SXSW, BlogWorld, BlogHER, CES — the list of tech and social media conferences goes on and on. Every week throughout the year leaders of the tech and social media industry gather to discuss new trends and innovations, and also just to catch up and exchange insights. Some of these conferences only last a few hours — others last for days and can draw people from all over the world. Regardless of where and when these conferences take place, I’ve learned there are some key basics to surviving a social media or tech conference — and getting the most out of them.
Dress appropriately. Every conference has its own demographic, which lends to the conference its own style. The biggest things to keep in mind are the physical environment of the conference as well as noting the impression you will make upon people you will meet. Some conferences involve walking long distances between sessions — others involve sitting all day. If you’re a woman, finding a balance between stylish and comfortable shoes is critical. If you’re not sure what the style of a conference is — and are torn whether to pack more sweaters than suits — check out the Web site of a conference or look for some YouTube videos from previous attendees. Also, be sure to check the weather forecast, especially if any aspect of the conference is outside. When all else fails, strive to be comfortable — and be yourself.
Don’t write it all down. Last week I advised a few attendees of Social Media 301 the night before the conference not to write everything down. After attending several conferences earlier this year — and upon the advice of others — I found that soaking up the bigger picture of a panel or session was far more useful than trying to jot down facts or figures. For those looking to blog about a session, consider approaching the speaker after the session and asking to speak with them one-on-one. You’ll be able to ask specific questions and get more personal insight into the topic. If they’re rushing to get to a book signing or lunch, send them an email or tweet for a follow-up interview via email or Skype.
Use the gadgets you know. If you’re still keen on writing things down, are determined to tweet through the conference, or otherwise need to stay connected with technology, use the device you love and are familiar with. Never used an iPad? Trying one out — or any new device — at a conference is not a good time, especially if you’re relying on the device to take notes. It always takes some time to learn to type with a new device, and you definitely don’t want to struggle with a new keyboard at a quickly paced conference. If you love your netbook, don’t worry — you won’t be the only one in the room live-blogging the session on a laptop.
Sit near the door. Sitting near the door at a conference is ideal, not only in case of an emergency during sessions and panels, but also for comfort during all-day events. Most conferences provide opportunities to take breaks, but your body may need a break — whether for the bathroom, coffee, or food — during any part of the conference. Sitting near the door allows you to exit the room without disturbing other attendees or being rude to the speaker or host of the event.
Talk to people. There’s a lot to be learned from the official conference schedule, but some of the strongest lessons, relationships, and networking can happen in the halls of the conferences. You never know who you will run into in the hall before a session or who will join you for lunch. After Social Media 301, Liza Sperling captured the essence of this on her blog: “The only secret to social media is that most of the good stuff happens offline. Like sharing ideas over lunch.” The trick to making the most of conferences is not just attending the conference, but making real-life connections with others at the conference.
Other conference essentials include a first-aid kit (ALWAYS bring your choice of a headache reliever) and a bottle of water. I also found having a backup charger for my phone is fantastic — my favorite is the Energizer PowerSkin for the iPhone. Regardless of what you bring, make sure you stay flexible. You may miss a session or a chance to meet a speaker or inspires you. Keep in mind that there’s always more to do, and more people to meet.