Packing, optimizing, and satisficing

I’m off on a two-week trip that happens to be broken by an 18 hour stop at home. (Nodevember, North Bay Python, SpringOne Platform, LaunchDarkly writing sprint). Every couple months, I try to clean out my bags entirely, get rid of the trash that accumulates, make sure that I have room for all the new fidget spinners, that sort of thing. This time I thought I’d share what it is I take along.

In summary, if you are at a conference with me and need Imitrex, Immodium, condoms, period supplies, emergency protein, or stickers, I’m your gal.

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Talk slides are not a presentation deck

This year, I watched a talk called “I’m Judging Your Slides” or something like that. I watch a lot of conference talks. No, more than that. As if it were my full-time job, which it pretty much is. 25 conferences x 2 days (rough average) x 6 talks a day. Plus recorded talks.

As such:

  • I’m not going to go find the link to that presentation, sorry.
  • I have a lot of opinions about talk slides.

In this new job, I have a designer. Someone paid to have professional aesthetic opinions. This is AMAZING, and super exciting. I’m pretty sure she gets heartburn every time she looks at the spectacular pinkosity of my current slide style. She’s given us a Google Slides template to work with, and it is all branded and lovely and works with our website and has the right hex codes just built in so you can always find them instead of wandering around a color picker. I was super excited to port my slides over to the new style.

 

And then I tried to do it, and it is hard. There are a bunch of slide styles that I would never use in a talk, and I’m missing some that I really need, like section headings. What was the disconnect?

Talk Slides Are Not Presentation Slides

I realized that I wanted slides for giving talks, and the template she gave me was slides for giving presentations. That seems like a pretty subtle distinction, but it’s a very different audience and intent, so key parts are different.

If you ask someone for a presentation deck because you missed a meeting, you would get something that gave you a lot of information – facts and figures and decisions and charts. If you got the slide deck from a well-designed technical talk, it would be an unhelpful amalagam of cat pictures and command prompts.

Talk Slides

When I’m designing slides for a talk, I visualize a room that can seat about 100 people. I’m at the front of it, I have a projector with an HDMI connection, and a slide clicker. I’m standing to one side of a screen. It’s the middle of the day, and these people are sitting in hotel banquet chairs to listen to what I have to say and fight off the waves of sleepiness from catered lunch. I need to be energized, my slides need to be punchy, and my points need to connect with their needs. I am here to inform, entertain, educate, provoke thought.

Presentation Slides

Presentations are an entirely different thing. They’re being displayed on a large tv in an office meeting room. The audience is people who are thinking of themselves as “in a meeting”. The slides exist to guide thought and discussion around action items that need to happen and information that needs to be evenly distributed across a group of people who have very similar interests. Presentation slides have agendas, and points that you move through, and they are a persuasive medium in themselves, instead of relying on the speaker to add the persuasion.


Given those two very different goals, I can see why it’s hard to design slides. The majority of the advice and templates are geared toward the common case, which is a presentation deck. I have a friend who says that she works on presentation decks “every ding-dang day”. It’s no wonder that we learn to design slides with articulated points on them as the default.

I never had to do that kind of slide construction, so I didn’t build that habit, and when I started doing technical speaking, I found the spare, almost wordless style was much more effective for that audience. I was reasoning from the opposite direction.

Talk slides best practices

Given that I am probably a disaster at presentation decks, I’m not going to talk about how they should work, but here is what I feel strongly about talk slides:

  • Put your twitter handle or attribution on EVERY SLIDE. That way if you say something memorable halfway through the talk, people can attribute it properly, and every slide has the possibility to work as a standalone photo.
slide screenshot

Slide example 1

  • Except for your handle and attributions, 36 point font is a bare minimum, and I really want something closer to 48-60. Giant font means fewer words, and that’s good, for talk slides.
  • One thought per slide. You can explain it at whatever length you want, but whatever you put on the slide only needs to be a place for people’s eyes to rest while they are digesting the one thought. That thought is tied to your slide in their memories. When you switch to the next thought, change slides.
  • If you have the luxury, go look at a  presentation in the room you’ll have. Different projectors and ambient light sources can mean that a dark background or light background will work better.
  • Remember that your slides are not the persuasion, you are. I try to put information in my speaker notes for other people, but that’s a very secondary use case.

Talk write-up: Choose Your Own Deployment

Yesterday, I was in Phoenix for their first DevOps Days.


The interesting thing about doing this talk in Twine instead of my beloved Google Slides was how much I had to learn to make it look anything like I wanted. There’s a lot of CSS and Twine-specific syntax. At first, it felt like I was wasting my time and being slow because I know other people know this better than me, but as the project went on, it was honestly delightful to learn something new and get my pages to look like I wanted. There was a lot of fist-pumping success in getting a font to work.

It’s still not perfect, and I need to do some pretty drastic revisions for version 2, but now I know which of the resources are most useful to me and I have a conceptual model that I didn’t have when I started, so I think it will be easier to learn the parts I still don’t have.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to learn something that had immediate tangible results, instead of concepts and pitches and taking what I already know and distilling it down. It was good to do that, and I should remember to schedule it into my life sometimes.

Why I Speak at Developer Conferences

I don’t write code for a living, and I never have. Developer has never been part of my job titles, and my Github history won’t impress anyone. I think that’s why people are surprised that I speak at developer conferences — next month I’m going to RubyConf, PyconCA, and Nodevember.

When I started speaking at conferences, I thought I was only “allowed” or “entitled” to speak at technical writing and generalist conferences. As I got more confident in my messages, I realized that there is a lot of value in cross-pollination of ideas. As I talked to more developers, I realized that the talks they found the stickiest were not about how to do something, but rather, what it was possible to do.

Think about talks that you remember after the conference. Are they the bravura live-coding examples of how to execute something tricky or new? Or are they the talks about what you could do, how you could think about things in a different way, what might be possible in the future? The demonstration of current things is important, but so is the discussion of where and who we want to be in the. future.

Most conference committees seek to balance talks and speakers based on experience, representation, intended audience level, technical depth, and appeal to attendees, sponsors, and employers. We need to have deeply technical talks, and we need to have talks about mental health and accessibility and usability. it’s not either-or, it’s also-and.

So I speak at developer conferences to bring balance to the force. I also do it because I want to show up and be technical and expert and pink-haired in the world. I want to share my decades of experience with people who have poured their energy into learning different things. I think I bring value, and evidently conference organizers agree.

Have you thought about what you can add to a conference by being different? If you feel like you can’t compete because you don’t have anything new to say about the topics that are usually covered, consider covering a topic that you haven’t seen at the conference. If there are a lot of code demonstrations, consider doing a feature overview. If you have expertise in something that you can relate to the conference topic, sometimes it helps people grasp what you’re talking about in a different way. I have a talk about how knitting and documentation and how we teach code are all linked together.

If you’re a “non-technical” technical person, don’t let that stop you from proposing to conferences – you still have valuable and meaningful experience to share. If you’d like to brainstorm about it, go ahead and leave me a message.

Lady Conference Speaker Talk Wrap-Up

I was talking to Bridget Kromhout about her wrap-up process, and she inspired me to a) do a better job publishing my talk information right after I give it, b) talk about my end-of-talk process.

So, you have pitched a talk, gotten it accepted, written it, gotten on stage and given it, and answered any questions. You are about to come down off the adrenaline high and start second-guessing what it is you said. It is totally normal not to be able to remember exactly what came out of your mouth. Depending on how nervous a speaker you are, you may not have formed any particular memories, because we are terrible at forming coherent memories when we’re scared.

The slot after your talk, or the evening after, or the flight home, you want to publish your talk wrap-up. I think the ideal wrap-up consists of the following elements:

  • Your slides
  • Twitter reactions
  • Follow-up answers
  • Research sources/bibliography/image sources
  • Video

I do almost all my slides in Google Slides, with Slides Carnival. I do a new set for each talk, since I’ll end up adjusting length and emphasis for each conference. Immediately after I give the talk, I tweet out the public link to them. My slides also have extensive speaker notes.

The next few steps are much easier if you use Storify, an app that plugs into your browser. When I am researching a talk and have a reasonable belief that I’ll be using a page as reference, I click the Storify button to add it to my potential elements. I can also use it to capture tweets that will be relevant. After my talk, I’ll open Storify and look for tweets about the talk, whether with my Twitter handle, the conference hashtag, or the talk hashtag. I drag all the relevant tweets into the story about this talk at this conference, organize them, and then add the link to the slides at the top and the reference elements at the bottom. Then I click publish. I can always go back and edit that Storify to add the video when and if it’s ready.

In WordPress, Medium, LinkedIn, and several other platforms, you can embed Storify stories as part of the post, to raise the visibility and make sure it’s part of your platform as well as Storify’s.

Keep an eye out on your email. Conference organizers are quite likely to ask for your slides so they can sync them to video or publish them on the conference site.


There are a couple places that I want to improve my process — I have seen webpages that have two columns – one for the text of the talk and one for the slide. I feel like that would improve my web presentation and make it more accessible, but I have yet to find the WordPress/CSS magic to make it happen. Everyone I know who does it has hacked their own, and I want a turnkey solution.

I also want to start dedicating some money to getting talks professionally transcribed. What I write out and what I actually deliver are similar, but not identical, and again, I want to improve access for people who can’t or don’t want to watch video.


Here’s an example of one of my talk writeups: http://www.heidiwaterhouse.com/2017/05/26/the-death-of-data-signal-2017-edition/

The virtuous thank-you cycle

We talk a lot about vicious cycles, and how it’s easy to end up in bad places because the incentives are all bad, but let me tell you a story.

It’s a pleasant Saturday, my family is watching Star Trek: TNG together, and I’m in my home office, working on a side project and slightly resenting it. It’s the collateral for a workshop Carol Smith and I are giving at LISA about the non-technical part of interviewing, and we think it’s really an important part of helping people get jobs. So the workshop will be great and important, but I’m currently wishing I was doing something else. And then this comes across my twitter:

Marie says she uses the principles I espoused in that talk even when she starts side projects, like Call My Congress. Because she set it up to be easily localized, anyone could come through and easily add instructions in Spanish or Somali, without having to fight the project to do it.

I gave that talk 17 times. I took it to a different continent. I got most of my expenses paid, and I got an honorarium exactly once. I figure I spent 60 hours researching and writing it, and and 3-5 hours in prep and rewriting each time I gave it. I was working for myself, so no one paid me for that time.

A thank you note like this makes that all worthwhile. I give technical talks for the same reasons that novelists say they have to write – because it’s something burning in me, and I need and want to share everything I have learned the hard way so that other people don’t have to. In my grandiose moments, I think of it as reducing the entropy of the technical world, giving people a boost up the ladder. Most of the time I think it’s funny that all of my teacher-mother’s children have found our own ways to teach, far from school classrooms.

Now I have a job that pays me for development time for talks, and means that travel and conferences are not lost productivity for me, and that means the world to me, but most of the technical speakers you see at conferences are like I was — working evenings and weekends and taking vacation time to battle entropy with education.

I’m going to try to remember to do better about saying thank you, and thus spread the cycle of appreciation further and wider. A virtuous cycle perpetuates because the rewards are so good. Thank your mentors, and the friends who want you to expand your horizons, and the organizers who make safer spaces to speak in, and the bosses who don’t make you take vacation days. Thank them publicly and specifically.

Think Globally, Sponsor Locally

Possibly the most exciting thing about my new job as Developer Advocate (there are so many!) is that I don’t have to scramble and ask conferences to fund me anymore. That means that speaker funds can go to the next generation of up-and-coming speakers, independents, and folks who don’t get paid to go to conferences.

It also means that the conferences I go to is not a set restricted by people who can afford speaker sponsorship. I have had to turn down acceptances I was excited about because the conference just couldn’t afford to make it happen, and we were all sad. They wanted to have a range of speakers, I wanted to talk to their audience, but the cash just wasn’t there.

What does it mean to sponsor a conference, as a company? Well, you get your name on slides and promotional materials. Sometimes you get a couple minutes to tell people at the conference what it is you do. You get intangible benefits in good will from conference organizers and attendees. That’s all pretty hard to quantify. But just because something is hard to quantify doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. The conferences you choose to sponsor say a lot about your values as a company. Sponsoring small, inclusive conferences is a relatively meaningful statement. You’re saying you care about the community, and about having a code of conduct, and about nurturing emerging or niche technologies.

Think about sponsoring at a huge conference, like AWS re:Invent. 30,000 people showed up in 2016. Logistically, and in every other way, that’s massive, and sponsorship is expensive, and the impact your company will have is dilute. You’re trying to get the attention of the people in your demographic, in the middle of a vast sponsor hall, in Vegas. You may get enough people to make it worthwhile, but it’ll be hella expensive.

Now think about sponsoring a DevOpsDays conference. Minneapolis is huge, at ~1300. There is a vendor room you can walk in half an hour and the people at the tables have time to talk to you, and are maybe giving a relevant talk. It’s a regional event, so if you’re an employer looking to hire, it’s great to find people, because you know they are already invested in the tech, and are in the area. It’s a way to connect with your community, and I don’t have the numbers to prove it, but I’m going to bet it costs companies a lot less than schlepping enough people to represent at the table to Las Vegas. Target was there, and Merrill, and Optuum. They’re signalling that if you work for them, they care about devops and you might get to go to local conferences, and they’re engaged. That matters a lot! Target is still doing rehabilitation on their local reputation after a set of bad decisions around IT, so it doesn’t hurt to have them showing up and working to be better citizens.

As a company, you should also think about sponsoring really small conferences – the 200-400 range, or even local user groups and meetups around your technology stack. Don’t do it because there’s an immediate payoff, or because you can chart a rate of return, but because it’s the right thing to do to nurture the community you draw from. The goodwill, expertise, community engagement, and candidate leads you get will be so much more valuable, dollar-for-dollar. It’s not always the decision-makers who go to these conferences, but they will be decision-makers eventually, because they are displaying exactly the go-getter values that you want by going to conferences. Think of this as contributing back open source code that you refined in house, only instead of features, it’s cash. Sponsoring these small conferences gives people who can’t travel a chance to meet and aspire and network and connect, and that’s immensely valuable to the circle of practitioners in an area and to the development of the technology as a whole. Working for a big company should not be the only way a brilliant Python developer can make connections with her peers.

I was inspired to write this because North Bay Python is looking for sponsors, and because Alterconf has been an astonishingly effective incubator for speakers, and is ending soon (but you can still say you helped!). I wrote it because I’m going to SeaGL, and they aren’t charging attendees at all. So many of my meaningful conference experiences have happened at conferences that are accessible to everyone, not just people with corporate budgets. Also, if you think about it, conference organizers are like the definition of social superconnectors, and they have Quite Strong positive associations with people who give them money to make the magic happen.

So what can you, a technical writer/developer/ordinary person do about this?

  • Talk to your marketing team about what matters to you. They are very smart, but not psychic, and they would love to hear about ways their sponsorship dollar could go further.
  • Volunteer for local conferences if you can. It takes a village to fold t-shirts.
  • Ask if you can spend recruiting money to sponsor conferences that specialize in the skills you’re looking to hire for. Looking for a functional programmer? Sponsor moonconf.

If you’re running a small-to-medium conference, reply here and I’ll try to put together a link roundup of conferences people could consider sponsoring. Don’t @ me if you don’t have a Code of Conduct, though. It’s 2017, people.

Also? Vote for your local school bonds and levies, while I’m advocating for spending money on systems thinking.

Also also? AWS Re:Invent? You’re charging $1600/ticket and you can’t provide childcare? Really? I mean, it’s not as bad as Grace Hopper. Don’t even get me started on Grace Hopper, but still.

New job title: Developer Advocate

I've had a lot of job titles in my career:

  • Technical Writing Intern
  • Queen of Documentation (It was 2000, OK?)
  • Technical Writer I, II, III
  • Technical Communicator
  • Senior Technical Writer
  • Technical Writing Consultant
  • Documentation Architect
  • Documentation Mercenary

You might notice a theme there. I've been a technical writer for a lot of different companies, because that's been my career, my expertise, and my passion. I want to take everything that's great about technology and make it easier to use, more transparent, more thoughtful, more humane.

Lately, I've been having trouble describing what I am doing in terms of writing alone. Two job interviews in a row, my interviewer stopped asking me questions about my qualifications so they could take notes on my ideas for their product. My conference talks are sort of nominally about writing, but actually about patterns I'm noticing in the world and in technology. I love writing, and I'm never going to give it up, but it's also…not quite a good fit anymore.

Through the power of All-Women-In-Tech-Are-Connected, I got an interview for a Developer Advocate position. I would never have applied for this position on my own – it's so far beyond what I think of as my skill set. But in the discussions and interviews, I really came to believe it was not just a company I could work for happily, and a product that I think is useful and not toxic, but a position that lets me get out there and do the kind of thinking and helping and problem-solving that I love.

Photo credit: Women of Color in Tech Chat

Developer Advocate is a super broad range of positions, actually, but our interpretation of it is basically me continuing to do all the things I'm doing now: conference speaking, blogging, listening, and noticing. It's just that now I'll be doing all that and getting paid for it, instead of using it as a loss leader for my consulting. I get to go out in the world, find out where developers and users need help, and figure out how to make it happen for them. We're seriously at "pinch me, I must be dreaming" levels of exciting here. I even get to keep writing a little, although I may have reached my personal career goal: not writing the release notes.

Yes, I'm being deliberately coy about my new employer. That deserves its own post. I'll just say that I think we're going to get along well, they say I get to continue to be a pink-haired weirdo, and I will feel proud of the product.

I honestly feel like changing my job title is like the day you get new shoes and you realize you'd outgrown the old ones without noticing.

Oh! This is so comfy.

Open Source Citizenship Award

I was at Open Source Bridge this week, with my kiddo Baz. We were both giving talks, and I was giving a workshop on interviewing with Carol Smith. Also I got to MC the slideshow karaoke part of the after-party, which was huge fun.

But the big news is that I won an award for Open Source Citizenship. This was not captured in pictures, but I literally spun in a circle, trying to figure out who behind me was also named Heidi. They were pretty clear they meant me.

Open Source Citizenship Award

Shiny 3-D printed medal that says “Open Source Bridge Truly Outstanding Open Source Citizen 2017”

I have real trouble thinking of myself as an open source contributor – sure, I go to a bunch of open source conferences, and I write for opensource.com, and I give talks about how to be a better self-documenting writer, and I livetweet almost everything I go to, but I don’t code, you know.

It’s like that moment when you recognize your internalize misogyny. Oh, I am devaluing my contributions for NO GOOD REASON. I have imposter syndrome not about my talent (goodness knows, I’m pretty cocky about that), but my place in the community. Any minute now they’ll find out that I haven’t edited Wikipedia in 9 years, and they’ll reject me! That’s not how it goes. Contributions of all types are valuable, and I’m glad to be recognized for what I do.

In 2009 or so, there was a giant fannish explosion we now colloquially call Racefail. One of the most valuable people/roles in the whole thing was “Archivist of the Revolution” – a position held by @ryda_wong and others. They read, collated, and commented on an incredible amount of data, packaging but not altering it so that we could consume relevant posts without seeking them out ourselves.

I don’t see myself as that dedicated to the cause, but it’s something I can aspire to — to offer up information, to curate what I see, to help create indexes and pointers. I do live-tweeting because I think it’s valuable and because it’s a way for me to manage my ADD. 8 hours a day of extremely thought-provoking talks is HARD.

For a little while, I thought that perhaps I was outshining other contributors because my conference persona is loud and tweety and charismatic. And I truly feel that charisma is not always the best indicator of value to a community. There are a lot of charming assholes in the world. I hope I’m not one of them, but I assume that charming assholes never notice it until someone calls them out on it.

But then I remembered that this is voted on by attendees. Individual people found what I was doing useful. And I remembered the very smart thing that my mom told me about compliments.

“Just say thank you. Arguing is insulting their judgement.”

So thank you! I’m going to be happy that I won something! It’s true: I do spend time, money, and energy on the open source community.

  • I mentor other writers
  • I spend hours and days crafting talks
  • I quietly support other women and under-represented people, dozens of hours a year
  • I contribute thousands of words to the corpus of knowledge with tweeting and blogging
  • I ask stupid questions so other people don’t have to

That’s a pretty good list. I’m happy with it. So thank you, members of the Open Source Bridge community. I appreciate your recognition, and I’m honored.

Lady Speaker Small Talk

Sometimes, I think the hardest part of going to conferences is the unstructured time – lunches and happy hours and sponsored parties. That’s the time I remember I’m surrounded by 2,445 total strangers. And I’m supposed to be networking with them. If I think too much about this, I end up at “what do I even do with my face?”

The goal is not really “networking” in whatever negative way you’re thinking of. The goal is finding interesting people and showing them that they have neat things going on.

It turns out that conferences are full of people who are alone or nearly alone. If you came as part of a team, or you are working the conference, the social stuff is different, but if you are alone, here are some things I do.

Look odd

I have fuschia hair that I wear in a variety of short, eye-catching ways. Since I’m almost six feet tall, I’m really easy to find in a crowd. You don’t have to make quite so striking a personal style statement, but it’s useful to have people able to find you because you’re wearing a tophat, or orange sneakers, or all safety orange, or whatever it is you decide on. Your conference friends, the people you have met at other conferences, will recognize it. Strangers will see you on stage and note the thing about you so they can find you to ask questions later. And if you make it something less permanent than hair color, you can not wear it and totally blend into the crowd.

Make a friend in the registration line

Odds are, you’ll be standing here a few minutes. This is a great time to turn to the person next to you and ask them their name, and what they’re here to see, and what they’re looking forward to going to. Not, like, all at once. Then you sound like a teacher asking about a book report, but as conversational starters. Is this your first year here? If you’ve been before, is there some local food I can’t miss? For the rest of the conference, you’ll probably be able to spot that one person you met early on and give them a friendly nod. And if you’re very lucky, the name on their badge will be readable.

Sidenote: The minute I get any standard-length lanyard, I tie a knot in the back of it so that it hangs higher on my body. Now people looking for my name don’t have to track their eyes past my cleavage. This is a habit I picked up several years ago, and I think that having your name as close as is comfortable and feasible to your face is a win.

Go to other people’s talks

It’s super tempting to hide in your hotel room frantically preparing for your talk. I’ve been there. But I also know that a large part of the value exchange in this conference is that it consts money to attend and I’m not paying anything. So I try to go to a talk in as many slots as possible. I might take the slot before my talk off, and sometimes, depending on how drained I am, the slot after. But mostly I really want to go to people’s talks. It may seem odd, since I don’t have power over any servers, I code in no languages, and I only nominally work in teams, but I still get a lot of value out of conference talks. The technical ones help me keep a finger on the technology zeitgeist. The people-oriented ones always teach me something, because being a consultant is both managing up and sideways.

I always livetweet the talks I go to, but that’s for a different post. Mostly what I want out of going to other people’s talks is an understanding of a technology or application of technology, and to have attended the same conference as other people. At a multi-track conference, it’s easy to go to different conferences in the same venue, depending on your interests, but if you go to talks, you’ll always be able to ask what other people went to, what they thought, and then respond with what you learned or wanted to argue about from the talk you watched. “What talk did you get the most out of today” is a lovely, neutral question and sparks a lot of conversation.

Remember the theory of paradoxical popularity, or charismatic loneliness

I’m sure there is an actual psychological term for this, but lazy googling did not find it. Did you know that the prettiest girl in a high school gets asked on fewer dates than an average-looking girl? Did you know a lot of people that you think of as important, or influential, or famous, eat conference dinners alone? 

That may be by choice — there’s a lot of people energy involved in giving a talk and then doing the networking afterwards, so if a person wants to eat alone, let them. But I’ve noticed that people I think of as amazing sparkling wonderful stars in this context are eating alone. I think we are all valuing their time as too precious for us, and not even asking, a kind of low-level excessive politeness. I’m not saying you should ask more than once, but it’s probably ok to say, “Hey, I really admire what you’re doing, I’d like to talk about it more, do you have someone sitting with you at lunch?”

Talk to the sponsors

These people are sitting at the vendor booths, handing out swag and trying to get a badge scan off you beacuse someone is juding them on this back home. If you do want something on their table, walk up, make eye contact, and ask for it, don’t just grab. If they’re busy talking to someone, spend a minute or two listening to the pitch. You may not be a person in the market to buy things now, but it never hurts to treat the people who make conferences happen well.

The same goes for organizers. They seldom get to see the conference, because they’re making it happen. The have worked months on this, and whether they’re paid or unpaid, they are on constant alert for Something Going Wrong. It’s really stressful! So if your organizer stops and asks you how it’s going, or if you have what you need, remember to say thank you before you start in with a complaint.

Pacman

I got this one from Eric Holscher at Write the Docs. We tend to naturally form a circle when we’re standing around talking about a topic.  It takes a special kind of courage to approach a ring of backs. Instead, as you’re standing in the ring, open up space between you and a neighbor to leave room for a new person to slip in and add to the conversation. You’ll be surprised by how much difference this little bit of body language makes in making your informal conversations more interesting and varied.

Volunteer

The best way to love a conference is to be part of it. Not every conference offers this opportunity, but if you can volunteer, you should consider it. Having a set role makes it easy to interact with people. “Here’s your badge and your t-shirt. Have a great conference!”. You’ll also get to know other volunteers and organizers, as there’s almost always a backstage that attendees don’t see. This is where I have had some pretty amazing conversations over the years.

Stickers

I have a gallon bag of stickers that I carry from conference to conference. People take some, I collect some from tables and people and vendors. The stickers come with stories and then I can re-tell the stories at the next conference. Much like doing a jigsaw puzzle, sorting through a pile of stickers encourages people to stand around and have an idle conversation without feeling tense or anxious. I’m sure if everyone did it, it wouldn’t be novel, but even if you have one type of sticker, from your employer or personal brand, it’s still something to talk about and enjoy together.

On the topic of business cards

Spend money on business cards. I know it seems like an antiquity in the age of tap-contact-swaps, but there’s something about the tactile delight of a good business card that makes people comment on them and remember you. Mine are especially bright, with a plasticky finish. The back of the cards more-or-less matches the color of my hair, which serves as a good mnemonic. I get mine from Moo, which means I can have the fronts different designs — I’ve used this to put 5 or 6 witty tech writer slogans on the front, and I happen to know that people will pin them to cube walls because they’re funny, bright decoration. There is no higher state of winning than having your business hard pinned to a cube wall. In contrast, printing yourself or using a cheap printing service means you’re handing out something that feels disposable, so people do dispose of it.

If you have to hand out your company cards, that’s what you’ve got, but consider if there’s some other personal branding that would feel natural and satisfying to you. At my last conference, I gave away tiny (1/4 inch) hedgehog stickers for people to put on their badges as an indicator that they’d met me. Spontaneous fan club! Or something.

Done talking now

One of the hardest things I had to learn was how to end a conversation gracefully. I almost always start by thanking someone for their time/insight/advice. Then I say something like:

  • I’m off to the next talk! Catch you later.
  • I need to make a call.
  • I’m meeting someone in a few.
  • I’ve gotta go do a thing.

I know – a thing? But it works. 

    In summary

    If you think of conference conversations as purely utilitarian, they will be difficult and dry. Instead, think of them as a way to learn a new and interesting thing from everyone. Good luck out there!