A mercenary view of conferences

Sarah O'Keefe / Conferences, Opinion9 Comments

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.”

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe

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Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

9 Comments on “A mercenary view of conferences”

  1. You would probably have brought the comment table in the database for Kristi’s blog to its knees if you had added this comment. 🙂 And a good comment it is. Thanks for adding this very relevant perspective.

    Hallway track is a good phrase. At a college reunion, I missed a session that people raved about for years. I wanted to kick myself. However, the reason that I missed it was because I was catching up with an acquaintance from my college years who, from that conversation, turned into a friend, giving me a new friendship that has lasted for years. Sometimes, I wish there was a techcomm conference where we had no sessions, only sofas, coffees, chocolates, and long, long conversations.

    You get what you pay for is another good point. It brings obligations. With a CFP and review process, you expect a professional filtering and selecting of what is best for the audience. We, the members, put our faith in the program committee. I love unconferences, but it is still a new concept, or newbies come to it and don’t fully understand the participatory aspect, which can lead to a mixed experience – like lumpy gravy.

    I am so pleased Kristi put together her post. It has generated some great thoughts. I think it is all quite healthy.

    (This commented was fueled by Green & Black’s Organic Dark Chocolate 85%.)

  2. Pingback: The OG Word. Also: Kill Your Darlings? « Release Notes

  3. Karen, that sounds luxurious—the best kind of shop talk. This year I did the shotgun version of the conference. Next year, let’s get there a day early, armed with chocolate. And good beer.

    Sarah, thanks for elevating the discussion. A link to my response is above.

  4. Great post, Sarah.

    As a conference attendee from outside the US (as you know, I live in Australia), my annual budget allows me to attend one conference a year in the world. From 2001 to 2004 I attended and spoke at the STC Conference, and since 2005 I have attended and spoken at the WritersUA Conference. I cannot afford to attend both (as a contractor, if I don’t work I don’t get paid, so taking 10 days to 2 weeks off for each US conference that I’d like to attend is not an option).

    One reason I attend one of these conferences is the benefit that a large conference brings to attendees in the quality and quantity of the vendors, the speakers, and the topics covered. If STC went the regional conference route only, I would never attend. I could not justify a very large expense of getting to/from Australia as well as the loss of income just to attend a small conference with a limited range of speakers and opportunities.

    So, in addition to your excellent vendor perspective on the value of a large conference, there’s the attraction that a large conference has to those who don’t live in the US. I’d guess that most of the non-US attendees who currently attend a single big conference would not attend regional conferences in the US. I think that the last STC conference I attended (2004) garnered about 10% of the attendees from countries outside the US. It would be interesting to find out the figures for non-US attendees at the 2010 Summit.

  5. @Karen: There are some advantages to unconferences, and I expect that the big conferences will evolve toward adding some less-structured time in which anything goes. (My chocolate stash at home currently includes Green & Black’s Organic chocolate with dried cherries. Yum.)

    @Rhonda: I was thinking of people exactly like you when I wrote this post. I have learned a LOT from talking with other consultants. It’s quite fascinating to discuss the similarities and differences in our businesses and then how those differences are affected by geography, nationality, and/or culture. (Of course, the most fascinating part is how much we consultants actually have in common, no matter where we are based.)

  6. @Milan: I didn’t actually see the video until after I published this post, but yes, I do take issue with the terminology used there and I was disappointed to see Tom employ it. There was also some context missing from the video—in one of Whitney’s sessions, she was challenged by one of her audience members, who apparently (I wasn’t there) asked her 1) her age and 2) why she should be speaking. That’s just rude, and from what I heard, Whitney handled it with aplomb. However, in this interview, they extrapolate from a rude audience question to “the STC old guard” and then equate the “old guard” with people “who have been in control of the organizations and conferences” as opposed to “younger people who are coming in and who use social media.”

    I think not.

    It’s obviously true that there are people who are resistant to change in their profession. I take issue with the assertion that a) STC’s leadership is monolithically made up of such people and b) that age equals change resistance.

    It’s probably worth noting that numerous people in STC leadership use social media extensively, including the incoming president Michael Hughes; conference manager Alan Houser, program manager Paul Mueller, and too many others to even mention individually.

    One thing you do tend to learn with experience (ahem) is that organizational change takes time. Usually more time than anyone would like.

  7. Right on, Sarah! — as we used to say in the good ol’ days when some vowed never to trust anyone over 30 and we chanted “change” as our mantra…until we added experience and figured out we had to work harder and longer to make it happen!

  8. Drat. I’m 41, but I’ve got this “new guard” sort of brain. I hope I don’t get ejected from the ranks either. So, I find there is a battle that goes on in every industry as automation tries to force skilled craftsmen into roles as factory assembly-line workers. There are those who push back in the name of their art (think of a cobbler asked to work at a shoe factor) and there are those who, with heavy hearts, take their place in line.

    We are dealing with data now, not pages, and that’s been tough for some to accept. Look and feel simply matters less now than ever at the authoring stage.

    As for me, I’m suddenly excited by the potential to merge what we do with what’s happening online through social media. We (technical writers) are still needed as craftsmen (apologies for the gender of said word). It’s just that our skills are no longer needed for designing books: They are needed for designing effective content strategies for our brands.

    Automation can replace our Desktop Publishing work, but it can’t figure out who the customer is, what they want and need and how to best deliver it. That’s our thing. We’re still the best folks to do it.

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