Every time a highly publicized conference comes up, we are all treated to an unending deluge of articles full of conference advice. This is my contribution to your deluge. You’re welcome.
See, here’s the thing. If you read these articles in any level of detail, you get the impressions that the only things anyone cares about are shoes and business cards.
Call me an idealist, but I like to think there is more to life than shoes and business cards. So here is my (slightly unconventional) take.
Normal conference advice: “Be conversational.”
A different take: Have questions. AND answers.
I have seen a lot of advice saying that a great way to break the ice with a new person is to ask a question. Like:
- “Is this your first time here?”
- “What did you think of [speaker]?”
- “Are you liking the conference so far?”
- “Where are you from?”
Fair enough. But here’s the part that gets missed. When someone gets asked a question, what happens next? They ask it right back.
This means you don’t have to just keep a list of questions handy. You have to keep a list of answers to the same questions.
Have something more than two words long to say in response to any of the questions you ask. You will get asked back, and it is CRAZY awkward to reciprocate and have conversation grind to a standstill. It doesn’t take much to give a decent answer.
- “Yeah, it’s my first time… but I’ve been thinking about it forever.”
- “I thought he was great… Much funnier than I expected.”
- “I love it… I had no idea I’d have so much fun.”
- “I’m from Tuscon… Been there all my life so it’s nice to see the East coast.”
In these examples, everything after the ellipses gives the person you’re talking to something to build on. Most beginners don’t expect the question, so they leave their response at the first clause, and the conversation drops.
So, yes. Be social. But do both parts – the asking and the answering.
Normal conference advice: “Wear comfortable clothes.”
A different take: Comfortable has many definitions.
It makes sense, right? Wear loose-fitting clothes. Wear comfortable shoes. Take your own personal massage therapist with you to every conference session. (I just put that one in to make sure you were paying attention.) The conference mandate appears to be “Above all else, be comfortable.”
And I get that. I do. I just know that comfortable means different things to different people.
Some people define comfort as exclusively physical. Others include mental and psychological. Some people feel most comfortable looking their very, very best, and yes, that might include stilettos.
Wear what will make you the very best version of yourself. If that means flats and pants with elastic waists so you’re comfy enough to get social and be yourself, awesome. Go for it. Rock on.
But if that’s not you, don’t do it. Wear stilettos and Spanx and false eyelashes and fake boobs if that’s where your spirit takes you. Let your feet hurt. Go to the drugstore and buy some Fast Flats for backup and get on with being your version of comfortable.
(Also, if your feet hurt at the end of a night, fill your ice bucket or recycling bin with ginger ale and soak your feet in it. I got that tip from my boss when I was a cocktail waitress. The tips just don’t stop around here.)
Normal conference advice: “Get lots of rest.”
A different take: There are lots of ways to get energy.
Yes, a nap is an option. Going back to your hotel early is an option. And if you can find a way to communicate that you’re tired and leaving without sounding like my pious grandma, by all means.
The problem with the nap or early departure is that it is often communicated in the whiniest, most woe-is-me, moralistic tone. It’s like the person talking feels the need to defend their fatigue. Like they can’t just say, “Hey, there. I’m going for a nap. See you later?” They have to broadcast to the whole ecosystem how very, very, very tired they are.
If you’re leaving because you’re tired, please find a positive way to say it, or you’re going to sound like a nun.
But if you think you can push through it, I recommend a single vodka and Red Bull, well mixed, in a highball glass.
(No more than two of these for beginners or you’ll end up in bed with someone and there will be a scandal.)
Normal conference advice: “Bring lots of business cards.”
A different take: A pen works, too.
I’m going to say it.
In eight years of these things, I have never been asked for a business card.
Maybe I’m weird. Maybe people meet me and think, “God, that woman is insufferable. I will never speak to her again.” Maybe I’m the exception.
And perhaps, yes, you should have business cards, and perhaps they should be swell.
I’m just saying… you won’t die if you don’t have them. I mean, I’m not dead, right? I’m very much alive. Solvent, even!
Freak out about your business cards if it gives you something to do. Otherwise, pens work. Smartphones work pretty well, too.
Normal conference advice: “Have a goal for the conference.”
A different take: Goals are attachments. Attachments are bad for your pancreas.
I get VERY nervous when people have a goal for a conference. Goals are attachments, and attachments raise your cortisol, and high cortisol makes you fat and angry.
You do not know what your conference is going to be like until you get there. The climate is different at every event, even at the same event one year later.
It is comforting, in preparation for a conference or event, to think of how you’re going to play it. You’re going to meet these six people. You’re going to network your fake boobs off. You’re going to make a deal.
It’s nice to think about these things. It feels like, with a goal, you can bring some order to the chaos of existence.
Unfortunately, conferences like these bring the chaos of existence to a whole new level. These things are bedlam. They’re boring for nine straight hours and then ten unexpectedly awesome things happen at once. The thing you thought would be amazing was awful, so you bail, and wind up meeting your hero in a tequila bar. You were going to do this but the line was too long and you have to do something else instead. (I recommend shopping, by the way.)
I recommend not having a goal. Go and see what happens.
Normal conference advice: “Plan! Plan! Plan plan planplanPLAN!!!”
A different take: Find a keener.
Yes, read the agenda. Yes, have a basic idea of what’s happening. But you’re not studying for the LSAT here. It’s just a conference.
There’s always somebody within 15 feet of you who knows what’s going on. Find that person and say, “You look like you know what’s going on. Will you help me?”
This results in one of three things. One, they will be flattered and help you. Two, they can’t help, but they’ll direct you to somebody who can. Three, they are just as ill-prepared as you are and find your request hilarious, in which case you have met someone new and already broken the ice.
Now you’re not one lonely idiot anymore – you’re a team.
Planning is good. Playing damsel in distress is also good. If you can do the latter, you don’t have to do so much of the former.
Normal conference advice: “Bring an extra suitcase for swag.”
A different take: Don’t pack so damn much.
What swag are these people getting? Perhaps these people are going to the secret awesome swag conferences? Because the only piece of swag I have ever taken home with me was a phone sock from Adobe at SXSW 2009. I gave it to Jack to put his Thomas trains in.
If you think you might be at Magic Dreamy Swag Con 2016, sure, leave some space. This can best be accomplished by not packing so damn much. Go read a minimalism blog or something. But a whole suitcase? You realize you’re going to have to dust this stuff when you get home, right?
(I wonder what the swag is like at minimalism conferences.)
A few random extra bits:
They say they will feed you. They may or may not be telling the truth. Also, food lines are long. Like, LONG. I would rather spend my 15 minute breaks networking. Besides, waiting 11 minutes in a line for a yogurt makes me feel like I’m in kindergarten. Bring snacks. You can always throw the snacks out if the food provided turns out to be awesome and/or proximal.
The air will be dry and the lights will be hot. This means you’re going to be wiping your eyes, sweating, or both. If you will be wearing makeup, go with waterproof or water resistant eyeliner and mascara. If you’re not normally a makeup wearer but will be for the event, you might want to go to a Sephora or similar and ask for help. Don’t say, “I need eyeliner.” Say, “I’m going to be wiping my eyes, sweating or both.”
Try not to spend your whole time on your phone. It’s a vicious cycle. You’re lonely and bored and think you look stupid, so you pull out your phone to look busy and / or ease the pain. Then you look busy, so nobody can make eye contact or strike up a conversation. Then you’re lonely and bored and think you look stupid. Try to keep it to a minimum.
But if you’re really lonely and bored, by all means, pull out your phone. Don’t put yourself in pain because your mother and I told you to be social. This isn’t cotillion. You paid to be here. If you’re doing that face flushed, feeling embarrassed, missing your kids and your dog thing? Facebook would be a good choice here. (And you thought I’d never say anything nice about Facebook.)
Stop scanning. This is the important part. Are you ready?
You will have lots of chances for this.
At the end of one of these articles, the writer always says something really profound like, “Above all else, remember to have fun.”
I always thought that was really odd – remember to have fun? How pat is that? Are there people who are not having fun and then facepalm themselves? Like, “Oh, crap! I should have some fun! Silly me.”
Do these people have a fun button for when they’re overwhelmed, or homesick, or they just embarrassed themselves, or they kind of thought everybody would be older, or younger, and they’re hungry, and they think they’re really boring and, yes, their feet hurt?
Where is this easy, fun switch they speak of? Do they give these buttons to people who are not INFJs?
I would love living in a world in which we remembered to have fun the same way we remember to check-in online. I would love it if it was that easy for everybody, but it’s not. I don’t love that the cool kids brigade implies that there’s something a little bit wrong with you if you’re not shining with joy every moment.
I hope you have fun.
But for the moments you’re not having fun, I leave you with this:
Life is long. You get to do this again. You get to come back with better shoes, or better business cards, or a better website. You can read books on how to be more social. You can arrange to get to know some people in advance next time.
You will leave this event smarter, and savvier. You will see a little bit more of the world. You will have, or have the ability to create, new connections that might turn into wonderful things. You will learn so much, even if the only person you get to know better is yourself.
If you have the time of your life and you get to the end of your conference and you’re sad that it’s over? Don’t worry – you get to do it again.
And if maybe it’s not perfect, and maybe you’re kind of bummed, and maybe you don’t have the time of your life? Don’t worry – you get to do it again.
And come find me. We’ll drink vodka and Red Bull together.