how to be a good conference attendee

Don’t heckle. Come on.

Last year I volunteered for the Internet Summit here in Raleigh. I’ve attended marketing conferences and spoken at them, but this time there weren’t any sessions that were jumping out as need-to-know, and I wasn’t invited to speak so I figured volunteering would be a good way to meet some people and spend a few afternoons.

I’m so glad I did. I was able to see some of the behind-the-scenes that goes into a large conference which is pretty cool. Because I went where I was needed, it meant that I was listening in on sessions I probably wouldn’t have if I had been an attendee. I got to see and hear a lot of things, and because I wasn’t there as an attendee I was able to step back a little and check out the folks who were attending. What I saw was inspiring, and not necessarily in a good way.

Based on what’s worked for me, what I wish I’d known before my first conference, and what I saw at IS that appalled me, here are my tips for being a great conference attendee:

1. Keep your snark in check.

Not every session is going to be amazing or the right one for you. If you think the topic is off center or the speaker is terrible, give that feedback directly to the conference staff so they can make changes. Don’t tweet about how bored you are using the conference hashtag. Don’t take up a seat in a session to openly browse Pinterest. Just quietly get up and go to another session. Or if there’s no other session for you, find a quiet couch somewhere or even take a walk around the block and get some fresh air. Your time is valuable, right? So use it like it is.

2. Come prepared.

Wear layers, because event ballrooms are always freezing. Bring quiet snacks like granola bars so your stomach doesn’t rumble loudly which definitely did not happen to me or anything. Bring a charger. Actually, bring two – someone will always have forgotten one and being the “guy with the charger” will make it easy to network. Bring pen and paper in case the wi-fi is terrible (it will be.) Bring whatever (legal) headache solution works for you. The more comfortable you are the better time you’re going to have.

3. Ask questions.

If you’re like me, standing up in front of a room full of people and asking a question makes your skin crawl, but there are plenty of ways to dive deep beyond the slides. Talk to the speaker after the session, or find time to meet with them later in the day. Ask them to get lunch. Send a follow up email. Not all of those things, though, because that’s a little much. And don’t limit your inquisitiveness to speakers. Ask questions of other attendees and keep the conversation going.

4. Try something new.

Look, if you’re there on the company dime the least you can do is try and if you’re there on your own dime you really don’t want to waste your money. The worst thing you can do at a conference is to be dismissive. (see tip #1) Conferences are a great place to push a little past your comfort zone – and no, I don’t mean at the bar. Jump into a session you think is too advanced for you, or is on a topic you think you don’t know anything about and you just might surprise yourself.

5. Do unto others.

Dim your screen if you’re taking notes. Don’t let the door slam shut if you leave in the middle of a session. If you need to make or take a call find someplace quiet and out of the way to do it. And seriously, see tip #1 again. Someday it might be you up there trying to get the video in your slideshow to play like it did during the 37 times you tried it the night before, or it might be you hosting an event that you’ve worked really hard for. Put out into the universe what you want to get back, and be the kind of conference-goer you wish you were surrounded by.

Look, there’s always going to be that one (hopefully just one) person who tries to turn a session Q and A into a private business advisory meeting, or who drinks too much at the open bar because, “Hey, it’s free! HAW HAW HAW!” or who spends the whole time tweeting and talking about why she’s, like, so bored and totally knows more than these so-called experts. Just don’t be that person.