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“Post-Pandemic” Conferencing in Higher Ed

“Post-Pandemic” Conferencing in Higher Ed

I LOVE professional development, especially a good conference. And as I prepare to head out to the NASPA 2023 in Boston (yes, this is recorded a bit early at the end of March), I wanted to share some tips and tricks to planning and having the best conference experience.

Ever since COVID, travel and attending large crowd events like a conference have become even more difficult than they used to be! Do we wear masks? Is attending in person really better than logging in online? And COVID stuff aside, how do you pick which conferences to go to? Or what goes into proposing a presentation, and what are the best ways to get accepted?

In this episode, I download all the lessons I’ve learned over the last 25 years in the world of conferencing. From booking hotels and packing to connecting with colleagues and networking, I’ll cover my own process from start to finish and help you take on your next conference, whether it’s your first or fortieth.

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Hello, and welcome to Josie and the Podcast. I’m Josie, and I’m so happy you’re here with me. What does it mean to lead in the digital space with heart and humanity? On this podcast, I spend time answering this question with heart, soul, and lots of substance. My goal is to share conversations that encourage you, empower you, and entertain you to rethink digital strategy for yourself and the organizations you support.

With some travels coming up, I am recording this one a little early, the end of March. I am preparing to go to a conference. I am giddy. I love conferences so much. But here’s what I know, in this post-pandemic — whatever we call it — world, any kind of in-person or traveling stuff is just so much more complicated. And I’ve got a few lessons learned and number of years experience in the conferencing world, both before and after COVID. And then, so I thought, “This would be a fascinating podcast shorty episode to record.” Again, I wanted to get this out there. I, kind of, wondered, like, “Well, what would it be if I actually waited to record this until after the conference I’m going to?” But it just would’ve been too tight with time. And so, maybe in a future-shorty episode, I’ll be, like, “I totally got this wrong,” or I would add this to the list. But that’s the thing, too. The suggestions I give, you might disagree with, or you might have things to add or subtract or… I hope you take away at least a couple tips, and maybe do things, learn from my lessons, so you don’t have to learn them yourself.

[00:03:04] But it’s always in these shorty episodes, you’re just hearing from me, from my little home office in Los Angeles. I’m going to start out with a couple updates. Also, by the time this comes out, I will have had a birthday. I’m turning the big 42. It’s not really a big one, but I’m trying to embrace my age. I had a mentor, supervisor in grad school and her birthday’s around the same time as me. And I remember her saying, she had a birthday and, you know, like, something about… she mentioned her age, but she said how much she loved getting older, that she just kept growing, and she wanted to celebrate. And I had never heard someone frame a birthday in that way, that looking forward to, not necessarily the aging process, but she just enjoyed life even more year after year. And there’s so much, like, doom and gloom about getting older and aging. And I always think about what she said to me, when I was a very much, just soaking up everything grad student.

I think, I mentioned earlier that I am trying to read more to, like, log off and to just be present with something not work or working out. I am on a roll, you all. I have read nine books so far. That’s a lot for me. They are on my goodreads. I can’t necessarily… I wouldn’t really recommend them. I know that’s weird to say, unless you’re into super-cheesy, steamy romance novels. And so, you got to look at my good-reads list, then, if you’re in the market for those.

I’m also celebrating because I’ve got some new clients. Spring is  a busy, always a busy time for me, but my consulting services just continue to grow, and I’m even continuing to work with some clients where some contracts were ending. And if that’s not such a great sign — that is a great sign — when people want to keep working with you, which, you know, the way I started my company, my business, was more through speaking. And what always, kind of, felt like a gap in my heart was I would go for one keynote or even spending a full day, and then you’re gone, and you’re not sure, did it impact? Are they going to implement this stuff?

And also, and I think, in the back of my mind, I knew that one workshop, one keynote can only take people so far. And I think, what is really brings me joy is being able to see the progress and transformation. And, you know, working through some of the challenges, things take time to implement. And many times, you need a partner in doing that. And it’s not that I’m not getting on stage and doing that kind of work, but the way that higher ed and digital communication needs, professional development, and service providers are working, this is really working for me, too.

[00:06:09] Also, by the time this comes out, the Digital Community Building Cohort will have wrapped up. This will be the fourth cohort that we have graduated. And I just love this bunch so much. We use Discord, instead of Slack, as our digital community-building tool. And I hope we’ll continue to keep that open and engaging throughout the year. And we’re going to keep offering this program as long as higher ed needs to better train and provide curriculum for those that are tasked with running social media.

I might do some more reflections later about that program, but I also want to give a shout-out to my faculty. I don’t know what it is about life and timing, but the last three springs, which is when this program is offered, I have lost a dear family member or a close friend. And so, there has been a session or two that I haven’t been able to attend, because these are all virtual.

And so, we did recently, we have a very dear family/friend, Andrea, who is such a warrior, but after three and a half years, passed on from a rare cancer. And I literally write when the memorial services were. It was when the cohort was supposed to happen. And this team of faculty, not only are so brilliant and experienced and knowledgeable, but were able to take this session and to do this.

And I didn’t even have to think and worry and think twice about it. So, just a lesson and, like, work with amazing humans that have big old hearts and really know their stuff. And that’s why even more why I love the cohort. And I think, participants can feel that, too.

But as I do look ahead to some things to look forward to, I am headed to a conference that also feels like family, NASPA, which is a conference for student affairs professionals. And as I even prepare myself to go, is why I thought about, “Okay, like, what lessons could I give you all about what the heck I have learned over the years?” I love, love, love, love professional development. It, kind of, explains why I do what I do as a business. I used to joke, and I think, I maybe shared this before, that if I could have a job, this was before I built my business, to just go to conferences, that would be an awesome job. But I wouldn’t want to just sit in an expo hall. And so, I feel like the way, because I don’t… you’ll never find me at a expo boost. A, those are really expensive. And B, I love to be out and about. I love to be educating. I love to plan meetups and happy hours and lunches.

[00:09:04] And there’s so many ways, even if you’re listening to this as a campus partner, I think, collectively, we can rethink how we show up in conference spaces to network, to educate, to inform people of what we do. But no matter what your title is or why you’re going to a conference, what we do know is today, 2023, it is complicated, whether if it’s in-person, hybrid, or online. Do we wear masks? If you have a sore throat, do you stay in your hotel room? Or, was it from just talking all night or at a session? If you’ve attended a conference as an online participant, how did that feel when an in-person was happening? Did you feel like a stepchild? Or, did they have a tool that made you feel like you were there and really connected? And honestly, it just depends, right? The time of year, the location, the type of conference, some may not even know what to expect. So, I want to give at least what I’m seeing right now in one’s  I’ve attended, what I’m seeing in the industry, and where I really feel like we should go from here.

And I also want to give insight, not just on going to a conference, but I hope you feel empowered in this episode to think of yourself as a potential presenter, that it might be intimidating to think about putting together a proposal and then actually presenting. And it might be discouraging, too, if maybe some of your proposals were not accepted in the past. But I am just such a fan of… especially, if you’re further along in your career, we need you to, not just sit back at these conferences and go into your little circles and cliques and be much too comfortable, so I’ll get on that little soapbox later.

What I do actually appreciate, what COVID has pushed us into different realms of professional development. In the past, we may have seen some tools for an online or hybrid option, or maybe just a couple things were live-streamed. We also had to learn hard lessons with communication, as things were constantly modified, canceled, postponed, moved. We’re having to be as fluid as we can and flexible, and also just more considerate, right? Like, we used to show up at work and at conferences, maybe a little more under the weather than we should have, or we were pushing ourselves too far, and then going back home. And then, of course, like, feeling under the weather. And why is that? Because maybe we were just pushing our bodies too hard, or not having some basic health and wellness measures in place.

[00:12:00] As I think about where, maybe, I got my conference kick was, as a kid. I was a 4-H’er… 4 H, I didn’t like show animals, unless you count my cat or my dog. But I went to summer camps, I went to church camps, I went to high school-leadership stuff. And then, come college, I was that high-energy college student at the regional NACA or NODA. And then, once I got to graduate school, the faculty really encouraged us to look into some organizations like NASPA and ACPA, which again are really… Well, they’re for anyone in higher ed, but especially if you’re in student affairs, student services, those are a couple we really got coached to look into.

And I find for myself that I love these momentous, transformational event experiences that I can see a difference before and after. That I, of course, love a course or a book, but as much as I believe in online and hybrid and multi-methods of professional development, there is something to be said about the shared experience.

But what I do find in higher ed, sometimes, we’re all just trying to create the exact same experience that might not be working anymore. Again, I’m getting ahead of myself about where I feel like we need to be pushing ourselves as an incomplete industry in professional development. So, I’m going to ring out my lessons learned from the past 25 years — picking conferences, proposing, presenting, thriving at the conferences, and then, afterwards. I also want to hear your reactions, your lessons, your ideas. Okay, here we go. Picking a conference, there are so, so many. There are some, for even the most niche of areas in higher ed and beyond, and then some really large ones.

I do want you to pay attention to size, because size can matter in… I don’t think we’re giving enough attention, not to just the regional or local or big national. I think, there’s some really cool opportunities for us to start to create some more intimate gatherings that are still based around conferencing, like summits and institutes that, I think, people would be really hungry for.

What I also think about size is, for example, the conference I’m going to in Boston is going to be very, very large. And it could be very overwhelming. And there will be people that are there that I know and would love to see, but I will not see, unless I make an intentional effort to see them, if it even is just attending one of their conference sessions and/or setting up a coffee or lunch with them, versus something that’s, maybe, a little smaller, that there’s going to be more shared space and maybe even more collaborative sessions.

The second thing when thinking about picking a conference is whether or not you have institutional support. And this is going to connect with funding. These things can get expensive very quickly. And it’s not just the price tag of the registration. But if you think about, for example, I’m traveling from Los Angeles to Boston, that flight, I could have went to Europe for how much that flight was. Because, I mean, just a little further across a pond, I would’ve made it. And then, you add in hotel, travel from the airport, food, and especially for someone who’s independent now, it all comes out of my pocket. I very much pay attention to these things more.

This is also why it surprises me so much that there isn’t more post-conference reporting of what we learned, what really impacted, and passing that knowledge back on into our colleagues, back on our campuses, who weren’t able to attend. So, add up all of those numbers when you are proposing to your supervisor and/or setting funding aside for your team, that this one conference potentially could be expensive. And as I’ll share in a little bit, not all conferences include meals. I’ll get way more into my lessons learned there.

When you think about picking a conference, I want you to see yourself as pitching this. I would put together my pitch for my professional development before budgeting. Whatever that is, make sure you get it in. If there’s a formal process or it’s a more of a conversation with your supervisor, is lay out all those specifics — the costs included, the benefits to you, the benefits to the institution.

[00:17:08] I will also talk in more detail about presenting and that you are, at least, proposing to present. That could be a huge additional element. Or maybe you would be willing to meet with alumni or donors in the area, that could be another benefit to getting you to this physical location.

And that leads me to the next thing about picking a conference is the location, especially, if you’re needing to travel. And I actually want to talk about more of a values-based decision about location. And I do think more organizations, associations, and conferences are thinking this way. Does the state policies align with your values or your institution’s values? I know, in the state of California, if you work with a state institution, there are some states you all may not be able to attend a conference there, rightflly so But again, there might be some other reasons that you have, based upon where a conference is located.

I also would say, are there some additional benefits to that location? Maybe you have friends and family in the area, or there’s something else that you would really love to soak up and learn and experience while you are there.

I would also pay attention to pricing, going back to institutional support, and the timing for that. Many conferences have an early bird and a tiered system for signing up. Make sure you get your requests in far before that period as well. And many conference hotels have a block booking that you can, again, if you get that approval early enough, you can grab one of those reservations right away.

And the last suggestion in picking a conference is their capacity and built-in structure for presenting. There’s so, so many benefits. It in itself is your professional development to experience educating in that format, whether if you’re presenting hybrid or in-person. And so, this is where I would like to give you a little bit of my experience in proposing to present. I have probably proposed, over the years, do I want to put a number to this? I’ve proposed, at least, 50. I bet it’s more, like, 100 sessions. I don’t know the percent that have been accepted, but I am feeling more confident of my acceptance rate. And so, I want to give you some things to think about when you are putting together a proposal that I have found to be beneficial, not just for me to get a session accepted, but I do think, it’s benefited the conference attendee experience and overall education at the conference.

[00:20:00] So, the proposal process is going to be a different timeline. It could be a half year or more before the conference. So, you have to keep your eyes out for these due dates, because they can come and go very quickly. And I do not find that there is much flexibility in there.

As you’re thinking about putting a proposal together, I suggest, looking at previous session titles of that conference to get a sense, even, of titling and topics. I would think about, you know, like, what’s topics that you’re really excited about, or even what you are facing the most challenge with right now.

I would also love to see more sessions of, not just, like, your victory parade, but what about the complete failures? We need to learn from each other’s flops and not just, like, “Okay, here’s my dissertation, and this is what I found,” but, like, yeah, you get it, but…

This, kind of, leads me to a little bit of the political dance, not only of our institutions, but within associations, is you get to know what they’re looking for in writing things in a certain way. So, for example, I know there’s some conferences that are going to very much expect and see a program more elevated if there are scholarly citations included, versus there’s some other ones that would be quite confusing and unnecessary. There’s also some conferences where the proposal process is very long, and you should not wait until the last minute to put that together, versus others where all of I’ve submitted is a title and a paragraph.

I want you to also think about, if you think this session is going to be aided greatly by including others, and honestly, I would tell you the answer is yes. There’s been a couple times I’ve presented alone, but for the most part, I am including a variety of voices that are especially diverse from different institution types that can provide a variety of perspectives. I think that’s really what’s valuable about these conferences, is that we can bring so many minds together.

The one exception of when I presented alone a few times, and this is when I say proposing to present, it’s not the keynote speaker, you’re doing an educational session, is when I presented my dissertation research, it was heavily me. I was very, very proud of that.

But even when I’m presenting content from my research, from my book, I am always including people that were, included in that research and/or that I think emulates, for example, what digital leadership is in higher education.

So, going back to thinking about the culture of the conference, think about who attends that conference. Is this a doers’ conference versus the managers’ versus the executives’ versus… is this one where we’re going to see all kinds of levels throughout the organization? Because that may also lead you to the level of intricacy that people are going to want to walk away with.

[00:23:11] When I go to a conference, like a HighEdWeb, it’s a doer conference. They want the most intricate tools as possible, because they need them tonight, or they needed them last week, versus, and I’m not saying managers and executives don’t need these, but many times, they’re looking for more of a dialogue, a facilitated experience. This is where many times I’ll do panels or breakout conversations, because they’re looking for those connections. Again, not always hard and fast rules there, but your formatting might look a little bit different. I also find, because I’ve reviewed a number of proposals, just some basic stuff, like, make sure your title is clear, your abstract and your description actually describe what you’re going to do.

That is the worst when you go to a session and it’s not at all what you were pitched to in the program book, because this happens, sometimes. Life happens. Panelists change. You can let conference organizers know that some things have changed to see if they can update things, especially, as more conferences use digital tools for their schedule.

And then, please, spell-check. I have been the bearer of this badness sometimes, and a reviewer has pointed it out to me, but with tools like Grammerrly anymore, I feel like we just don’t have an excuse, and neither did I. So, make sure to use tools like that when you are building your proposals.

And I would love to hear other examples of what you think about when you’re building a proposal. The last thing I would share is follow directions. Hopefully, if the conference is organized, well, they’re very specific down to the word count of how much or how little you’re supposed to give. I would stick pretty close and not far less than what they’re asking for. I’m not saying just fill words to fill them, but a reviewer starts to get into a pattern of recognition about the amount of weight one proposal should look like. And if one is drastically shorter, that may send a message of, maybe, not putting in as much time, but that’s not something that I’ve necessarily researched, but just, kind of, one overall practice.

Okay. So, you’ve got accepted to present, congratulations, shared on social media, tag all the people that are going to be part of this cool program, save it on your calendar, obviously, then definitely, register for the conference. But here’s the thing, don’t wait until the week before to prepare. Typically, I would pull together a panel at least a month before, if not more, if it’s going to be more of a discussion. But that said, one of my sessions at NASPA is very much a tactile session, and we have been working on that for a number of months.

I have seen plenty of people in all kinds of pockets of a convention center or conference hotel preparing their sessions the day of. Or maybe they’re practicing. But what I have learned is that it’s so stressful. How awesome it feels to show up on-site or online and be ready. So, then you can just be physically present, whether if that is in the Zoom chat, in the networking, in the opening sessions, because it can be quite stressful. I’m not saying I haven’t done it, but I have learned my lessons to try to pre-prepare as much as possible.

[00:27:01] Because what I don’t want to happen to you, which has happened to me, is that I’m going to these conferences, only to give, only to present, only to prepare. And I don’t even have time to receive, not only to learn myself, to be able to celebrate others, and to just be present in things. So, that’s a big tip, big lesson there.

I mentioned before, if anything major changes in the world or in your session, please, make sure to let the conference organizers know. Many times, they can be flexible with titles. If a presenter changes, if, again, you need to update that description, I think that just is really honoring people’s time.

And then, a couple of things to think about when you are presenting — this, honestly, will be another shorty episode, potentially — is to make sure you’re preparing your materials with accessibility in mind. There’s color contrast, I really want you to pay attention to that. I can include a link of the show note. There’s certain colors for some that aren’t able to really consume that. If it’s fully digital, see what the organizers can do to make sure that things are closed-captioned and that all these materials can be shared in accessible ways.

If it’s going to help you to practice, I don’t want you to feel like you got to memorize this stuff either. But do be very familiar with your materials, so you’re not just reading off of your slides. And do be prepared for some technical issues. This is just the world we live in. It might happen. And if it does happen, it’s going to be okay. For example, if you’ve got a presentation deck, make sure a couple people have access to it and/or you’ve submitted it as you were asked to ahead of time. That would be a huge tip.

Okay. I’m actually going to present a… share a few more presenter tips in a minute, because I want to get back to my people, my listeners, who just want to come. They just want to learn. And especially, for all attendees as you think about planning ahead. A lot of times, when they say, “Okay, register,” and then, “Here’s the hotel information,” I have found I really enjoy to get a hotel that is very close to the action. I have done the whole Airbnb thing or a hotel further away. I found many times, in higher ed, some of these conferences might be scheduled at times when the weather isn’t great. Either it’s going to be crazy hot or crazy cold or rain, because maybe there’s some discounts based upon that timing. And at least, for me, that’s just so tough to, like, take public transportation. I’m not saying I can’t do it, but there’s a variety of reasons why I try to select the main hotel. If it is very cost-prohibitive. I’ll look at other places and/or get a roommate.

[00:29:52] Back in the day in grad school, we packed a hotel room, and not for a party, like, for our purses literally, that… Unfortunately, what does break my heart about, not only the cost of conferences, but many times, these hotels are not the most economical. I do find a lot more places are offering a variety of tiers of hotels in areas for accessibility. So, I do hope that continues. But for me, being close, not only with a tier, but if you’re very busy, if you’re involved, if you’re presenting, just think about that extra stress if you are having to travel back and forth places.

I would actually say the most stressful, that stressful but, like, complicated conference was when NASPA was in Los Angeles, in my backyard, basically. And I didn’t stay, because I was like, “Oh, I’ll just, you know, like, Ubers and stuff or drive.” And it added so much more stress, like, worrying about, obviously, driving in LA and parking, and that would’ve been a big redo in my book.

The other element is transportation. So, thinking about flights, this is my suggestion, I would not take a red eye, to then step off, to then go to the conference. You are already entering a very busy experience, depleted. That saying, my husband and I are traveling to the Aspen on a red eye, but the conferences, its start is Sunday, and we get in Saturday morning. And it was the cheapest. So, sometimes, you do have to make these choices.

The other thing to consider, as you think about closing the last day of the conference, I do find a lot of people come to a closing more casual, because they are flying out directly after. So, if you were to think about what would I rather get in early or stay later? I do find on average people come earlier. And if they need to leave earlier, that’s when they do. I’m not encouraging that. I’m just trying to give you insight about some trends that I see.

But also, on that note, I do find people like to come earlier, stay longer to actually enjoy the city or local community, because you may not actually have a ton of time or energy to explore. There are some places that I go, I hardly leave the conference hotel or convention center. Especially, if they’re feeding us in the convention, I have, like, literally no reason to leave. And so, keep that in mind.

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[00:33:04] The other thing to do before you get there, as you plan ahead, is your calendar. There are some tools that some conferences use, like a schedule planner. They may have an app to build out your schedule. Honestly, I, kind of, go old school. I create a spreadsheet that I then print out and bring with me. So, I literally can see my color coding to know, like, when my meals are, who I’m meeting with, when my session is where I’m going. I dump it into Google Calendar as well. And then, I, of course, will double-check. Because things do happen. Scheduling, locations, especially, might change, a session might get canceled or moved. So, always, kind of, keep an eye on the conference app.

As you think about planning ahead, even when you register, especially, if this is the first time at a conference or within an organization, you might look into if there’s a pre-conference or pre-event experience. I’ll talk about this in a minute for first-time attendees, but I have found this is a great-starter kit. You’re going to already meet at least one other person, that then you can go to the opening with, or just, kind of, like, gears you up. And I find those pre-conferences are smaller and, also, definitely, more centered and focused on a topic or an audience. So, don’t discount those pre-cons. Sometimes, they do cost, actually, they always tend to cost extra, but it’s something to look into.

Okay, you’ve done all your pre-planning. You’ve got your schedule built. Now, it’s time to pack. This is my life right now. Actually, it’s going to be my life, and it’s fairly chaotic. I am an over-packer. And I have just accepted it. I plan for multiple bags. It relieves my anxiety. Take some of my packing tips with a grain of salt. But I also, most of those issues are, like, clothes related. These things I’m suggesting, I think, are more logistical. And, of course, it starts with food.

Even if the conference includes all your food, I would pack some of your own snacks, from energy bars, maybe, you know, if there’s some powder drinks to give you some extra hydration. You never know, you realize, like, you go to the breakfast and it’s only pastries. Like, sometimes, I wish these places would get better about thinking about variety, and even healthy stuff. And so, having something in, literally, my back pocket that I can grab.

On that note, many places, they have great water stations. But for sustainability, I like to have my own water bottle. This also could be a health and safety measure, too. Water bottles are so important to also have, as you’re traveling through the airport, a lot of places have water stations. Stay hydrated as you travel and as you go through that conference.

I have also found, because I use my phone a lot, that I, kind of, need a external charger. There’s some smaller conferences that will have tables set up with chargers, but you can always tell where the plugin is because that’s… we’re going to… people are all going to be surrounded, probably, by. And I do think conferences are getting better where they may have charging stations or some other hubs, but just a little itty-bitty one, and I can link to one that I just got. It’ll even fit in my back pocket or my purse if I need it for other social situations.

I’ve also learned the hard way, even as hot as it is outside at a location, don’t count on that inside. Actually, plan it to be opposite and even colder. Bring layers — a jacket, a scarf. I don’t think you need, like, hat and gloves, but there are sometimes where I am shaking cold.

On the note of attire, a lot of these larger conferences are spread out. So, I do like a good wedge here and there, especially, if I’m presenting. But that means I’m going to throw in my favorite flats from Amazon, which are so cheap and so amazing. I will link them in the notes to the show. That I can squish in a bag, they hardly take up space. And then, I’ll flip those over. It has saved me so many Band-Aids and so much pain.

Okay. This next one is a little bit debated. Do people still use business cards? I did not bring business cards last year to a couple conferences and I, kind of, regretted it. People still ask me for them. I even sent them my digital, like, I created a digital business card, which I think is awesome. And you can still post those and share those out. But I do think there is something. If you are going to be in person, and especially, if you’re presenting or providing some kind of resource, mentorship, it is nice to have that kind of handoff.

If not, my suggestion is, right there in the moment, when they ask you for your business card, say, “No, let’s connect on LinkedIn, and let’s do it right now.” Bring out almost like when you’re… this is the weirdest example, you know, when you’re at a bar. I don’t know this, actually, because I’ve been married forever, but you would share each other’s phone numbers. In this case, in a professional context, you would be sharing your LinkedIn account.

Okay, health-wise, a few things that I know I need. In sickness and in health, I pack a whole bunch of vitamins, cough drops. I’ll have masks. You might find you step into a conference session and the majority of people are in masks. And then, contextually, you might decide, “Okay, this seems like it might be a good space, respectfully, that the tone’s been set. And to my understanding, the majority of conferences do not have any mandates on masks. But the beautiful thing now is we all get to decide how to show up in different spaces. But I would also have the human decency to read the room. And if anything has ever been asked of you, don’t be a jerk. Wear your mask, if that’s the deal.

I also know, I got sick traveling home from New Year’s, is when I got COVID. I’m fairly positive on a plane. I’m going to be masked up on my flight, to and from Boston.

The last thing is I know I got to bring some Advil. There’s a lot happening. My brain’s going to explode. I just want to know. I’m going to have some. I also know that I have some tummy troubles here and there, so I’ve got, like, a little travel thing of Pepto. And that’s just me. And that’s just things that I know that I have.

[00:39:56] So, I have this little Mary Poppins, kind of, pouch that I bring with me in my bag, wherever I am, that, yeah, I’m that lady. If you see me at a conference and you need anything, basically, ask me for it. I probably have it. Hand sanitizer, paper clips, a clicker, I got it. I just learned to have those things on me.

I’ve also learned a few things to have in the hotel. I do bring a mask for my eyes. I bring earplugs. I also think I’m going to bring a dehumidifier, like, a travel one. Again, I can link to it. That you actually just dump a classic water bottle in, and it just brings some moisture. Hotels, I find, are so darn drying. That has been really helpful.

No surprise, because I have this Mary Poppins little bag, it needs to go into a larger bag. So, I was the doc student wearing my backpack all the time, but I now, you know, like, I’ll have a side bag if I’m not doing a backpack. Because I’m also, as a presenter, many times I need my laptop or different cords and chargers.

But also, as you think about packing, check the weather obsessively. I know, going to Boston, the weather could change within hours. So, I am bringing a variety of things from sunscreen, to a rain jacket, to an umbrella, and modify is needed.

Also, know that a lot of these locations, there’s going to be a CVS nearby, or you could get something Instacart to you, or you can travel to somewhere to pick something up. Know that those resources are there.

Oh, oh, my gosh, I’m giving you all probably more than you bargained for. I am not done. Okay. This may have needed to have been a two-parter, but here we go. You’re at the conference. Holy cow, we’re finally here. I want to back you up again. Before you just get going, and you go to all the things, you do, all the things, you meet other people, what are your goals for this conference? If you didn’t have to answer it when you were pitching to your supervisor or even to yourself, I want you to go into a conference with two goals, at least two. It could be really specific, like, you want to get X amount of business cards. You’re looking for this specific knowledge set. You want to get involved. What is success going to look like? There’s just a few things. Lessons that I’ve learned, as you’re going throughout the experience.

You’ve built this schedule. Throw the schedule out. Pay attention to your body. Pay attention to, if you go into a session and you’re all of a sudden, it is not what it was written to be, or you’re not feeling it, it’s okay, very respectfully, quietly to step away. If you were supposed to go to this breakfast thing but you really need a little bit more rest, take the rest, take the breaks. Do not feel like you have to program yourself day in and day out.

[00:42:59] I would also say “professional,” there is no such thing. Dress as you would like to dress. You will find, at every conference, people are dressed in three-piece suits. In higher ed, people are dressed in jeans and rompers. Do what you want to do. Make it you. But do wear your name tag. And there’s opportunities for you to add your pronouns, add other identifying factors that I think would help break the ice. I do recommend, though, when you leave the convention center, just more for a safety thing is I tend to take mine off right away, so I’m not a moving target, potentially.

Okay. So, for first-time attendees, a lot of these conferences have a first-time attendee social or event. Go, meet people, learn about the conference. Also, think about going to a pre-conference before.

Also, look into if there are any mentor programs or involvement opportunities, or even volunteering.

The third thing for, especially, first-time attendees, if you are going with other people from your campus or your cohort, don’t just hide out with them. I’ll give you a pass for the first day, heck, after that, break up the squad. Because the benefit, too, is now you can come back together with all the different sessions and networking events that you went to, to be able to share notes.

For those that have been going, especially to one specific attendance or an association for a long time, and I know I need to call myself to the carpet on this as well, is conferences can feel very cliquey, too, especially, first-time attendees are those that are not as connected in. I also understand on the flip side, because we haven’t seen each other for so long, and/or we just love each other, these things can be a love fest of reunions, of hugs, of tears, of joy. But if it’s only that, with only certain amounts of people the whole time, that can feel very disconnecting.

So, this is what I try to keep in mind. I’m always bringing someone new to an event, a meetup, a session. I want to connect someone into a circle, whether if that’s a physical circle, at a reception or in a more larger essence of what my network is. I would also say, if you see me at a conference and I’m talking with people, please, like, just give me the… I’ll be on the lookout. I’ll look for the eye of, like, “You want in this.” I know, sometimes, it can feel like hopscotch, you’re like the jump rope for heart. You’re trying to get in on a connection.

Because know, in my heart of heart, that is my goal. I was one of those. Everyone is going to be one of those people the first time you go to a conference, or maybe even the third time. Remember, everybody was new at some point. And we, in higher ed, we want an inclusive and welcoming environment. And we need to hold ourselves accountable to that at conferences as well.

Okay, I said I’d have some presenter tips, so here we go. And there are so many more I could share. For those presenting educational sessions, get there early, get your tech set up, and advocate for what you need. I find, sometimes, the rooms are set up. And I’m not talking about the chairs necessarily, because that might be out of our hands, but where the table is, where the mics are, some of those things that we could have some flexibility around.

I really encourage you not to have people hiding behind tables, and/or move the table closer forward or center. This is why I also ask my panelist to get there at least 10 minutes early. 

As you think about setting the tone for your room, I love to play music. It sets the tone. It breaks the ice. And it just, kind of, like, eases everyone up. I also like, if I’m able to, I will situate myself closer to the entry, so I’m able to welcome people in. So, people are getting to know who my face is, and I’m someone that’s smiling. But that does mean my slides need to be ready to go and open and up on the podium.

This is a message, both for conference organizers, as much as presenters. Use a mic. It’s a non-negotiable. Whatever they’ll give you, lapel, wireless, handheld, ask for it, even if it’s one and you have to pass it around. Don’t assume, when you ask, “Can everyone hear me?” that they should even share that they can’t or not. Like, just assume, you need to use all methods possible to project through a normal tone, that then a mic can amplify for you. Okay. And my soapbox there.

I want you to think, especially, if you’re coming from the campus partner side, or even anyone that, like, uses conferences for networking or maybe advancement, this is not your opportunity to sell. This is why people have booths or other opportunities. I want you to see yourself as a give, give, give. Give people education, and then at the end, how they can contact you. Let them know what you do. But that is just the worst to go to a session, and it turns into a sales tactic.

I also want you to think beyond engaging your audience. A lot of times, proposals want you to say, how are you going to engage the audience in interaction? The worst that many people do is ‘turn to your neighbor’ type of prompt. We can do better. You can look at things like Slido. You could heck bring up a Google Doc that everyone could jump into, in addition to making things accessible.

I really like at the end to give people a QR code that they can quickly scan on their phones. They’ll get your contact information, they’ll get the slides, whatever other resources you want to send people to. Because most likely, after your session, people got to jet. They got to get to another session, a lunch or something. Some might be able to stay and chat, but get them those resources right away.

And then, of course, for yourself, or those you’re presenting with, don’t forget to take photos. Ask people in the session if you know someone, if they could take a photo of you actually presenting. This would be great for LinkedIn or your portfolio. So, don’t forget it.

[49:52] Post-conference — you have survived, you are celebrating. I want you to continue to thrive. Do not get on a plane, land, and then go straight to campus. I really encourage you, even through the proposal process, to propose at least a half day or a late start the next day, especially, if you were traveling really far. I would also recommend grabbing all those new LinkedIn connections or new business cards, and connecting with them right away. Even if it’s just a quick DM to say, “Hi, did you get back safely? I really enjoyed your session.” Get that connection going.

And then, follow up with conference organizers to see if you can actually get evaluations. This is where I think, unfortunately, conferences are not doing a service to those that, like, myself, give so much. I very rarely see the evaluations of my specific session.

And I have heard, overall, some frustrations, where certain presenters continue to get accepted to present, but they aren’t maybe actually giving really great materials. They’re just really good at submitting a proposal. So, that would be another challenges — can you start, like, a CRM that tracks evaluations as well as proposals? And so, you’re, kind of, tracking to make sure we’re giving people the best experience possible at these conferences.

Okay, my final thing. I swear, oh, my gosh, I’ve had so much to say. As we think about advancing professional development and conferences, hear me loudly, hybrid is double. You are putting together an online experience and in-person. Both are going to take a ton of work, time, and money. Don’t just throw on online and hybrid because you can get people to sign up for either. One is going to suffer if you don’t put in the time and have the budget for online. It’s actually quite costly to livestream, to caption, and to have interaction and engagement in online spaces. Even though when it’s done right, it can be so amazing.

Second, we need to be capturing through, maybe, some recording tools, all these sessions that happen in person and online to make them available year round, and maybe even for purchase, for those that couldn’t go to the conference. I see so many sessions that are so amazing that no one else will ever hear or see, because they weren’t physically in that space.

The next one is integrating-community building right away, not just at the experience, not just leading up to the experience, but after. And I think, this episode might be really great for associations to listen to.

Presenters, I am advocating for you. And this is definitely to conference organizers. I think, marketing communications does a really good job of this. I have gotten discounts, if not full-registration waivers, for presenting, even just one session. I’ve never received that in student affairs. I love you, student affairs, but I would love you even more if you thought about offering some opportunities. Maybe, if you present more than one or that you… I don’t know, come up with your framework, but we need to get back to those that are actually filling all the education at the conference.

[00:53:28] This next one is really saucy, and I might get in trouble. I want to ask, and this is funny, coming from a keynote speaker. We pay, we as in conferences, pay a lot for some of these keynote speakers. And I, kind of, wonder why, or what the impact they make, or is it part of the marketing to get people to the conference because of who the keynote is?

Some of these questions, I don’t have the answers, too. But I wonder if that money could be spent in other ways, even that time as we think about packing all these things into the conference schedule. What is that for? I noticed ACPA for their New Orleans conference, included a lot more keynote speakers who were us, who were faculty, who were student-affairs educators, or used to be.

But, also, shout out, Sumi Pendakur, who is a previous podcast guest, is the keynote for NASPA. And I am going to be screaming at the top of my lungs, and I hope they paid her a whole bunch of money, because she deserves it.

Okay, two more. We need to have a flipped model. So many opportunities, especially, for executives, is an echoed chamber of executives and campus partners. What about getting the doers, the new professionals, the mid-level professionals, to be informing and educating the executives? And then, also vice versa. Because we see so many times, even at NASPA, there are private, invite-only sessions just for VPs that others can attend. I do understand why we have these in context. We’re needing smaller spaces. Some of the things that come up have more maybe privacy elements. I’m talking more contextually about flipping the model, about who’s the trainer, who’s the educator, and who’s in the room.

Lastly, holistic approach, don’t just think, “Okay, I did my professional development. This one conference checked that off.” And also associations, too. Don’t put all your eggs in just your conferences. I think, your budgets probably are actually informing you of this, no matter what, is that we need to look holistically of other ways that we can integrate education and curriculum.

I want to know what conferences that you’re headed to or what’s on your wish list. Here is mine. I am putting some proposals together to go to the AMA Symposium for Marketing in Higher Education, which is in November in Chicago. The NASPA Western Regional is going to be in Las Vegas, in November as well.

[00:56:07] I think, they’re, like, a few days apart. And then, this I am so bummed. I have not got to this one yet. It happens exact same time as NASPA. The American Association of Community Colleges, their convention happens each spring. I really hope I can get to their one in 2024.

All right, y’all. I hope this was helpful. Let me know what conferences, what professional development opportunities are on your list, what was helpful, what are lessons that you’ve learned. What do you disagree with? I’m down to hear it. I gave you a lot. I have a lot on my mind. And the reason why I have a lot on my mind is conferences have made such an impact on me, and I am, in turn, investing so much in others by going to conferences. And so, I hope you enjoy.

Thank you so much, for joining this very full shorty episode of Josie and the Podcast. I would love to connect online. Find me @josieahlquist. The podcast is also on Twitter and Instagram. Remember, all those show notes can be found at josieahlquist.com/podcast. I would also absolutely love it if you are subscribed, if you would share this, if you’d like it, if you would leave a review — five stars, you know. Think of it as a birthday gift for me. I will take this as my birthday gift and be very, very appreciative.

Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the work that I do in consulting, speaking, and coaching, check me out josieahlquist.com.

Thank you so darn much to our podcast sponsors, Campus Sonar, and University of FM, who are the producers of this very show. I’m sending digital hugs, loves, and waves to whatever corner of the world you’re listening in from. This is has been Josie and the Podcast.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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