Why webfolk should attend conferences

Today, An Event Apart came to my turf, the Twin Cities. Last year, I attended An Event Apart Minneapolis: it rocked. Mind-blowing sessions, whip-smart attendees and some of the most accomplished speakers in the industry. This year, due to a number of reasons, An Event Apart Minneapolis was an event from which I am apart.

I tuned into A Feed Apart, which collects tweets using the #aea hashtag used at the event. There you can find a ton of great little nuggets to read, encapsulating some of the most potent ideas expressed at An Event Apart.

Reading these tweets and attending An Event Apart are not the same thing.

Last year, I live-tweeted An Event Apart Minneapolis. Quite frankly, I probably tweeted too much. I turned those tweets into a number of blog posts about the sessions.

Since then, I have found that live-blogging provides a far more effective way to document my experience at a conference. Perhaps it does not have the same immediacy as live-tweeting, but I strain my brain far less trying to figure out how to squeeze a speaker’s brilliant thought into less than 140 characters. I found live-blogging worked best by marking up my notes as HTML in Code View of Dreamweaver. Doing so, it’s possible to post a quick blog post with the notes immediately after the session.

Luke W not only can teach web designers do the dance moves to Thriller and present amazing insights on the mobile web, he also writes up fantastic summaries of sessions he attends. The treasures he shares gleam, a glimpse at the wonders experienced in the sessions.

And yet, no matter how well a blog post summarizes a session, reading a blog post and attending An Event Apart are not the same thing.

Mike Rohde shares his sketchnotes, which illustrate not only the words but some of the energy and emotion conveyed in An Event Apart sessions.

Yet even so, sketchnotes and attending An Event Apart are not the same thing.

Some conferences share videostreaming, either live or after the fact, of conference sessions. Even if available, session videostreams and attending An Event Apart would not be the same thing.

Why attend a conference?

In my summary post on last year’s An Event Apart Minneapolis, I wrote:

When you think about attending such a conference, you might ask yourself, why do I need to be there in person? Couldn’t I just read somebody’s notes afterwards? Or might I not get the same by reading some of the speaker’s blog posts or a book he or she has written?

A really good session, in my opinion, is not about the how, it’s about the why. Not that some of the sessions didn’t go into some nuts-and-bolts, but these sessisions were not hands-on, here’s how you do this each and every step of the way sort of things. Blogs and books are great for that.

No, a really good session, through arguments and examples, stories and slides, humor and deep thoughts, compels you to try something new. A great session exposes youto something you haven’t done before and inspires you to take action, change the way you do things.

While I might have run across information about these topics before, now I feel the urgency in putting these techniques in the top tray of my toolbox, where I will use them more frequently.

That describes one aspect of why you should attend a conference.

Shifting ground

Certainly, you should leave a web conference with new ideas, new techniques to try, and more importantly, a burning passion to try something, hopefully many things, that are new.

Technology changes many industries. Working with the web, however, often feels like sprinting across quicksand. Everything you knew to be true gets sucked out from under your feet every few years. Failing to keep up with changes to the way the web works is not just a bummer, it is actively harmful to the web.

Ten years, ago, some designers could have been at the top of their game, yet if they still use the same techniques as they did ten years ago, the solutions they deliver will not just be outdated. Creating web layouts with tables and shims today means creating slower websites that almost assuredly do not work well for users who are mobile or who have disabilities.

Could such designers keep up simply by reading blog posts and tweets? Maybe.

Time and space

I don’t know about you, but as the web grows, I find myself having more and more to accomplish, yet I still have not yet been cloned. So I need to be more efficient more knowledgable to accomplish more and more each year. I do my best to keep up, primarily with Twitter. Yet every day I Favorite articles on Twitter that I know I will never have a chance to read, excellent articles conveying information that I just do not have time to scan, analyze and absorb.

Attending a conference gives you a concentrated time to focus on learning, in a space geared solely towards gleaning knowledge without a dozen web updates and tasks popping up around you.

All too often, of course, we are called upon to still make those updates for our organizations even while at conferences. If you can avoid this, you will probably get more benefit from the conference, though we all do what we must.

The company we keep

One of the things that differentiates a conference from reading a blog post: you meet a lot of fellow web folk at conferences.

I am my organization’s sole web and graphic designer. Having colleagues you can turn to when you have a question or want to share an exciting discovery is essential. I am thankful to be a member and serve on the board of directors for the National Association of Government Webmasters, as we have an active listserv that allows me to commiserate, share information with and get advice from about 800 other local government webmasters on a daily basis. That is essential.

Yet even though it lasts for only a week, I looking forward each year to the NAGW conference, as it allows me to meet those great folk with whom I trade emails, and that is incredibly valuable. We trade stories, share the ideas we’ve had, the new things we’re trying and the challenges we have all experienced: we are not alone.

The people you meet at conferences, and the relationships you develop, will keep your spirit going long after the conference ends. That may sound like a luxury, not a necessity, but connecting with others who share the same trials and tribulations as you do helps combat burnout. If attending a conference keeps you engaged in your work, that alone may be worth the price of admission.

At any conference, the people who sit at your lunch table, the people you chat with at the snack table, the people you joke with at the bar could become people who cheer you up when you are stuck on a tough problem, and more importantly, they might be able to share a nugget of knowledge that will save the day. None of us can know everything, but if we connect with others who are knowledgeable, the effective knowledge at our fingertips is multiplied exponentially.

Meeting your heroes

Part of the appeal of going to An Event Apart, or many other conferences, is a chance to see the speakers in person and maybe even meet them. You’ve read their books, followed their tweets, and the ideas they have shared have inspired you and changed the way you work.

The quality of the speakers make a conference what it is. Few conferences have a lineup like An Event Apart, where every speaker is a recognized expert who know how to deliver a knockout presentation. What makes An Event Apart particularly special is that there is only one track to attend: you don’t need to worry about making a choice about which session you will have to miss, and each is likely to be a knockout.

The NAGW conference has multiple tracks: the upside of that is the ability to customize what you will learn. In recent years, NAGW has had some stellar speakers as well. Eric Meyer keynoted two years ago. Last year, Molly Holzschlag and Jared Spool graced the stage. This year, Molly is back along with Jeffrey Zeldman and Kristina Halvorson. I always look forward to the keynotes and sessions from Joe Rotella, who may not be as well known, but who is still an amazing speaker that has motivated me to try out a ton of new usability and redesign techniques as a web professional. A more specialized conference like NAGW also can offer topics tightly tailored to the audience, with sessions specifically geared towards a particlar corner of the industry, like local government webmasters.

Speakers are so important to the success of a conference that I have found that at conferences with multiple tracks, you are almost always best off picking the session with the better speaker rather than the topic in which you have a greater interest.

Why? That returns to my earlier point, that a conference session is not great because of the level of detail in which a topic is covered, the exactness of the examples or the completeness of the footnotes.

You attend a conference because you leave a different person than when you arrived, and that only happens because you connect with the ideas presented in a way that inspires you.

Making the most of a conference

Plan to arrive early. You never know what might go wrong along the way.

Sit at a table with others at breakfast. Introduce yourself. Ask questions of others. If you tweet, trade Twitter handles, so you can stay in touch.

Go to your session a bit early. Find a spot with an electrical outlet if you have your laptop with you (and almost everybody does).

Find a way to take notes that makes sense you. If paper works for you, great! Mind mapping or sketchnotes may work better than straight notes for some people. I like writing up blog posts.

Tweeting is not always the best method of note-taking, particularly because Twitter is terrible at searching for tweets more than a few hours old. When you do share on Twitter, try to share thoughts that will make sense out of the context of the presentation and that your followers with thus find useful.

Don’t let taking notes get in the way of your experiencing the presentation. If you spend the whole time copying down the words in dense presentation slides, you will almost assuredly miss the gist of the presentation, and you will never get that moment back. If you take no notes, on the other hand, then a week later, you may have a hard time remembering what you learned.

Finding the right balance is a challenge. I am not sure I have quite found it yet. In theory, writing down the ideas you find most compelling seems like a good idea, but in the thick of things, it often becomes difficult to distinguish a niggling detail from a crucial point.

During breaks and at meals, meet more people. If you connect particularly well with a few people, connect with them again throughout the conference. No stalking, of course.

Vendors often attend conferences. By all means, seek out those who might add value to your organization. Their presence helps keep the cost of your attendance financially reasonable.

If you have a chance to chat with one of your web heroes or people you have connected with online, fun! You might just discover that your heroes are real people, who have become heroes by being willing to share the things they have learned. You can share the things you learn online too, and you might become a hero to somebody else someday.

Balance is key. I believe socializing and sessions both have importance. However, if you stay out far too late and imbibe too much, you might not get as much out of the sessions the next day. So have a good time, meet some wonderful people and keep yourself in a state good for learning.

Again, make sure you get enough sleep. You may find it useful to have some to time unwind in your room at the end of the night. Maybe you want to reflect on the things you have learned, or maybe you need a break from all that learning to just chill for a bit.

One hotel room tip: many rooms only have hard-wired connections. Wi-fi routers are often cheap and portable. Bring one along, and you can use your laptop wherever you like in the room.

If you must do work while at a conference, try if possible to do so at night or in the morning: it will disrupt your conference participation less. If you are asked to do so much work at a conference that it interferes with you listening to sessions or connecting with other attendees, it destroys some of the value you get from the cost and time of attending.

When the conference is done, spend some time thinking about how you can put this knowledge to good use. Are there projects where you might be able to use a particular technique? What were the most important things you learned, and why? Find a way to present some of this information to your co-workers who might care. Remember, they may not find all the technical details important: tell a story of why this conference mattered not only to you, but also to your organization. That not only ensures that your organization gets a good bang for the buck by having you attend, it also helps you to be able to attend more conferences in the future.

This is just my take

You may have a different way of attending a conference, or a different reason to attend a conference. Great! Feel free to share in the comments. This is just my take from my experience, and I could surely learn from your experiences. After all, that is why we attend conferences: to learn from each other so that we can do something different, that we would not have done before.

If you haven’t already, attend a conference. An Event Apart and NAGW both get my highest marks.

Yes, times are tight. With budgets as they are, education and particularly conferences are often the first line item to go. I believe this is a mistake. Organizations go through a great deal of trouble to find talented people to carry out the essential web design tasks for their organization to thrive. Investing in a talented person, through seminars and conferences, means that person not only retains that talent, but increases that talent over time. Failing to do so can mean stagnation, boredom and having to start the process all over again.

Who wants the trouble of hiring a new person when you can hire your current talent for bigger and better things by investing in something as relatively inexpensive as a conference?