Making Conferences Work for Me

stc-summitI’ve had a few people message me about my approach to conferences, and my willingness to pay for my own adventures.

I’ll start with a little bit of background.

I never had an employer that would pay my way to any conference. Worse, none of them would give me time off to attend, which meant that I had to take half of my precious 10 days of PTO to fly across the country, attend a 3-day conference and fly home. If the choice was between a proper vacation and conference attendance, I’d take vacation every time.

But after I went independent, my perspective changed. I wasn’t limited by PTO — as my own boss I can take as much or as little as I want — and I knew that I needed the fresh ideas and contacts that I wouldn’t get working in isolation in a home office. But I still had to make that leap of faith and believe that my investment in the conference was worth the time away from my family, and the money that I would sink into it.

My first conference venture was the Creative Freelancer Conference in Chicago in 2008 (now part of HOW Design Live). I went with a colleague/roommate to share expenses and cut costs. And in the weeks leading up to the trip, I was terrified that I was wasting my money.

As it turned out, CFC was more valuable than I could have ever imagined. Focused on the operational side of managing a small or independent business, it gave me an extensive list of Things I Needed to Take Care of Right Away: consulting with an attorney; rebranding my business; marketing; accounting; giving me the nerve to stand up for myself; negotiating deals; and firing clients when necessary. I came out with two dozen action items, and perhaps most importantly, I actually followed through and implemented them.

Needless to say, the success of that conference led me to try others. Now I have to limit myself to no more than four conferences per year. (More than four is a challenge, both financially and in terms of time management.)

In 2015, I attended the STC Summit, Confab Intensive, and LavaCon, skipping my usual AMWA conference only because it conflicted with a planned trip to London to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet. (Priorities.) These are all very different conferences, focusing on technical communication, content strategy, techcomm management and medical writing. Each is valuable in its own way, exposing me to different ideas and interesting people. And each one has helped to shape me into the professional that I am today.

Does that mean that I don’t cringe a bit as I click “submit” on a pricey registration. Nope. It’s still hard to part with the money. Yet I know from experience that the lessons I learn and the contacts I make will be worth the investment in myself.

Tell me about your experience with conferences. Have they been valuable for you? What would you like to see more (or less) of?

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