Skip to main content
May 14, 2010

A mercenary view of conferences

In a post entitled, “Dueling Pianos: Do We Need STC?”, Kristi Leach writes this:

And maybe it’s time to start thinking about funding more regional conferences with lighter footprints rather than one, large conference. (Release Notes blog)

Lots of great discussion in that post and in the comments.

My interests in STC come from varying, sometimes conflicting, perspectives (member, vendor, conference speaker, conference planning committee, gadfly, …). In this post, I want to set aside the primary perspective of conference attendees (which is thoroughly represented in Kristi’s post and in the comments) and talk about the interests of conference speakers, sponsors, and vendors.

Critical mass

Generally, national or international conferences are going to draw a bigger audience than regional conferences. For example, within STC, we had around 800 people at the national event this year. Regional events typically draw 100 people or so.

As a consultant, my agenda is clear. I attend conferences to reach prospective customers. I would much rather attend a single event and present to a large audience instead of eight regional events to reach the same number of people.

Similarly, for a vendor or sponsor, it’s generally more appealing to sponsor and exhibit at a single event. It’s also more cost-effective because of the cost of travel. Many of the companies that exhibit at Big STC are small organizations (like mine), and the idea of staffing trade shows for eight regional conferences is fairly daunting.

It’s true, of course, that we could support a conference in our particular region only and save a pile of money. Unfortunately for us, our customer base is national and international. Limiting ourselves to the southeastern United States would put a serious crimp in our sales. In the last year or so, we have done work for customers in Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, California (multiple locations), Canada, Germany, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Switzerland, Virginia, and Texas. And North Carolina. I think I’m forgetting a few, but you get the idea.

So, for me as a speaker, vendor, and exhibitor, a big conference is a much more efficient use of my time and money.

Investment and quality

As a conference attendee, you can expect that speakers at a big conference, on average, will be better than speakers at a regional conference. This is partly by design—one purpose of a regional conference may be to give less experienced speakers an opportunity to practice their presentation skills. The competition to speak at a regional conference is generally less intense, and at unconference events, the process of getting a speaking slot may be as easy as putting your name in a time slot on a whiteboard.

You may attend a regional conference and see fantastic speakers, especially people who are relatively unknown in the field but turn out to be fabulously talented. You are also going to see some speakers who are trying hard, but who should perhaps stick to writing white papers instead.

At a big conference, there are generally formal proposals, proposal reviews, and the like. STC has a program committee that evaluates session proposals. (I am the track manager for Design, Architecture, and Publishing for 2010 and 2011.) Speakers are expected to provide speaking references, and a speaker without a track record of successful presentations (at STC or elsewhere) faces an uphill battle in getting their proposal accepted.

For attendees, this means generally higher-quality sessions at bigger conferences. (And yes, there are always going to be bad sessions. Sometimes, a speaker is having a bad day, or she misjudges her audience, or the topic is just not timely, or any number of other issues.)

One interesting disadvantage is that bigger conferences tend to have more predictable topics and speakers. With long lead times for the proposal review process, the most cutting-edge topics don’t make it in. Neil Perlin’s Bleeding Edge track attempts to ameliorate this situation somewhat, but it is definitely an issue.

But overall, you get what you pay for. The bigger conferences provide more financial support to speakers, and the competition to present is more intense, so you can expect higher-quality content.

Regional versus global networking

It’s important (for anyone) to build a professional network. Different types of conferences will support this in very different ways. At a regional conference, you can expect to meet other technical communicators who are geographically close to you. This is valuable in understanding the local job market. For example, you can find out who’s hiring, who’s not, where you might want to work at some point (or not), what tools and technologies are heavily used in your area, and the like. Understanding your local market is important.

At a conference that draws a national or global audience, you can expect a different networking experience. You can probably find other people that work at an organization similar to yours, but in a different location. For example, if you work for a company in the U.S. Midwest that makes medical devices, you might have an opportunity to meet people who work on medical devices in Europe or Asia. Perhaps your company has technical communicators in multiple locations around the world? At a big conference, you have a chance to broaden your perspective. Perhaps you are considering a move to a different part of the world? You’ll probably run into someone from that area and have an opportunity to ask about life there.

As our work becomes increasingly globalized, I think that it’s critical to understand the industry outside your immediate area. Big conferences are excellent for this type of networking.

The hallway track

I find it interesting that the default alternative to “big conference” is “regional conference.” What about online events? We are offering webcasts for free, along with lots of other people.

The answer is, of course, that webcasts are reasonable for getting information, but they are terrible for networking. Conferences are about the “hallway track”—the stuff that happens between sessions. The broader perspective of a national conference might be worthwhile.

A note about word choice

In discussions at and around Big STC, the phrase “old guard” has been used as a synonym for “people who are resistant to changes in our profession.” As writers, we are taught to pay attention to word choice, and to avoid language that is racist, sexist, or otherwise -ist because it detracts from delivering the message. In the phrase “old guard,” I hear more than a whiff of contempt from the so-called “new guard.” You are better than that, and use of ageist language is lazy. And inaccurate. Is Ginny Redish “old guard”? Does age define one’s attitude toward new technology and toward change? If you want to come up with a phrase that encapsulates the people who are in entrenched in “but that’s how we’ve always done it,” find one that is less offensive. Also, I’d like to point out that attitudes of entitlement and resentment toward change are quite often found in young people.

In related news, I’m turning 40 in November. I might be a bit sensitive at the moment, as I anticipate ejection from the ranks of the “new guard.”