I Survived a Conference Weekend (And You Can Too)

Tips to make it through long hours, short breaks, and networking if you’re an introvert.

During one of the first sessions of the conference I was at the weekend before last in Chicago, one of my fellow attendees said something I’ve felt during nearly every new project I’ve embarked on:

“I don’t know what I don’t know.”

The session was focusing on how first timers at the IBPA Publishing University could get the most out of the weekend’s full schedule of panels, expert seminars, one-on-one consultations, and other opportunities. While I had been at full-day conventions before, I’d never traveled far from home for a multi-day conference.

I’m an introvert by nature. I love people — I love collaborating, and learning about the expertise they have developed in their own experience. But I also generally need alone time to recharge.

I signed up for everything. Whether pre- or post-conference event, I filled my schedule for those four days, ticking the box of a session for each time slot, and even writing down a backup for a few. I wanted to do it all — the descriptions just sounded so fantastically interesting.

When I printed out my timetable, I laughed to myself, “What have I done?”

But I did a few things to help me prepare, some even before packing my bag, and if you’re like me — new to attending conferences, and/or an introvert while you’re at it — hopefully these will help you too.

Think about what you want to get out of the conference

One of the things my boss tasked me with doing before I left was to think about what I wanted to get out of the conference.

I have a background in literary magazines, and magazines in general — I last worked at Mslexia, a women’s writing magazine in the UK — and I’d done a lot of research in the process of helping set up How2Conquer’s project timelines, distribution options, and marketing plans. But I still felt like the woman who spoke up at that first session — I don’t know what I don’t know.

No matter how much you do know about your profession or passion, there are still bound to be things you’re unaware of out there. It’s why I try to always approach a subject with an open mind to what I can learn.

While others at IBPA Publishing University had a specific target in mind — to find recommendations of illustrators for children’s books, or select a vendor for printing or distribution — I chose a more broad aim of finding out more about the intricacies of book marketing and publicity. When I decided on the sessions I would attend, this goal helped me pick the right events for me.

Before you leave, think about what you want to learn. What are the topics you’re less sure about? What might you have overlooked that you don’t know?

Let your answers lead you to the right events, and always ask questions. Someone else is probably wondering the same thing, or it could prompt another question they didn’t know they had.

Me and my glasses at IBPA Pub U 🤓 Photo by Emily Owens.

Pack like you mean it — but remember there are shops there too

One of my constant anxieties in going away anywhere, whether for vacation or other purposes, is whether I’ve packed everything I will need.

I don’t use a list, but as I’m leaving I go over everything, touching the items in my bag as I go through them in my mind. For everyday items, I often pack as I use them the morning of the day I travel.

But I’ll still worry that I’ve forgotten something.

My only mistake getting ready for the conference last weekend was choosing not to bring a spare set of contacts. I decided that since I had recently changed them, there was no need to bring an extra pair.

Cue Murphy’s Law.

Something happened to my hydrogen peroxide-based contact solution, which uses a neutralizing disk to convert the solution to water. It didn’t neutralize by morning on the first day of the conference. If you don’t wear contacts, or haven’t had one of those joyous mishaps with this kind of contact solution, imagine putting a plastic disk of low-grade acid on your eye.

Yep.

Luckily I had my glasses with me, being prepared and all, but I don’t feel as confident when I wear them. I usually only wear my specs just before bed anyway, so the psychological associations tell me it’s time to sleep.

Many things can be replaced — a nice blouse from a nearby shop, shampoo, even underwear — but if it’s something as important as helping you see, be sure to bring it. Write yourself a note or set a reminder on your phone. If it’s an extra item, or something you won’t be using immediately before leaving — like a spare set of contacts — go ahead and put it in your bag.

Bring snacks

If you’re lucky, the conference will provide tasty refreshments at certain times during the day, or even a boxed lunch at some point. But in the 15 minute race from one event to the next, you’ll probably still get peckish.

At the end of the first day of the conference, I walked down the street to a grocery store and bought a few granola bars. I’m not much for a big breakfast (unless it’s brunch), so I wanted to make sure I had a little something for each morning or to tide me over in the jaunts between sessions.

Photo by Emily Owens.

Make time for yourself

My boss, who has been to many conferences, also told me, “Don’t feel like you have to network every night. You can take a night to sit in your room and order room service.”

If you’re feeling exhausted, don’t worry about ordering a burger to go. One night, I went to a nearby restaurant and got something to bring back to my cozy little enclave. On the way I had a nice chat with someone I’d met earlier at the conference, happening to run into each other at a crossing, who was doing the same thing.

Sitting in my pajamas by the window in my hotel room, I looked out at the lights of Chicago. I opened the window to let in a little breeze. There were people talking and cars honking, and I had that essential time to reflect on the conference so far, and just to breathe a little easier on my own. (And maybe watch an episode or two of Buffy.)

I enjoyed all the networking opportunities, the talk and exchange of business cards over a glass of wine or continental breakfast, but I knew it was important to let myself recharge. Future me would thank me. I would be much happier, and ready to engage, the next day.

Remember that a lot of the people there are probably feeling the same

Just as you’ll find that many attendees are worrying about what they don’t know, you should also realize that a lot of them are also anxious about networking and the like. Being at a publishing conference, I knew going in that there would be a lot of introverts there. It’s a stereotype — the reclusive writer — that holds up, especially when so many publishers come from writing.

You don’t need to imagine the audience in their underwear, because some of them probably already feel that exposed.

You already have a common purpose in being there, but having this too in mind gave me a sense of comradery with everyone. You’re identified by the lanyards around your neck, and even outside the usual conference hours, I had a lot of nice little conversations with people in hallways and elevators, just chatting about the events and snacks.

Dive in

Now that you know you have shared ambitions and anxieties, throw yourself into it. Listen. Take notes. Speak up.

Go to all the sessions you can. Get as much out of those days as possible.

It’s hard to make it to everything (if only I’d had a Time Turner), but if you really give your all, you’ll walk away with indispensable knowledge you might have needed weeks of research to attain. I still need to go through the massive stack of business cards I was given during the weekend, but I am excited to keep in touch with the people I met — people I can learn so much from, who are plugging away at the same work I am.

Nerding out during the keynote. Photo by Emily Owens.

Beware Conference Crud

While you’re meeting so many fantastic people, be mindful of your own physical health.

Being in close quarters with crowds for an extended amount of time means germs. A full schedule means tired. Germs and tired can mean a sad immune system.

It’s common sense of course, but remember to wash your hands often. Try not to touch your face a lot if you haven’t washed them recently. But also take precautions — if you take vitamins, remember to pack them; if you forget, you can pick up another bottle at a store. If you like to use a supplement like echinacea, bring that as well. Toward the end of my time in Chicago I knew I was exhausted, and I’d added a PTO day on the end of my trip to visit my sister and her family, one of whom wasn’t feeling well. I picked up some Vitamin C just in case.

If you’re unlucky enough to come down with a cold during the conference, be conscientious. Cover your mouth if you cough. Wash your hands even more. If you want to be extra careful, offer to bump elbows instead of shaking hands.

When you get home, make rest a priority, whether you got the crud or not.

There’s always next time

You survived! (Of course you did. Because you’re awesome.)

If you get home and feel like you could have possibly managed anything more at the conference, remember you can always attend another.

When I was six the Olympics came to Atlanta, and my family went to see the athletes train as the big events approached. On the last day we were there, I remember sitting on the bleachers bawling my eyes out because my parents told me it was over. Over?! I thought they meant it was never happening again — that was it, we’d had enough, someone had decided it just wasn’t worth putting on those silly competitions again.

But it was just the practice sessions. The best was yet to come for those athletes.

And if you’ve just come home from your first conference, maybe it was just practice for you. Or maybe you feel like you stood on a gleaming set of stairs biting a piece of metal.

There’s always more to come. Opportunities will arise before you, gleaming with possibility, and you’ll be even more prepared for them.

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