Friday, 20 February 2015

Be Prepared to Wing It!

I think this is my number one tip for attending conferences: be prepared to wing it! Because, inevitably, something always happens to keep you on your toes.
Yup, there are many reasons for which you may be forced to alter your carefully constructed conference schedule:
  • The rooms for your top session choices may fill up before you arrive;
  • You may oversleep, your alarm might not go off, you might not receive your wake up call;
  • You may get lost or stuck in traffic, especially in a new city;
  • A speaker may have cause to cancel their appearance -- ie, flight delayed, death in the family, illness, death of self (god forbid! although it did happen at the 2014 OGS conference I attended), etc;
  • There may be a problem with the building, a particular room, facilities or the tech required for the presentation;
  • A natural disaster might rear it's ugly head (the Zombie Apocalypse may erupt);
  • The conference organizers may reschedule or cancel things for reasons they don't make public.

There are other factors which you shouldn't discount either: 

a) You will be tired, mentally and physically. And this will become a bigger burden the further along you get. Even if you do not have to travel far, a conference is a lot of activity. All of your senses are engaged more than usual. You are expending more energy or at least expending it in a different manner than usual. For multiple days in a row. Meeting new people and networking in general takes effort for most people; moreso, if you cope with disorders such as depression or anxiety or both.*

b) You just may not have the physical stamina to walk all the way to the other end of that building one more time in order to attend that particular lecture. Especially after multiple full days of conference-going. Especially if there is a huge crowd in attendance. Especially if you cope with any type of chronic disease or are fighting off an acute illness. This will likely be somewhat dependent upon the particular venue and how the event is laid out within it by the organizers -- and you won't know this until you arrive. Even if maps are provided beforehand.

c) Yup, you heard me right -- you may catch a virus. Think about it. Hundreds of people from all over the world in close contact. Not all of them as hygienic as you. Maybe also unaware they are incubating communicable evil. Lots of new germs for your body to discover and pick a fight with - making you tired or otherwise feeling unlike yourself. I'll throw food-poisoning into this category too. Maybe it turns out your tummy is not as enthusiastic about the new cuisine as your eyeballs, eh?

d) Time of Day - some people can't function early in the morning or stay awake after lunch, let alone comprehend new material. This may be unexpectedly exacerbated by exhaustion, excitement, anxiety, illness. You may find yourself unable to concentrate, especially if it's a difficult subject. Additionally, don't forget about any time change that might affect you -- jet lag can be a PITA in the best of circumstances.

e)  Your mood will likely be affected by all of the above as well. Mood affects ability and willingness to listen and learn. If you're crabby after waiting in line somewhere, missing your bus, fighting crowds, dealing with an ornery vendor... Or if you're overwhelmed by a previous presentation or particular speaker (or a celebrity sighting!!!)... Or you're anxious about something... you may not feel like sitting cooped up in a classroom for an hour. And, to be fair, it's probably best in this circumstance to give up your seat to someone more ready to be present.

f) Speaker / Presentation Style - I once chose to see a couple of sessions by the same speaker only to be underwhelmed by his presentation style at the first class. I'm not interested in listening to someone recite their syllabus handout verbatim nor someone who clearly knows a lot about their topic but just can't seem to clearly articulate a theme so that their speech is effective as a learning tool. I'm not going to sit through additional torture just because I chose it in advance!
I'll throw accents into the mix here. For some reason, I'm not great at understanding accents without some serious concentration up front.
Similarly, technical issues can arise that make streamed-in presentations intolerable. I certainly wouldn't return for a second bout of torture.
Alternatively, a speaker you see early in the day or conference may be so good, so informative that you want to see them again. He or she may mention a presentation they will be giving in the future at the conference that didn't sound as good in the description but for which you gain a new appreciation after seeing what the first talk was all about.

g) Although I can't imagine this, I have read frequently that attendees of cons like RootsTech intentionally skip sessions! They skip sessions in order to attend the marketplace, presumably to network as well as browse. So here is where I tell you to keep in mind that you may feel compelled to create extra time for Expo Hall shopping, socializing, networking.**

h) Presentations by vendors in the marketplace must also affect attendee decisions to forego scheduled classes. For this upcoming RT/FGS con, I know Maureen Taylor, Lisa Alzo and The Chart Chick are presenting a brief series of classes at their booth. There are also special things going on at the FindMyPast booth. So, now, after all of my original lecture scheduling I must go through and figure in the mini-classes presented in the marketplace! AHH!!!

i) Special events like society meetings, organization or group gatherings and company focus groups may be scheduled by their organizers during conference hours. These may be your only chance to connect with like-minded people you see only rarely in person or have only ever communicated with online.

j) Access to special facilities may impact your conference decisions, too. A research room offering complementary access to helpful commercial websites and/or individualized help is a popular phenomenon at conferences here in my neck of the woods. Additionally, there may be repositories specific to the conference's destination that demand some of your attention. You will have to judge how your time will be most wisely spent.

I'm sure there are many more factors which may affect the way you choose to spend your conference time. Some you may be able to prepare for ahead of time - others not so much. So, make like Mr. Elastic*** and stay flexible!

Yes, The Asterisks Mean Something

* Remember, depression and anxiety are not faults nor weaknesses of character - they are just factors to take into account! Acknowledging your limitations takes strength.

** I began writing this piece before attending my first RootsTech (2015). Stay tuned for more on this Expo Hall / skipping sessions subject!

*** Mr. Elastic is my name for Mr. Fantastic from The Fantastic Four. Drives hubby crazy when I refer to the dude this way but I think my name for him is more appropriate. Because he is stretchy. That's his super power. So, duh.

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