5 Ways to Rock Your First Professional Conference

first conference

5 Ways to Rock Your First Professional Conference

It was the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention. Orlando, FL. November 2010.

I’d bought an über professional dress, rechecked my PowerPoint slides (which I also had in hand as overhead transparencies, should the computer fail), ogled at the writers and teachers whose books I’d read… and had nary a moment to appreciate the opportunity in front of me. I had no clue what I was getting myself into when I agreed to be part of my education professor’s panel of undergraduate writing research. And what a way to start my career, going straight to the top and presenting at NCTE!

That was five years ago.

In the past year or so, I’ve attended the Pennsylvania Educational Technology Expo and Conference (PETE&C), the NCTE convention again, the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, and the International Society for Technology in Education conference and expo (ISTE), from which I just returned last week. I also presented at Penn TESOL East’s Spring Fling conference and am excited to present at the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts annual conference (PCTELA) in October.

So I’ve learned a bit about going to conferences since my first foray in Florida. However, I’m still early enough in my career that it’s not old hat quite yet. Most of the following relates to big conferences and first-timers, but lots of it can apply to any conference and any level of experience.

Here are five things I wish I’d known before attending my first professional conference.

1. Plan Ahead & Scope Things Out

Especially at a big national conference, it’s imperative to spend some time planning ahead. This includes planning which sessions you’ll attend, trying to make a bit of sense of the conference map, and finding places you’d like to eat. This process could take well over an hour, but it’s time well spent.

If there’s a conference app, download it! They’re so incredibly useful, letting you create a personal schedule, access session handouts, find nearby food, etc.

For planning sessions, I actually use the app or sticky notes to mark which sessions I’m interested in, but then I make a paper schedule for myself. And I color code it. Yes, I’m a nerd. But having a paper schedule is more handy for me than pulling up the app on my device each time I’m trying to figure out where I’m going in the middle of a crowd. Do what works for you though. Sometimes I’ll leave two choices for a single session and just decide later if I can’t pick during planning.

Be sure to pay attention to which type of session it is: concurrent sessions are the “meat” of a conference, where there’s different things happening at once; keynotes are large and may or may not be of interest depending on the quality of keynote speaker; poster sessions are set up like science fairs where you can meander and talk to different presenters individually.

Also spend time understanding the conference map, especially how to find registration and your first session. Of course, there will likely be signs or people directing you on arrival, but if it’s a huge conference, it can be stressful to show up blind and in a time crunch. For example, I recently returned from ISTE, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. The PA Convention Center is truly massive, covering 3+ city blocks, and it’s potentially tricky to navigate upon first arrival.

Finally, it’s worth planning your food a little bit. Part of the fun of conferences is getting to travel, so take advantage of it! Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path, too. Reading Terminal Market is right across the street from the PA Convention Center, and the place was crawling with ISTE attendees at all times. (That didn’t stop us from going for breakfast, though, when the crowd wasn’t quite so bad. See the Beiler’s pic below… waiting in that line was worth it!) However, going a block in the other direction from the main convention center entrance provided a welcome escape from the melee. And our lunch at Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House in Chinatown was phenomenal. Hand-drawn noodles, scallion pancakes, and milk tea with bubbles… for $12? Can’t beat it.

Two last words on planning: 1) Make your mother proud and pack water and snacks to carry with you. You’re welcome. 2) Depending on your time, travel style, and energy, planning some excursions outside the conference might be a good idea as well. Carpe diem!

Beiler's stand at Reading Terminal Market

The Beiler’s Bakery stand at Reading Terminal Market at 8am. You wouldn’t want to miss this, right?

2. Network. Or Don’t.

Networking opportunities at conferences can be valuable. I’ve connected with people whose books I read or who I followed on Twitter, made some good writing friends, and re-connected with people I haven’t seen in a while or don’t get the chance to interact with regularly in the office. I’ll be the first to say I hate networking, though. But here are some simple ideas to help.

  1. Have business cards ready… tucking some in the back of your conference badge is convenient.
  2. Most conferences have informal networking sessions or social events on the schedule. Check them out! Everyone is there to meet new people; it’s not like a cliquey high school cafeteria, promise.
  3. Networking doesn’t necessarily have to mean shaking hands either. Use conference or session hashtags on social media, and follow or engage with other people using the hashtag that seem interesting to you.
  4. If you’re an introvert (like me!), don’t be afraid to say heck with it in terms of networking. If you can’t be enthusiastic and genuine about meeting people, you aren’t going to make a good impression, and you’ll be wasting your time. Take a break, skip a session to go for a walk, or do whatever else you have to do to recharge and enjoy yourself. Big conferences often have quiet spaces set aside for exactly this purpose!
  5. Listen to someone with more expertise than me. There are lots of networking articles online, but here’s a concise and useful article I like on how to Get the Most from a Conference: 10 Networking Tips.
Oculus Rift at ISTE

Me trying out the Oculus Rift virtual reality system in the expo hall at ISTE 2015. And they took this picture and tweeted at me! “Networking” sometimes means playing video games. Image Source

3. Beware the Expo Hall

If a conference has an expo hall, you’ve got a whole ‘nother set of things to deal with. The expo hall is an awesome way to see the newest products in your field, and they can also be a source of free food and swag and merch and networking. That said, they can suck up a lot of time depending on your purposes. Here’s a list of commandments for braving the expo hall.

  • Thou shalt NOT arrive too late or too early. The line on opening day of the expo hall can be like taking part in the Hunger Games. If this sounds appealing to you, go for it. Plan some time in the expo hall, but limit your time too.
  • Thou shalt NOT try to see everything. Especially at big conferences, the sheer amount of stuff is mind-boggling. Take a look at the list of vendors beforehand (remember your planning?) and narrow it down. Is there something you heard about and have been dying to see in action? Is there something you currently have but have struggled to implement? Consider going to some of the vendors’ scheduled promotional / educational sessions, if given.
  • Thou shalt NOT take all the marketing materials ever. C’mon, save some trees. Only take stuff you’re actually interested in. Otherwise, you’ll be filing through papers in a few days wondering what it was you saw in this product, realizing your school/office will never pay for it, and cursing whoever saddled you with another ballpoint pen. (Oh wait, that was you.) And on that note…
  • Thou shalt NOT take more free stuff than you can carry. Funny story: NCTE is known for giving out free /cheap books. Give teachers free anything and the claws come out. Anyway, free books are heavenly, don’t get me wrong, but any book, free or not, is heavy. Getting on a Disney airport shuttle bus as a teacher frantically tries to rearrange her suitcases so as not to pay the overweight fee for all those free books? Priceless.
ISTE 2015 Google Booth

The glorious Google Education booth in the ISTE 2015 expo hall.

4. Learn Hard

That means showing up with some type of note-taking device. Don’t look like an amateur! Get that notebook/tablet/laptop/whatever out and ready! (You packed your chargers, right?) Learn from the best of the best, and always be thinking: ok, what can I do with this when I go back home?

With that in mind, consider too what will be most useful. This ties back again to planning your sessions. I used to think I wanted to learn a broad variety of things at a conference, but I’ve since changed my strategy. At the recent ISTE conference, I went to several sessions each on teaching the research process and gamification. I got more out of this focused schedule than if I learned topics running the gamut from implementing 1:1 initiatives to assessing underwater basket weaving… while all that could be interesting, they don’t apply to what I do day-to-day.

Finally, at the end of each day, or a few days after it’s all over, I recommend looking over your notes and picking out the most important take-aways that’ll stick with you. Sifting through everything to engage in that process was my main purpose in writing the three posts for the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. Blogging during or after the conference is a great way to “digest” everything while also networking on social media.

5. Have Fun!

Don’t forget to enjoy! Attending a conference is an opportunity to learn and share the things you’re passionate about, recharge your professional batteries, and get away from the sometimes-humdrum daily routine. Take full advantage of the opportunity!

Do you have other tips for first-time conference attendees? Leave a comment below!

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