Some of my colleagues say that I “out-conference” them. It might be true. I’ve seen some of them at past conferences juggling the enormous conference guides, trying to decide which session to see next, and asking me for tips toward a better conference experience. You know who you are.
Even among large conferences, NCA is huge. The National Communication Association’s annual meeting brings together around 7,000 communication scholars each year. When so many communicators converge, you can imagine that the conversation is plentiful. That’s why attendees should plan ahead.
Here’s how I prepare for a mega-conference:
- Set aside a time to plan: Creating a good conference plan will take an hour or so, but the payoff is well worth the time spent. Set aside an hour total to plan either in one chunk or break it up into three 20-minute sessions (one for each conference day).
- Browse the online event calendar systematically: I work my way through the event calendar systematically by day and by time slot. Starting at the top of the page, I’ll click on any session title that sparks my interest to learn more. The 2011 conference has made this even easier to do on the go by setting up a mobile version of the conference guide. I downloaded the app to my iPhone.
- Make quick decisions: After I’ve opened a session, if at first glance I think I might want to see the session, I “Add to My Schedule” (a function built into the conference calendar) and return to the calendar. If I open a session that doesn’t excite me, I head back to the calendar immediately. The back button will hold your place on the event calendar so you won’t have extra scrolling. If you’re using the iPhone app instead of the Conference calendar online, you can favorite a session. Be sure to rely on only one of these two options as they are not currently compatible with each other.
- View “My Schedule”: You’ll be surprised because all the sessions on your list seem interesting. One frequent issue for me is having two or three sessions in a time slot. If this is the case, kudos to the conference for offering good topics. Leave them on your schedule (This is good news for you: Now, when you’re at the conference, you’ll only have to choose between 2 sessions rather than the 50 or more printed in the conference guide – and once you’re there the room locations, presenters, and sessions you’ve already heard may make the decision for you; and if you show up to a room with no presenters, you;ll have a back-up). Print a copy or save a copy on your phone.
- Mind the Gap: Sometimes, I have no sessions scheduled in certain time slots. If this is the case for you, congratulations. This is a great time to grab a bite to eat with a friend from grad school, check out the publisher and vendor exhibits, or visit a scholar-to-scholar session. Or, if you’re a glutton for learning, you could look back through the schedule for a session to fill that time slot.
- Skip one event (for your sanity). “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” Coco Chanel might have gotten this idea at a mega-conference. Take some time to visit Cafe du Monde (I’ll see you there for the beignets), see the French Quarter, or listen to a jazz band. The break will help you clear your mind, gather your thoughts, and might even inspire that research paper for next year’s conference.
In New Orleans, good planning like what I’ve mentioned above can lead to good rewards like what you see below:
What tips would you add for new conference-goers? Share them here.