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Travel and conference participation

Conferences and travels are stressful, no doubt about that. They can also be frustrating. For you as an evangelist they are work, and as a great evangelist you should take them serious. Every one of them. If you can't take an event serious, don't speak there. As with everything about evangelism, your conference success stands and falls with your excitement. You will have prepared your talk and researched the audience. You should have looked at what other speakers are doing and talking about to avoid overlap. That's why it can be annoying when others use the conference as "time out of the office". And it gets worse when organisational problems mean you ended up in an almost empty room. Try to avoid this. Be as excited about the event as the organisers and attendees are about you being there.

The fact that every great evangelist should always keep in mind is the following:

Fact: If you are invited to speak at a conference, you should be present at the conference.

People paid money to see you and the organisers rely on you to entertain, inform and educate. If you are not present at the event, you are cheating both the organisers and the attendees. You are not a rock star who can sing one song and then leave covered by body guards. You need organisers and attendees to do your job. This starts by planning your trip to the event the right way.

Getting your travel and accommodation sorted

I could write a whole book about this, seeing how much I traveled and how many conferences I attended. Of course, things are different from conference to conference. But here are some points that are important and helped me keep my sanity during all the time on the road.

  • Book your travels with at least one buffer day before and after the event - there is no way you can be a great presence when you parachute in. Have a good night's sleep beforehand. Conferences tend to start early, and you should be awake, bright and bushy-tailed. There is a whole day ahead of you - if not two.
  • Stay close to the venue - whilst you can save money by being in places somewhere else it means extra commuting time. Also, as you are not likely to know the city commutes can become confusing. My favourite conferences are the ones who are in a hotel and you can book a room there. This means you can travel light at the event - just your laptop bag and some cables. There is nothing more annoying for you as a presenter to have to carry lots of layers of clothing and luggage around with you. You are there to represent, not to move in.
  • Travel in affordable style - this might sound controversial, but I flat out refuse to use budget airlines. The same goes for trips with lots of changes of modes of transport. Flying is stressful, recycled air is bad for you. Every other person at the airport is a potential obstacle which might make it impossible for you to arrive on time. Ask for a good mid-price ticket and know your airlines and airports. Make sure you sign up for a frequent flyer program. The more your advance in these, the cheaper it gets to get tickets as you can upgrade yourself with air miles.

Tip: conference organisers are the best people to ask about their event. They will know the best modes of transport and have booked the right accommodation for the other speakers and their staff. Ask them about these things instead of guessing yourself.

Who pays what?

This can be a controversial topic and I had quite some heated debates with companies and conference organisers. It is also an important topic. Conferences to me are like concerts: without a band you have no concert. This means organisers should treat you well and you should treat them right. Nobody likes a diva, no matter how good you are. Nobody likes a cheapskate either. If the conference budget has no money for at least accommodation and travel of the speakers, it is a terrible budget. You being at an event means you give your time, dedication and effort. That should be recognised and paid for. If you travel on your own expenses, you effectively pay for the event you speak at. This might be necessary at the beginning and if the conference is a massive opportunity for you. In the long run it is neither professional nor maintainable.

You are likely to work for a company if you are an evangelist and the company can cover some of the cost of your event participation. This can also be part of a sponsorship package - we pay our speaker's expenses and get coverage. But for you as the evangelist there are a few dangers in that.

In essence, you need to be you on stage. You don't want to be a shill that represents a company because he or she has to. This means you should be somewhat independent of both your company and the conference organisers. Neither should be able to tell you what to cover but instead trust your professionalism to do the right thing. If that is not possible, you need to work on that first. It is trust going both ways. Many companies will want to pay for your presence so that the organisers can't tell you what to do. This is nonsense, as it just means your company wants to be in that position.

There are many facets to this, but one thing should be high on your list:

Avoid any sponsored speaking slots

These are not for evangelists. These are for sales people. And nobody wants them. Audiences are annoyed when something is obviously a veiled advertisement. Presenters know people expect them to give them hot air with glitter in these talks. Sponsored speaking slots need to die in a fire. They are a product of a bygone time and are only around because of convenience.

In the best of scenarios try to aim for the following:

  • Have the conference organisers cover your travel and accommodation - after all, they know best.
  • Repay your company by representing them and by delivering a report after the event - how was your talk received? What did the competition do? What contacts do you have to follow up on? Did you meet a prospective hire?
  • Split the difference - your company can cover the extra days in the hotel and expenses on your travel. That makes it cheaper for the conference organisers.
  • Have a clear separation between your presence at the event and any form of sponsorship - you should not become something to barter with. You should pick the events you go to and not have to go as a speaking slot was part of the package. This is insulting to anyone involved and will neither help you nor your company.

This will be something you have to define rigidly and fight for. Being a speaker that paid for getting into the conference is reputation suicide. Do not try to get into that position. Your reputation is that of being an independent technical person, not a marketeer.

One other thing to keep in mind is that a lot of people present at conferences for a living. For them not getting paid to be there means they lose money. Don't be the person that under-bids them and make enemies that way.

Be at the event

It is very tempting to go, deliver your talk and meet friends or go an hang out with other speakers doing some sight-seeing or shopping. It is also not respectful to the attendees and organisers. Plan these activities around the conference, not on the day of it. Many great conference organisers do that for you. There is normally a speaker dinner before the event and some organised city trip afterwards. If you come across conference organisers like that, thank them. These are the good guys.

Try to be at the event when it starts and take part. Look at other presenters and see what they are doing. Talk to the people at the booths there, you know how boring that job can be. The more you soak up before your talk the more you can bring in later. How cool is it to remind the audience of something you heard in another presentation at the same event? How happy are sponsors when you mention what they show on their booth? Remember, the money the organisers got to get you here came from the sponsors. Pay some of it back in kind.

Give the event some social media love

You are most likely a voice on the social web already, or at least try to become one. Conferences are a great way to get a boost and get more people to follow you. This is pretty simple:

  • Have your social media contact info on your slides - introduce yourself with them. It is pretty amazing how many more followers you get by this, both at the conference and by people who read the slides online.
  • Cover your presence at the conference - tell people when and where your talk is using the conference hashtag. Tell people where you are in the breaks in case people want to talk to you.
  • Point out fun things and good talks by others - this is investing in the future. If you share your excitement about other people's work, they just might share theirs.
  • Retweet conference organiser updates - a bit of advertising doesn't cost you anything and they'll be grateful
  • Have your materials online and tell people about them - your slide deck/demo materials/videos/new product release with the conference hashtag attached to it will get much more people to find it and use it. For people at the conference this can also be a "try before you buy".

Use the event to build a network

It can be daunting to come back from an event with a whole stack of business cards. Especially in a day and age where we all have smartphones that would allow us to contact one another immediately. Don't be a "grab and forget" person though. If you got a contact, follow it up with an email. A lot of time nothing happens afterwards, but at least you have the details in your email client already in case you need it later. I started taking photos of business cards and stash those instead of the cards themselves. I shred those - it is not cool to throw away people's personal info like email and phone numbers.

Networking can be fun at events. I found it also very beneficial at times not to hang with the loud and rowdy crowd at afterparties and networking events but keep a bit to the outside. The people who are scared of the loud crowd will find you that way and I had much more interesting contacts and conversations that way. Especially during the time when I didn't drink at all - that automatically made you not part of the loud crowd.

Keep track of your conference participation

This can become a full-time job once you get known and there is a lot of demand for you. Make it easy for you by having a good calendar where you track your events. Follow up each of your conference participation with a debrief for your colleagues and for the conference organisers. This makes it easy to decide next time if the same event is worth you going or someone else. It also gives organisers something to think about and you a chance to say "thanks". And that goes a long way.