A Conference Survival Guide by Emily Hurt

I was lucky enough to attend the EAHIL + ICAHIS + ICLC 2015 workshop in June in Edinburgh, as a result of a bursary I applied for from the CILIP Health Libraries Group. The conference was entitled, “Research-Minded: understanding, supporting, conducting research.” I had a brilliant experience and it got me thinking about the different conferences I had attended and what had been bad and good about each one (this was my fourth). Rather than give you a dry account of the workshops I went to, I thought I’d put together a do’s and don’ts list of how to make your conference experience great. I hope you find it useful

Don’t just book the accommodation that the conference has organised without looking into some other options first. It may well be the cheapest, but that doesn’t always mean it’s the right one for you. Are you a light sleeper? Then you don’t want student halls of residence during term time. Are you likely to be late going to bed and late getting up? Then you’ll want somewhere round the corner from the venue. Tripadvisor is a great place to start and you can often pick up a bargain using hotel comparison sites like hotels.com, booking.com or laterooms.com. I stayed in Pollock Halls in Edinburgh, which was quite quiet (all the students had gone home) and about a 20 minute walk from the conference venue, a perfect distance for me to get my head into gear each morning.

Do try and use public transport to get there. It’s a good way to make your journey more productive, either by having a look through the conference programme or doing any preparatory work you need for workshops you’re attending. Even just reading your new book (I can’t be the only one who buys a new paperback for every overnight stay away from home…) is preferable to arguing with the sat nav or getting stressed about where to park. You can book train tickets up to 11 weeks in advance at http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/, and the earlier you buy your ticket, the cheaper it will be. If you need to work out a bus journey once you’re there (the price difference between a taxi and a bus can help stretch your conference budget just that bit further!) then use http://www.traveline.info/ to find out routes and times anywhere in the UK. If you do need to drive then check out http://www.parkopedia.co.uk/ for details of car parks in most UK towns.

Do make sure you print out a map or two before you go. Most conference organisers will have one of the venue and its location up on their website, however, it’s also useful to have one of the town or city centre, so you can work out how to get between the station, your accommodation and the conference venue. Although nearly everyone has Google Maps on their phones, if your phone dies you’ll have a lo-tech way of finding out where you are.

Do network. I’m not keen on the word ‘network’, it’s a bit business-like, but it is pretty much compulsory at a conference. When else are you going to get a chance to speak to so many people that work in the same field as you? How many times during your normal working week do you have lunch in a room with 100+ library and information professionals? I appreciate that for some people it can be very hard to summon up the courage to talk to a complete stranger. But you need to remember that most of the people at the conference are in exactly the same position as you, they don’t know anyone else either and are stood in a corner nibbling on their ham sandwich desperately trying to think of interesting topics of conversation. Here’s a few ideas to get you started:

  • If you enjoyed someone’s presentation, tell them (who doesn’t like to get compliments?). If you can think of a question to ask them about it, even better. Don’t be intimidated if they’re a big name in the LIS world, everyone likes talking about their work.
  • You don’t have to talk about presentations – conference catering, accommodation, the venue, the weather (maybe this only works at British conferences?) are all good icebreakers.
  • Have a sneaky peek at people’s name badges. Knowing where they work can often lead to a conversation – you might know someone who used to work with them, maybe they work in Somerset and you went on holiday there last year, or you might even work a few miles away from each other and have never met before.
  • Be brave. If you can’t face approaching a group of people who are already having an animated discussion, look out for someone standing on their own at the edge of the room. They’ll be feeling as anxious as you and will welcome the opportunity to chat to someone.

Do give yourself breathing time. Small talk can be tiring and being at a conference is hard work. You’re trying to process new knowledge and you’ll find your mind is whirring with a million ideas as you listen to others speak. There’s nothing wrong with having a wander at lunchtime, or grabbing a brew at that nice little café round the corner, rather than joining the hordes of fellow conference goers at the coffee break. If you can manage an hour or so back in your hotel room watching rubbish telly before you go to sleep, then that’s great. It gives your brain time to switch off and re-charge.

Do communicate with the world about what you’re doing. Love it or loathe it, Twitter is a conference pre-requisite. It plays several roles: to inform others about what’s happening, to publicise sessions or sponsorship and to keep a record of events for you, the tweeter. Not everyone who wants to gets to attend a conference. Funding, staffing levels and quite frankly annoying prior engagements mean that some unlucky souls will be left moping in the office. All conferences have an official hashtag (for EAHIL 2015 it was #researchminded) and by using it you can contribute to the constant stream of information about sessions, soundbites from speakers and links to useful articles. One of the conditions of my bursary from HLG was to promote the conference by tweeting during the event, so as well as using the official conference hashtag I also tagged HLG and tweeted a photo of their stall. Tweets are also a really valuable reminder of what actually happened in the sessions you attended. You can tweet links to papers, websites, organisations etc and then re-visit them later. It can be tricky writing notes and tweeting, so often you can kill two birds with one stone. You don’t have to be tweeting every 2 minutes, but aim for three tweets per session, one detailing who the speaker is and the title of their presentation or workshop, and a further two with some information about the content. If you want to have a nosey at my conference tweets to see some examples, I’m @EmiylHHurt on Twitter.

Do have a follow-up plan. Try and put it together as soon as the conference has finished (I had a delightful two hour delay on my train journey back from Edinburgh, so I had plenty of time to think about it!). It’s all very well listening to inspiring people and learning about fantastic innovations and best practice, but if you don’t do something with your new knowledge then your organisation may as well have sent a stuffed weasel to the conference in your place. Think about what you want to change as a result of what you’ve learnt. Think about new things you want to begin or areas you want to find out more about. There might have been sessions that you weren’t that interested in but that would have been perfect for a colleague who’s working on a project – put a little summary together for them along with the contact details of the speaker and some links to relevant articles that were mentioned. Share what you’ve learnt with others, by whatever means seems appropriate. If you want to take it even further, stick a date in your diary 6 months down the line to spend some time reflecting on what you’ve done as a result of attending the conference.

Finally, don’t get drunk. Conference dinners can be slightly scary if you’re on your own and necking a couple of large glasses of wine can seem tempting to try and make yourself feel at ease. But switch to fizzy water after you’ve had your first two drinks, otherwise before you know it you’ll be telling people your life story and dancing the tango with that sales rep from EBSCO. Important things to remember about drinking and conferences: a) You need to be up, awake, presentable and not stinking of tequila the next morning as you’ll still have sessions to attend b) You’ll see all of the people who were sat on your table the day after, and once you realise that one of them was actually quite an important person, you’ll regret going on about how awful your boss is 3) Everyone has cameraphones. It’s amazing what can end up on the internet. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything…

Emily Hurt
Assistant Clinical Librarian
Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

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3 Responses to A Conference Survival Guide by Emily Hurt

  1. Christine says:

    I also chose to stay about 20 minutes away. I agree the walk is helpful in the morning. Good points on drinking at dinner; especially with the dancing I was really happy I didn’t drink anything that night. Made me feel a lot more coordinated on the dance floor.

  2. Pingback: Incorporating a research-minded approach to professional practice: opening keynote at EAHIL 2015 #researchminded | Hazel Hall

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