Sunday, 8 February 2015

Deciding What Sessions to Attend at a Conference

Decisions, decisions, decisions...

Prior to beginning my short series about my preliminary conference session choices (see Wed - Thurs - Fri - Sat), I read Linda Stufflebean's blog post with HER preliminary list of session choices. I just had to mention that is was Linda who got me itching to make my own list -- though I don't generally need much inspiration to make a list. I am, after all, the List Queen! (PS. What an awesome surname... Stufflebean!!!)

Having made those initial choices, I have let them ruminate for a few days.

Next, I need to pare down my list and consider other factors which might affect those decisions. I certainly can't be in 6+ places at once (even if I were a bigger Dr. Who fan)!

It's obviously easier to rule out lectures you're not as interested in when you can immediately see their competition (which ones are taking place at the same time); however, as for RootsTech/FGS, a schedule may not be released until close to the event date. That is to say, a list of sessions and brief descriptions may be published well in advance but without a timeline to guide your choice-making. This doesn't mean you can't make progress in the meantime, though! In fact, you might be all the more prepared by the delay.

Here are the 15 steps I try to take in order to create a personalized conference schedule:

1. Read through the session descriptions and mark all the ones you're interested in. Make a special note of the sessions in which you are most interested and any you Must See. If you are like me, you will do this multiple times.

2. Read all speaker biography blurbs. Make note of any speakers you have seen previously; mark any want to see. Are there any experts you particularly would like to ask specific questions? I actually have a list which I update periodically of all the speakers I've seen lecture. Additionally, I keep a series of duotangs containing the notes I make during each webinar* I attend, each page headed with the session title, speaker name and date. I do need to make a list of these session titles and speakers for quick reference in situations such as this. It would help ensure certain sessions are not just titled differently while actually a re-do of something I've previously seen. Yeah, that happens.

3. Once you get your hands on the schedule, it's a good idea to read through the session descriptions again - even if you have already done so. Sometimes due to space restrictions, the wording is more succinct, more to-the-point (and therefore revealing) on a schedule. Mark all sessions of interest. Make a special mark next to those in which you are most interested or any you know are on your Must-Not-Miss list.

4. Note all of your marked session possibilities in each time slot. How do they compare to each other according to priority? If there is nothing presented at the same time as one of your classes of interest or Must See lectures, you're golden! Decision made! If any are occurring at the same time as others of interest, you have work to do.

5. Write a blog post (or a private document) about all the sessions you have an interest in attending and make a note about why. How will it help you increase your knowledge or skill? Might it provide you with a new perspective? Is it simply a speaker you really want to see? If you are hesitant about a particular session, note that too. If you can't think of anything to write, that's probably a clue that it's not as important for you to attend that session. It is a good idea to sift through the sessions by time slot as you write so you can better interpret how your items of interest compare to each other versus those of disinterest. You might think writing it all out won't help but it does, or at least it did for me - it serves as an aid to clarification -- your own, for yourself, and that of others who are trying to make their own choices if you choose to publish.

6. Further to #5, write out or consider your priorities and goals for attending this conference and its sessions in general. How do these relate to your overall professional and/or educational goals? In other words, you are trying to determine which sessions will best help you accomplish your goals. For example, deciding whether or not seeing Mr.Xpert speak about a topic you're having trouble with is probably a better use of your time than watching Mrs.Xpert lecture about a subject in which you are interested but will not need to focus on for a while yet.

7. Determine whether or not any of the speakers are giving the same or similar presentations elsewhere. Remember, you can either attend in person if the location is near you or you are available to travel but sometimes you can also attend virtually, via a webinar. Ask on social media, make use of Google, review speaker websites and their scheduled events lists, check society webpages and sites like If any sessions being presented at this conference are being presented elsewhere, knock them off your list. But keep in mind, even if they could be taken off your list, this may be your one or even only chance to see a particular individual present in living colour.

8. Note any indicated skill or learning levels for each class. This may be indicated by track or series; otherwise, individually. Usually, I see the traditional labels: Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced. For example, there is a Getting Started track at RootsTech this year. If you are like me, you are more advanced in some subjects while just starting out in others so it's not always a one-track decision. Be aware that lectures labelled appropriate for all skill levels will likely be broader in scope and less advanced. Make sure the skill levels of the sessions in which you are interested are commensurate to your experience and knowledge. Sometimes a challenge is a good thing, sometimes it's not. Are you looking for instruction or a new perspective?

9. Similar to #8, note any prerequisites mentioned. If having an understanding of basic computer/internet skills or general genetic genealogy or a particular type of record research is suggested, take that advice to heart. Don't go to a session you are not prepared to understand. You will get frustrated, overwhelmed and will feel like you have wasted your valuable conference time.

10. If any of the session descriptions include specific websites or technologies, look them up. You may discover, armed with a little additional information, that the service is not something you are really going to utilize or that the technology is not something you will understand from just a lecture. (I personally learn much better by taking an hour to fiddle around with something on my own as opposed to being verbally told how to do it). Note: If a session is "sponsored by" a certain company or group it does not necessarily mean the session will be about that company's service or product.

11. By the same token (as #10), pay attention to the wording of each description. It is worth mentioning that each speaker submits their own write-up advertising their own lecture and that it's the description's job to win your interest and attendance (thereby, ticket sales, etc). Sometimes titles can be misleading. Sometimes descriptions will initially give the impression a session is about one topic while a second read-through will indicate a hidden agenda. For example, a talk about cemetery or headstone research tips and tricks could take on a different light when you realize it is being given by the person in charge of a grave-finder website. I have been to a couple webinars like this where the promised tips and tricks turned out to be an overview of how to use a particular website instead of general skills. While this sort of advertising/agenda is not necessarily a bad thing, it might not be the best use of your time during this particular conference.

12. Read the syllabus materials. Make note of any questions you already have or that arise from your reading.
A) Whether you read the material online or in paper form, in advance of the event or only after you've arrived, make sure you read at as far ahead as possible. And don't just read the pages related to your sessions of interest; read them all. Read them all because, having more information at hand, you may find other session options you are more interested in. Read them all so that you know what else is going on at the conference, what is of interest to others and current within the community, what your peers will be talking about.
B) Evaluate the syllabus materials of your sessions of interest. Has everything already been said in the syllabus? Is it just an outline? Just a list of links or further resources? Good speakers leave things to say for the presentation. Are there new concepts, subjects or views presented in the syllabus about which you'd like to know more?

13. Make yourself aware of any sessions that may be streamed live online, recorded and later made available online or recorded and available for purchase. A popular tip I've read about attending conferences like RootsTech, FGS and the SoCal Jamboree is to purchase recordings of sessions (made by a particular company found in the marketplace) in the event of a scheduling conflict or to free up time to spend in the marketplace. To date, I've never been to a conference where this has been an option but it makes good sense to me to utilize the service when available (though I'm not fond of the idea of spending even more money on one conference and would, personally, probably do this only sparingly). The ability to view any of some lectures of interest at a later time or date may well mean that you can spend that valuable conference time at an alternate session -- make the most of the experience, get the most bang for your buck!

14. With all of this in mind, create your top three session list for each time slot. Rank those top three sessions from most important to least. Clearly mark Must-Not-Miss lectures. It is important to note options for each time slot in case a particular room fills up before you arrive, a speaker falls ill or technical difficulties prevent the presentation.

15. Be aware that, even with all of this preparation, this "perfect schedule" you've carefully crafted will likely change. Be flexible!

Yes, The Asterisks Mean Something

*Webinar = a lecture presented online, in real time.

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