything. Organize your vendor literature. Follow up with people you met (you took notes on their business cards right?). Read back through your notes. Develop an action plan – find a few specific goals that you’re going to tackle as soon as you get back to school. Bonus points if you blog about your action plan so that others can hold you accountable.
What are your favorite tips and tricks for tackling large conferences?
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