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Raking it in without
breaking your soul

How to Make the Most of a Conference

I made a very expensive rookie mistake. It started back in 2019, so I can’t even blame the pandemic.

I had my sights set on a new-to-me conference taking place in Europe. The conference theme was about climate change and I proposed a short talk on how data visualization can save the planet. (Of course, I’d have to fly across the Atlantic to attend the conference on climate change and the irony isn’t lost on me.)

The conference organizer pulled an unusual move – she contacted me directly, saying she loved the topic and wanted me to extend the talk to 90 minutes and then also give a second 90-minute talk on how to choose the right chart type. She promised they’d cross-promote both talks in the program and it’d be a big deal.

Here’s where I made the expensive mistake, one I didn’t even recognize until a few years later when the conference finallllllllly happened.

I added up her request – 2 90-minute sessions – and told the conference organizer something like “Sounds like you want me to give a half day workshop for free. No thanks. I’ll stick to my single paper presentation.”

If you aren’t a regular at conferences, you should know that a single paper presentation is going to be lumped together with a few other random papers and you’ll all share a 90-minute time slot, each person getting maybe 10 minutes to present. It’s crisp.

I should have told the conference organizer that I would meet her in the middle and present one 90-minute session.

Because when I got to the conference, after two years of postponement, I did what I always do: I scoped out the presentation room early. This is what I found:

The conference room I thought I would have. I'm standing with my arms outstretched. The room is mainly empty but for a couple clusters of chairs and a few easels.

It was pretty small. But ok. I guess. I was estimating maybe 30 people when the chairs get in place.

The next day I show up for my talk and oh child….. the conference had put up a divider wall in the room I’d scoped the day before. In actuality it had 12 seats.

The conference room has 11 people and one empty chair.

5 of which were taken up by the presenters of the other papers grouped into my session.

Yes, I flew across the Atlantic in a first class lay down seat (a promise my CEO gave to all my employees years ago for overseas flights) to present to 7 people.

Such an expensive rookie mistake.

The hallway gathered people hoping to snag a seat. At which point, the conference organizers pushed out an incredibly timed notification to everyone’s phone saying you can’t sit on the floor or gather in the hall because of fire code.

Are you thinking this conference organizer had it out for me because I accused her of trying to milk me for a free half day workshop?

The thought also crossed my mind but rather than be paranoid, I’ve done a very American thing and pulled out the big time lessons I learned from this experience so that you don’t end up in this position, too.

Lesson 1

Always pitch a 90-minute session. Anyone reading this has the ability to pull off a 90-minute session. That includes you, Honeypot.

Now that I’ve gone through this experience, I can look back over my history at conferences and see that organizers generally put longer sessions in bigger rooms. I got so used to big rooms, I didn’t even consider anything else.

When you pitch a shorter, paper session, you’re lumped in with other papers, and people are less likely to attend because they may not be interested in sitting through a hodge podge.

And, at least for this conference, the only thing listed in the program is the name of the whole session, some mish mash of words the conference organizers invented. Which means it didn’t say the name of my paper. It didn’t even say my name. You’d have to know I was at the conference and go through the work to search on Evergreen in the conference program to find me.

Paper sessions get lost. Zero visibility. Go for 90 minutes.

Lesson 2

Ugh this one hurts to write down and hit Publish.

I was eating my feelings with takeout pizza and wine in a paper cup, canal-side.

Cardboard pizza box, bottle of red wine, and paper cup on dock by a canal.

When I realized: I had assumed I would be put in a big room because I’m a Big Name.

I keynote conferences FFS.

People pay me, regularly, to fly across the Atlantic and teach them the very things I was saying here, on my own dime.

Don’t these people recognize?

<insert sip of wine>

Oh crap… that’s my ego. Hi, old friend.

<insert big gulp of wine>

That’s the unexpected reality check I didn’t know I needed. I’m a Big Name to some people, but I’m a total stranger to others.

So now I know: Stay humble. And pitch 90-minutes.

What about you? What’s your conference strategy – as a presenter or as an attendee? What’s helped you make a conference worth your while? Write to me and let me know.