Surviving my first solo work conference
Full disclosure, I found this conference myself and pitched to my boss that I should go. It was approved, obviously, but with so many other things going on in the months leading up to the conference, I forgot to freak out until about two weeks before. Networking with complete strangers who are all most likely smarter than me? Anxiety-worthy for sure. That’s when I forced myself to sit down and make an agenda for the Write the Docs conference in Portland, Oregon.
Tip number one: Become VERY familiar with the conference website. Pick out the talks you find most interesting and applicable, but keep an open mind as descriptions only go so far. I’m someone who likes lists and plans, so writing out my agenda (in three different places) did wonders for my confidence.
I started digging into the conference website a bit more and discovered how this conference was unlike most in the tech industry. For starters, only about 400 people would attend (compare that to something like Dreamforce which about 170,000 people attended in 2016, according to usatoday.com). The Write the Docs founders described an environment that really catered to first time attendees, emphasizing a culture of respect, openness and learning. Even better, they had a Slack channel dedicated to connecting conference-goers before the event. You’d better believe I was glued to that Slack channel for two weeks, stalking anyone who mentioned end-user documentation or help center articles, and combing through people’s conversations to connect with anyone who might teach me a few things.
One of my main concerns was how to make worthwhile connections at the conference. I wanted so badly to take advantage of all my time there, and a big part of that would be through networking. The Slack channel was key to helping me start networking in a non-intimidating way.
Tip number two: Does your conference have a Slack workspace? If they do, JOIN. I made group discussion plans, lunch plans and dinner plans through the Write the Docs channel, all before I even hit the ground in Portland. Comb through the available channels in the workspace and join anything interesting to you. If you come across someone you’d like to meet, just ask!
A somewhat quirky part of the conference (I thought) was what the Write the Docs folks call the “Unconference.” The main talks couldn’t possibly cover everything tech writers deal with, but the Unconference offered anyone the opportunity to post a topic for an informal group discussion about something they wanted to know more about. For example, I participated in discussions about how to manage video content in a help center, the value of structured content and style guides, and one about using Zendesk to manage help content. I think I got more out of these discussions than the main stage talks.
Tip number three: Does your conference offer time for informal discussions? If they do, JOIN. If they don’t, perhaps seek out a group of conference attendees via a Slack channel or message board that would be willing to do this. This might possibly be the most valuable one to two hours you get.
I surprised myself by how easily I was able to make “conference friends,” but I also took advantage of every opportunity offered by the Write the Docs staff to make friends. For example, they organized a hike the day before the conference and I made sure I was there. I adore hiking and wanted to experience it in Portland, plus, how long can you NOT talk to someone when you’re walking up a hill at a snail’s pace?
If you’re more introverted like me, you probably hate small talk. Want to avoid it? At receptions or even during breaks between talks, look and listen for the men or women in the room having the most animated conversation and join them. Chances are they’ve already surpassed the small talk so you can just drop in on a fun conversation, and you can do more listening than talking (yay!). Walk up to them, smile and introduce yourself. It’s only scary for five seconds, I promise. I did this, and ended up having dinner with three of the speakers from the conference. Winning.
Tip number four: Listen to conversations going on around you. Hear something that sounds fun or interesting? See someone you think you’d get along with? Push down the anxiety of introducing yourself (it’s literally five seconds) and say hello. You certainly will not regret it.