Eleven Tips for Surviving Conferences

A panoramic photo showing the attendees of a talk watching the speaker. The speaker is standing on a raised platform and looking to their left. The camera is placed behind and above the speaker, looking down on the audience, and there are screens above the audience on the left and right hand sides of the speaking space. There is also a hint of a screen behind the speaker - shown at the very bottom edge of the frame.

The cover image for this post is by Alexandre Pellaes

This blog post was written by Jamie

I just got back from MVP Summit 2023 which was held at Microsoft’s HQ in Seattle. Whilst I won’t be writing about what I saw (because I’m following tip number 11 - more on that in a moment), I wanted to take a moment to share some of my top tips for “surviving”

if you’ll allow me to be hyperbolic for a moment

any conference or industry event.

This post was partially inspired by some of the advice I gave (and received) at MVP Summit, and by a live stream by my good friend Steve Worthy called “Retail Leadership: How to Stay Ahead of the Curve?”. During this live stream, Steve’s guests (Chase and Brian) talked about conferences in the retail space, and it got me thinking about the advice I’d give to people who are attending their first industry event or conference.

But first

Because “conference”, “meetup”, and “event” can kind of mean the same thing (depending on a number of factors), and because this advice applies to all of them, I’ll be using those words interchangeably.

I’ll also swap between “talk” and “session” because sometimes speakers will run talks and sometimes they will run sessions; again, these words mean the same thing to some people, so I’ll use them both.

Tip #1: Read the Code of Conduct

Most conferences, industry events and meetups have these, and you should take a moment to read them as each one will be slightly unique. That being said, they all revolve around a common theme: be nice.

Here’s a link to the WordPress London code of conduct: https://wpldn.uk/code-of-conduct. I’m not affiliated with them, but it’s a great example of a Code of Conduct. It has sections on:

  1. What their organisation is about
  2. Who they are
  3. Expected behaviour
  4. Unacceptable behaviour
  5. Who to contact about incidents of unacceptable behaviour
  6. Whether the code of conduct can be open sourced or not

Regardless, you should read the code of conduct for the event you’ll be attending. You may very well need it if you spot unacceptable behaviour from someone.

And in the event that you’re caught doing something you shouldn’t do, the defence of “I didn’t read the code of conduct,” is very unlikely to work.

Even we have a public code of conduct - which you can read here.

Tip #2: Give Yourself Ample Time

This is a super important thing, and one that people tend to forget - and we’re not even at the tips for being at the conference yet. However you travel to the event, give yourself a tonne of time to get there.

Because Seattle is in Washington state, US and I live in the UK, I knew that I’d have to fly to Seattle and stay somewhere close by

otherwise it’d be a heck of a commute

And because the flight time is 11 hours, and crosses seven time zones, I knew that I would need time to get over jet lag.

As a good rule of thumb: for each time zone you cross you’ll need a full night of uninterrupted sleep to reset your body clock - this will be different for everyone, of course. For example I was crossing seven time zones, so I knew that I’d need seven nights of sleep to come around to Pacific Time. In fact, my third day started at 2am, because 2am Pacific is 7am back home and my body just went “it’s 7am, get up!”

Whilst I didn’t get a week of uninterrupted sleep before MVP Summit, I knew that I’d need at least two nights before the event. So I got to Seattle two days before the summit. This allowed me time to chill, relax and slowly figure out the best routes to take up to the Redmond HQ from my hotel. Which leads nicely on to…

Tip #3: Figure Out Where Things Are

The event might be in a city that you know but in a part you don’t, in a completely new (to you) city, or even a foreign country. As such, you might not be likely to know where things are. This is where Google Maps - or whatever - is your friend.

Take a little time in the days leading up to the event to scope out places on your favourite mapping app. Also consider taking a look on sites like Reddit (there’s likely a subreddit for the area), meetup, Yelp, and such. You want to know things like:

  • where’s the nearest convenience store?
  • how do I get around on public transport
    • assuming you don’t have a car
    • although, this is useful to know even if you do
  • how do I get to the event from my hotel?
    • assuming you are staying in a hotel

You don’t have to memorise any of this, but having the knowledge in an easily accessible way would help. Especially if you’re going to be taking public transport.

pro tip: the Transit GO Ticket app was essential for getting around Seattle on public transport

Also have a series of plans for getting from where you are to where you need to be. But don’t be afraid to ask someone - assuming people there speak a language that you can understand- because most people are generally quite nice and want to help.

tip #4: Stay Hydrated

Another tip that I feel people forget about is to stay hydrated.

I won’t bore you with facts about the human body and what it’s made up of, suffice to say: you and your brain need water to function. So keep a reusable bottle handy and keep it filled.

Not much else to say on this one.

Tip #5: (If You Can) Get There Early

There’s always a mad rush to get through registration, so get there early.

They expected that many people at MVP Summit, that they opened registration 24 hours early. Even then, it was super busy.

Usually the in-person registration for an event involves telling one of the event staff your name, them checking you off of a list and giving you a lanyard. This might be used to gain entry to some of the talks, so keep it safe.

It’ll also have your name on it, so when you speak to people they might look down at your lanyard - bear this in mind.

Tip #6: Just Because You’re There Doesn’t Mean You Have To Talk With Anyone

It’s super easy to be overwhelmed at in-person events; either because of the events of 2019-2022 or because you might be introverted

I’m an extroverted introvert. So I can be social at large gatherings, but it takes a lot out of me, and I need more time to relax and recharge throughout the day

Regardless of the reason, walking into a conference hall, exhibition space, or a meetup can be daunting. So don’t worry about having to walk up to strangers and start a conversation with them. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Just because you’re there, doesn’t mean that you have to do anything - other than follow the code of conduct, obviously.

One of my favourite things to do at a conference is to wander about in the halls between talks and listen to what people are talking about. If it sparks my interest, I might stop and listen in. Some of my favourite serendipitous connections have happened this way: I was asked to join a conversation about some topic or other, introduced myself and gave my opinion.

Tip #7: Pacman For Conversations

If you do join a conversation, you’ll notice that people will stand around in a shape that approximates to a circle. This is a great way to allow everyone in the conversation to follow what’s going on, and provide a bit of a sound barrier. But it’s dreadful for if people want to join in. So what I do whenever I’m at an event is stand slightly back and turn to the side. What I’m trying to do when I do this is create a Pacman-like shape in the group.

A monochrome likeness of Pacman with their mouth open: a circle of white with a black border, and a triangular section cut out from circumference to centre of the circle. The resulting cut-out has lines bisecting at 45 degrees and resembles a mouth
Creating a gap in the group will allow someone to enter without having to push in

Imagining looking down on the group from the rafters, and the shape that everyone is making, you want to create a gap big enough for the next person to step into. This makes the conversation more accessible, and folks walking past won’t feel excluded.

Again, that’s if you want to talk to people.

Tip #8: Don’t Plan On Attending Any Talks On The Last Day

I often find that by the last day of a multi-day conference, I’m wiped out. So I just won’t plan on attending any talks or sessions on the last day. For a single day event, I won’t attend any of the sessions in the final few hours.

By the end of the conference, you might be feeling pretty tired. There’s a lot going on, lots of people to meet (or not), lots of sessions to attend, and lots of information to take in. That’s really tiring, so be kind to yourself and just don’t attend sessions towards the end of the event. You won’t get in trouble with anyone for not attending any of the sessions, actually.

I never attend sessions close to the end of an event, unless it’s on a topic that I’m really interested in. And even then, I’ll plan my day around it - I’ll sacrifice attending a session leading up to it, so that I can recharge my batteries and give it the full attention that I want to.

Tip #9: Don’t Worry About Taking Copious Amounts Of Notes

Most events record sessions these days, this means that your job when at a session is to be present in the moment.

Sure, if the speakers or one of the attendees says something amazing and you want to make a note of it, please do. But if you’re just writing down (or typing up) everything that they’re saying, then you might miss a crucial detail or two.

I remember attending an Ignite event a few years back, and writing down copious amounts of notes during Scott Hunter’s “Red Shirt Azure World Tour” session. I used those notes when I got back home to write up some stuff for work, but the majority of what I wrote came from memory, with the notes as a reminder. In fact, I used the recording of the session to help me remember some things and get screen grabs.

The last thing you want, in an engaging session, is to break away from what the speakers are saying to write it down. You’re likely going to miss something either visual, or miss something that they say.

Trust me on this: being present in the moment, and really paying attention to what the speakers are talking about or demoing will pay way more dividends than making notes.

And don’t be that person who pulls up Slack or Teams (or whatever) to “check in with the team” during a session. Reason number one: if you’ve signed an NDA, it might look like you’re telling people what you’re seeing (see tip #11 for more on that); and reason number two: it’s really distracting to anyone sitting nearby.

If you’re present in the moment, you might even come up with a question or two. You can ask these during the designated Q&A section, approach the speakers after the session and ask them directly, or send them an email or DM on socials (or whatever) after the session - assuming that they share their contact details during the session.

Tip #10: Don’t Worry About Missing a Talk Or Walking Out Of One

This is a little related to number 8, but on a different level.

I need to be frank for a second: some sessions aren’t as exciting or interesting as you first thought they would be. And that’s ok.

If the session you’re in hasn’t grabbed you and you’d rather leave, no one will criticise you for it. You also don’t need to come up with an excuse, just pack your things and leave. But do try to do it quietly and respect the speaker and the attendees who would rather stay.

It can look a little rude, sure. But which is better:

  • getting out of a session that you’re not interested in early
  • sticking around, being bored to tears because it would be rude for you to leave

It’s your life, but I would rather quietly exit stage left. Plus, you might be taking up a spot that someone outside wants.

I’ve been to a lot of sessions which enticed me in with the title or description, but five minutes in weren’t for me. And that’s ok; not every session is for everyone.

tip #11: Respect the NDA

Some events, or some individual sessions, might be covered by an NDA. Every session I attended at MVP Summit was covered by an NDA, along with anything that I saw or discussed with people whilst at Microsoft’s HQ. Anything relating to Microsoft was considered NDA unless I was expressly told that it wasn’t

which is why I’ve not told you about anything I saw there

If the event you’re attending, or one of the sessions you’re attending, has an NDA then you must respect that. Some event organisers may ask you to leave if you breech the NDA, and some might go as far as prosecuting you.

You might think it silly to have to say this, but there are stories of people being kicked out of the MVP programme for - and I really mean this next bit - live streaming a session at MVP Summit.

Whatever the rules are, learn them and follow them.

In Closing

I hope that these eleven tips will make your next conference or event that you’re attending go a little bit smoother. The most important ones are:

  • Read the Code of Conduct
  • Stay Hydrated
  • Do what you can to lower stress
  • Respect any NDAs in place
  • Have fun