Some tips for conferences
My first tech conference was PyCon UK, back in September 2016. Since then, I’ve been to a dozen or so tech conferences – most recently ACCU 2019 – and I’m enjoying them more now than when I started. This post is a list of some of the things I’ve learnt that make conferences more enjoyable.
The short version: when to go to sessions and when to have conversations, pace yourself for socialising, and pack carefully.
Distinguish between “must see” and “nice to see” sessions
When I was first going to conferences, I tried to go to a talk or workshop in every slot. That’s fine, but sessions aren’t the only important thing at a conference – the conversations between sessions are important too! I had several conversations that I cut off to go to a session where, in hindsight, I might have better off skipping the session and continuing the conversation. Most conferences video their sessions, so I could have caught up later.
These days, I split sessions into “must see” and “nice to see”. It helps me decide if I really want to end a conversation and go to a session, or if I’d rather stay and chat.
Know how to end a conversation respectfully
Conversations are important, but sometimes they aren’t going anywhere. That’s okay too!
When I think I’ve hit a dead end, I say something like “It was lovely to chat to you, and now I’m going to talk to some other people”, and offer a handshake. It’s polite, respectful, and nobody has ever been upset when I say that. It leaves a good final impression.
Don’t flub it with a feeble excuse about going to the toilet or fetching a drink, then not coming back. You’re leaving the conversation, so own it.
Follow the Pac-Man rule
The Pac-Man rule is an idea from Eric Holscher, which at its core is this: When standing as a group of people, always leave room for 1 person to join your group.
That physical gap helps people feel like they can join the group. It’s a nice way to help newcomers feel included, and for you to meet new people. For more explanation, I recommend Eric’s original blog post.
When somebody joins the conversation, give them some context
This is a tip I got from Samathy Barratt at ACCU.
When somebody joins your conversation, give them some quick context so they know what you were just talking about. It doesn’t have to be much; just a sentence or two will do. For example, “We’re talking about exception handling in C++.” It implicitly welcomes them to the conversation, and means they can take part more quickly – they don’t have to try to guess the context.
Expect to crash after (or during) the conference
Conferences can be very intense – you’re meeting lots of people, learning new information, having conversations – and that can be tiring.
During a conference, I always put aside time to rest, away from the bustle of the conference. Whether that’s in the quiet room, a nearby green space, or just in the corridor while everyone else is in a session, it helps me recharge and be enjoy the next part of the conference.
After the conference ends, I usually have an emotional crash. I’ve spent a few days meeting people and spending time with friends I don’t usually see, and coming down from that is hard. I always plan a quiet day at home (and some annual leave at work) after a long trip.
Plan to visit the location beforehand, not after
For the last two years I’ve stayed in Cardiff for a few days after PyCon UK ends. I wanted to rest and see a bit of the city, but it was tinged with melancholy. It was weird to wake up, walk through Cardiff, and there was nobody from the conference. All my friends had gone home; it was just me left.
Next time I’ll try to visit before the conference starts, and go home at the same time as everyone else.
Stuff to pack
I have a fairly long checklist of things to pack for away-from-home travel. These are a few items that I find especially useful for conferences:
An external phone battery. Your phone will probably get lots of use during the day, and you don’t want it running out during the evening. (Particularly if you’re making dinner plans.) I carry a lipstick-sized Anker battery to keep my phone topped up all day long.
Paper and pen. Typing is great, but I still prefer the flexibility of pen and paper for scribbling notes during a talk.
Water bottle. Don’t get dehydrated!
A/V kit (if you’re presenting). I have a travelling tech bag that I take to events which has all my A/V adapters and a spare remote. You don’t need all of that, but if you’re presenting it’s useful to at least have your own set of adapters. This has saved me hassle more than once.
Medication. If you have regular meds you don’t need a reminder to bring them along. But there are probably other meds you take on occasion, and they might be useful too – I always throw in a pack of painkillers and hayfever tablets when I’m going on a trip. I carry them all day, so I never lose conference time finding a pharmacy in a strange city.