Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ How To Attend a Conference

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 20, 2009

Originally posted on Half an Hour, October 20, 2009.

I have attended hundreds of academic conferences. That does not make me an expert at attending conferences - I'm not sure there is such a thing - but it does give me some insight into how to get the most out of a conference.

For me, most conferences I attend also involve the presentation of a talk or discussion on a panel. This tends to flavour my participation and sharpen my appreciation of the conference. I think it helps me engage more with the conference, though this requires making your presentation into something unique every time.

I create a (mostly) new presentation for each conference I attend. I collect the slides, audio and sometimes video from the presentation here on my web site. Though they are my presentations, they are just as much products of the unique environment in which they were created.

Preparing for the Conference 

Long before the conference, you will be asked to submit a title and an abstract, and sometimes a full paper. This isn't an article on how to write conference presentations, but some advice is relevant:

- Be specific. Talk about something concrete. People will put up with theory, but only if it's presented in the context of actual examples, practice or technology.

- Show people things. You often hear the advice, "Lead with the demo." People so often want to explain first, and then show people. But by the time they get to the good stuff - the stuff people can see - they've lost their audience and run out of time.

- Make a point. I talk elsewhere about how to write an article quickly and easily. This especially applies to conference presentations. Your presentation should show something to people, but it should also lead them somewhere.

- Be flexible. Don't plan your presentation in detail. Have an outline of what you want to present, nothing more. Yes, perhaps you've written a paper, but you should not plan on reading that paper. The point of being at a conference is to benefit from being in the moment, in the context. Leave yourself open and ready for that.

More on the presentation later. You should also be thinking about the conference as a whole. What is the title of the conference? Where is it? What are the themes? Who are the keynotes?

You shouldn't plan your schedule or anything like that, but scout for things that might interest you and prepare by checking the speakers' web papers and previous publications. If you have time - and a sense of history - look at previous years' versions of the conference. Often papers and presentations will be posted online.

Travel Arrangements

Depending on how far you are travelling, you may be spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars of your or (preferably) someone else's money. Don't waste this investment by frugality.

- Plan to stay in the conference hotel, or at the very least, nearby. You'll be walking around, you'll be carrying gear, you'll want to be able to zip in and out of your home base at a moment's notice. Plus, if you have to commute to the conference, you're paying for a taxi or rental car (and parking), which wipes out any savings.

- Plan to arrive a full day ahead of the conference. This is especially important if the travel involves jet lag, but should be adopted as a general rule. If the conference starts Friday, arrive Wednesday evening. Why? You will be refreshed when the conference starts. You can take a later flight, and avoid waking up at 4:00 a.m. to catch an early departure. And you will be relaxed about delays and cancelled flights because you have time to spare.

- Check the program, write down the location of the hotel and conference facilities, then open Google Maps and have a look at the environment. What are the major roads? What is the route from the airport? What are the local attractions? What other facilities are right around the hotel within easy walking distance?

- Plan for emergencies. Your luggage will be lost, you will misplace your documents, you will be robbed or pick-pocketed. Have a backup of your presentation on a USB. Make a copy of your passport and put it in a different suitcase (that is something that just saved me in  Africa). Put your credit and debit cards in different places. Don't bring your house keys. Keep a change of clothing in your carry-on.

- Dress in layers: loose pants, t-shirt or gold shirt, sweater (in winter), light jacket or coat, flat shoes and comfortable socks. Put your passport and travel documents in a pouch (so you don't drop them) and keep it stored securely with you at all times. Seriously - if you put it somewhere 'for now' you will forget about it.

- Plan to depart a day or two after the conference. Not all employers will approve of this, however, it is best to take a few personal days in order to enjoy the destination. Minimally, you should plan to depart the day after the conference, and not the final day of the conference. This is because conferences sometimes run a bit long, but most of all because the evening after the conference (and sometimes the next day) are ideal for ad hoc meetings and networking.


Go straight from the airport or the train station to your hotel, check in (if possible) and drop off your luggage. Don't dally - you are slow and vulnerable while you are carrying your luggage, more vulnerable to loss and theft. Also, even after a short flight, you may be disoriented and not at your sharpest. Get settled in, get out of your travel clothes. Take a short nap if you're tired (especially if you've travelled overnight).

You want, on your first day, to plan to go to bed at the appropriate bedtime for your destination, however odd that may feel. I try to extend my day so it feels like I'm staying up late.

Next day you should have a full day free. You can wait for your luggage to arrive from the airline, check out the local area (finding convenience stores and the like), walk around and take photographs, locate the conference venue and where you`ll be speaking, purchase the missing connector or cable you forgot at home, recharge your computer and iPod batteries, eat well and exercise, and relax.

Your job on this day is to recover from travel, acclimatize, get over jet lag, and to get a feel for the local environment. Read the newspaper, watch TV, see what`s happening, go to the mall or central square, drink it in.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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