how to win at conferences

The other night I listened to Tiffany Mair talk to SJSU students about how to maximize your ALA experience. (Yes, I’m writing this post in February and have probably forgotten about it by now.) I heard a lot of concern from the audience about how to sort through the overload of the conference experience, how to make valuable and lasting connections there, etc. I’ve stumbled into great luck with my ALA conference experience (Midwinter ’10, Annual ’10, Midwinter ’11), so here’s my advice:

  1. Go to happy hour. Much of the interesting business happens there, and it’s your chance to meet and interact with people who might otherwise (seem to) be out of your league. LITA’s is consistently a good time; it’s typically 5 or 5:30 on Friday. But many divisions and round tables sponsor socials, and people are always setting up unofficial ones; go where you think you’ll meet your tribe.
  2. Bring Clif bars. Down side of happy hours: they’re often five hours after lunch and three before dinner. If you haven’t had a protein-packed nourishing snack, you may end up, er, happier than you intended. And food can be surprisingly hard to find at conferences. Forget your hotel key and your program if you must, but don’t forget the Clif bar.
  3. Go to small, informal sessions. Large or formal ones can be educational and have fun pageantry — definitely go to a few — but it’s hard to make connections there. Look for things that say “discussion”. Look for interest group meetings. Look for panelists, speakers, etc. whose blogs or Twitter you follow. See if anything’s happening in the Uncommons, or if there’s an Unconference. It’s dramatically easier to be an active participant at these things than at the big events.
  4. Be on Twitter. I have no idea how people navigate conferences without Twitter, honestly. I use it to meet up with my friends; to meet people in real life that I’ve only met online before; to learn (from friends and conference hashtags alike) which sessions have buzz and sound particularly worthwhile; to catch up on interesting sessions I missed; and (critical!) to find out where the dinners and parties are and who can sneak me into them. A simple afternoon “hey, what’s going on this evening?” or “who wants to meet up for lunch?” tweet works wonders.
  5. Go it alone. If you came with, e.g., a group of classmates from library school, by all means go to things with them, but don’t spend your whole conference with them, because you will never meet anyone else. Go places you don’t know anyone. Go to topics outside your specialty. Yes, I know you’re an introvert and striking up conversations is scary. Me, too. Get over it. Librarians are nice. They like people. And, because you’re at a librarian conference, there are a ton of obvious icebreakers: where are you from? how did you get involved with this division/roundtable/interest group/topic? what’s the best session you’ve done so far? what’s the sessions should I absolutely not miss? what sort of library do you work in (or want to work in)? how’s your cat?
  6. Say yes to things. Did someone just ask for a volunteer? Say yes. Say yes before you have a chance to think about it. You’re already at a session you were interested in, so being more involved will be interesting too. Extra super bonus points if they just asked you to do something public, splashy, and scary. You will be remembered. Even if you screw up — people won’t hold the screwup against you; they’ll remember that you were brave enough to try. And they will follow you on social media, and introduce you to their friends. And then, next conference, you’ll already have your people.

Dear readers, what is your advice?

7 thoughts on “how to win at conferences

  1. In the past I made the mistake of underplanning for conferences, which is especially problematic when you’re a librarian and the other attendees have already made all their plans. Now, if I want to see someone at a conference, I set something up in advance. Especially at big conferences like ALA, you can’t count on bumping into folks. As a bonus: making plans with folks from other libraries is a great way to meet new people, too.


  2. I was right! I had totally forgotten that I’d written this. And right now I’m in the midst of planning for a conference when it’s relevant to my job — which is different (and, like Joan says, much more schedule-y) than going as a student, or even as a working librarian without specific business objectives. Maybe I’ll have to write another one next week. See everyone soon!


  3. An advantage of going to some big sessions is that it gives you something to talk about with just about everyone you meet afterwards, e.g, “So what did you think of the opening plenary?” “Were you at the [overcrowded panel session]?”

    I would add

    7. When you meet someone interesting, try to engage them in a longer conversation. Suggest sitting down with your coffee or going to lunch together. Or take your whispered conversation during the session out into the hallway, even if the session isn’t over yet.


    1. The scale of ALA is such that that is not so effective (Annual can have ~30,000 attendees; even a phenomenally well-attended session is a hundredth of that). But your point is taken, especially for smaller conferences — and even at ALA, people may well have *heard* of the big sessions even if they didn’t go, which makes them good conversation points.


  4. I heartily endorse the “bring snacks” advice. Clif bars, granola bars (I like Kashi high-protein ones), nuts, dried fruit, etc.

    Don’t forget to hydrate!

    If you have colleagues attending, review your schedules before hand so you can “divide and conquer” those busy/packed time slots. Yes, there will be sessions that you all want to attend. But that doesn’t mean you have to sit together. 😉

    Don’t be afraid to arrive at a session late or to leave early.

    Don’t be afraid to skip a session to have coffee or lunch with someone you want to talk to and get to know. Networking is important!

    Make time to walk through the exhibits.

    Most important: HAVE FUN!!


  5. Skip the exhibits. Well, unless you like big cavernous rooms full of vendors and swag, and some people do. But they always give me a headache, and I end up with a bunch of stuff I don’t actually want.

    And snacks. Definitely snacks.


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