On attending conferences

Will a single conference change your life? Probably not. But it can feel like a magical portal to learning. 

At its best, a great conference provides the perfect balance of time, attention, and feedback:

  • Time means you've got three days dedicated to the subject matter and the people who make it happen.
  • Attention means the opportunity to interact with industry leaders.
  • Feedback means bouncing ideas off others, sharing opinions and stories that relate to the work we do.

To get the most out of a conference, however, you must go in understanding that you'll need to put some work into it. There are no perfect tracks. But if you invest the time and attention, you'll find the feedback you get is well worth the effort.

My first Confab

For me, this became apparent the first time I attended Confab in 2011. Armed with the modern trappings of knowledge transfer—laptops, wi-fi, keynote and extension cords—an impressive roster of authors and content strategy notables gathered to speak about content strategy and its UX counterparts. 

There's a lot to be said about the details of a conference. Confab had them—it has spoiled me for conferences, honestly—but no amount of cake and post-conference parties can stand up to a great speaker lineup. That first year—and every year, so far—Confab delivered.

Topics for every situation, stories from every angle, people you've heard of and people you've never heard of. Diversity and openness. Each talk felt as if it wove right into the next, creating the fabric of Where Our Industry Is Going.

There's a secret about conferences like this: the separation between speaker and audience is pretty thin. The only difference between the two is the direction they are facing within a given session.

Great conferences are people powered

The real value of a conference is in the people you meet. And, let's be honest—meeting people is hard. The discussion between the talks, and at lunch, and at the events, and even back in your room when you're decompressing all of the knowledge you've just sucked in—this is where the learning happens. Even the most intense slide deck of stats and figures is more valuable after a conversation or two.

That's the thing: You go to a conference. You hear these authors speak. You see them in the flesh. They are real. They aren't scary content personalities—they are just people who are nerdy about this industry like you are, like I am. People talking to people about making better web things: This, my friends, is the value of a conference. This, my friends, is why it's worth the money and why it's worth the time.

So, when you attend a conference, make that extra effort to connect with the other humans. It can be easy: "Hey, I really liked your session, I'd love to talk more about this." It can be fun: "Hey, everyone, let's go see the Twins play." It can be loud: "Hey, I heard there's this place called Otter's Saloon."

Now you're not just reading the back cover of a book or sitting in an auditorium. You've made a professional acquaintance, a friend, and a new content strategy ally.

Find your people

If there was one thing we learned during Confab 2011, it's that no industry moves without the development of new feet—that the biggest names can lead, showing direction and guidance, but it's up to the rest of us to implement and apply, to bring the words to our companies and our businesses, to become local leaders and push the industry toward The Future.

Conferences are made for learning. But they're also for making connections. They're for driving emotion and preparing us for a new direction. They are summits and forums for freely and honestly discussing the things we do and learning better ways to do them. They are for sharing knowledge. They are for sharing beers. They are for sharing ourselves.

This was what Confab was to me. This is what Confab could be for you. No conference is going to change your life, but it can sure come close.

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