Go Ask Me: conference advice

A couple of months ago, Lauren from Better in Real Life wrote to ask my advice about conferences. "I actually just got back from Alt Summit and your post on not really enjoying conferences and always feeling awkward and out of place really struck a chord," she wrote. "…I don't feel good at being around hordes of other bloggers, but I'm worried avoiding these get-togethers is going to hurt my business. (I'm looking to use my blog as outreach for freelancing, not so much living off of advertisement.) How do you go about navigating the social aspect of the blogging world?"

Well! First of all, Lauren, you are so cute I kind of want to marry you. If I said that at a conference you'd run away. Or maybe I'd run away because I would not be able to believe I had just said that. But it's true!

I realize we can't marry each other, Lauren. I KNOW THAT. Come back!

Okay then. Now that you're all relaxed and I'm giving you a back rub and you're totally into it (what?), here are some of my tips for surviving and even enjoying conferences. It can be done!

1. Know that conferences are awkward for most everyone. Even the "cool" people or the ones wearing matching pink satin jackets who keep brandishing switchblades at you. Conferences are overwhelming, and many of us are introverts at heart, no matter how gregarious we seem at these things. A lot of people are sweating as violently as you are.

2. Know your reason for going. You've already said you're looking for freelance contacts, so good! You have that down. With that in mind:

3. Go in with a plan. Know exactly how many panels you want to attend. Have a sense of who you want to meet, and contact them beforehand to say hi, if you haven't already. Try to gather up a group of friendly acquaintances who are also going, and plan to meet them somewhere at the beginning of the conferences.

4. Go easy on yourself. Having a plan also means planning downtime. If you hate gathering with the conference crowd for morning breakfast, order room service, or go out for a quick breakfast. If you're a morning person, don't commit to staying out late every night. Don't feel like you have to attend every event on the schedule. Plan a nap, or just a half-hour in the room to read a magazine or surf the Internet like humans were MEANT TO DO.

5. I'm going to reiterate that last point, because it's really important: you can pick and choose what you do. By no means do you have to do everything. Pick the stuff that works for your reasons for going, and cut down on that by 1/3rd, because you don't want to exhaust yourself.

6. Bring snacks. Maybe it's just me, but I always find the food part of conferences the most challenging. I need a lot of protein or I get shaky and emotional. Which is two of the worst things to be at a conference.

7. Have an exit plan. You don't have to attend all of the conference, as I've said. You don't have to attend more than one event, especially if you make some valuable contacts at that one event and feel good about yourself. If you have friends in the surrounding areas, talk with them about meeting up or even crashing at their place, if you're one day into the conference and can't deal. It's really okay. And it doesn't mean you should never attend a conference again.

8. Don't schedule important work or much of anything, really, for a couple of days following the conference. First of all, especially if you're traveling long distances, you'll be suffering from Social Hangover, which can only be cured with a day or two of dumb movies and no one talking at you. Secondly, every time I've gone to a conference I've come back with some kind of virus. Which leads me to tip #9.

9. Remember to wash your hands frequently.

Now, the big question is, are these conferences worth it?

Well. Who can say, really? You never know who you're going to meet, and what good stuff might come your way as a result. I've gone into conferences thinking NEVER AGAIN, and come out with good memories. I've gone in with enthusiasm and left feeling awful. But really, the more I get used to them and how weird they are, the easier they get. You have to weigh the hassle and the awkwardness against the potential reward, but I think good things can come out of them. Now go forth and conference!

(Everyone else: if you see Lauren at the next conference, don't you dare whip out your switchblade in her presence. You do, you'll have me to answer to. And I've got a shiv tucked into my garter.)