Avoiding the Conference Hangover

You’ve just returned to campus from a somewhat exotic location with hopefully better weather than what you are seeing outside of your window right now.

Next to your desk you have a reusable recycled bag filled with flyers, hand-outs, triangle highlighters, USB keys, a key chain that has the world’s smallest computer mouse attached to it and a notebook full of notes. That or you’ve opened up your Evernote account and realized how many notes, ideas, questions, and strategies you’ve heard about from the sessions you’ve attended and quickly close it to handle the 50+ e-mail messages, 10 voice mails, and desk full of Post-It to-dos.

“I don’t have time for this yet. Let me get settled then I’ll go through the conference stuff.”

A day goes by, “Ugh, I have to handle this mini-crisis first. Let me get this settled then I’ll go through the conference stuff.”

It’s Friday. “You know, let me tackle this on Monday when I have a fresh start. I need to give my brain a rest and recover from the traveling. Let me get that settled then I’ll go through the conference stuff.”

Monday comes and so do a new round of e-mails, voicemails, and to-do. All of a sudden you are in April making the rounds of the chicken and cheesecake banquet circuit, then comes May with graduations and hall closings, then June with Orientations, July with vacations, and September you realize that bag in the corner with a layer of dust hasn’t been touched.

Here’s the thing – whenever it is you do decide to digest, decipher, and discuss what you’ve learned I have three simple tips you should follow.

1. You need to STOP
Seriously. Stop. That amazing orientation idea that involved Twitter, balloons, a scavenger hunt, and the faculty in grass skirts cheering students on sounded great in the hotel conference room but stop. Stop before you share it. Stop before you send that e-mail saying, “I heard about this great idea, we should do…? STOP. Why? Because…

2. You need to reassess
You are stopping because you need to get off your conference high and really think about what works for YOUR campus. That huge university with the 5-tiered leadership program that includes off-site retreats and on-campus ropes course training complete with faculty mentors and athletic coaches worked for that campus culture. Look at the structure and the purpose of the program to find the main idea, then reassess what aspects of it would work for you. You may have just heard about a recipe that makes the most amazing walnut-chocolate chip cookies but your campus has a nut allergy. This means you have to adjust and see how you can make it work which brings me to…

3. You need to revamp
That great idea with the enormous budget? Subtract the enormous budget and all you are left with is a great idea. Revamp the plan /program you heard about to fit your campus. Find the aspects that worked really well and could be easily replicated without major cost. Did they have an interesting approach to marketing? Did they tap new resources that also happen to be on your campus? Did they share a tactic that could work with your campus politics with a few tweaks? Start thinking how the ideas could be applied to your campus, not how the programs can be regurgitated and re-manufactured.

What makes me a pro at this? Nothing. I simply have been lucky enough to go to a lot of major conferences early in my career and have come back to campus bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to change the world only to realize, what works at XYZ institution isn’t going to work at ABC institution.

When I do go to another conference (looking at you Indy) I won’t be looking for programs, proposals, handouts, or how-tos. I’m going to be looking for ideas.

Ideas are like recipes. There is always a substitute for an ingredient to make it work for your diet, your guests, your audience; it is just a matter of finding it and that’s my favorite thing to do.

Living in the Backchannel: Pre-conference and Day 1

Before reading you may want to make yourself familiar with what a backchannel is by reading the #SAChat transcript from the 12/9 chat on the topic.

#LEI10. That simple six character term has completely transformed my perspective of what it means to be engaged at a conference.  It is the Twitter hashtag for the 2010 Leadership Educators Institute. The conversation started in late October by @NASPATweets and Chris Conzen (@clconzen) with reminders for registration. The Twitter stream then went silent until the end of November when the conference was just a week away. Then December arrived and #LEI10 came alive.

Think about how you’ve connected with fellow conference-goers before a service like Twitter. Perhaps you posted it on your Facebook profile status or sent an e-mail to a listserv asking who else was going. In both of those cases, you were throwing up a signal flare in a forest and hoping someone not only saw it but responded to it. With Twitter, that hashtag becomes a lighthouse, or the North Star of the conference, not just a flash in the pan call for help. The hashtag serves as a beacon to guide participants to a place where lively discussions are happening in real time and, as a result, connections are breaking through the barriers of the virtual world and being made in real life. In the days leading up to the conference, Twitter allowed me to connect and be aware of what “tweeps” were going and who I’d get a chance to meet in real life. This may seem frivolous but you can’t tell me that when you go to a party and do not know anyone else that is going your anxiety level isn’t heightened just a bit. With Twitter, a conference where you are surrounded by strangers from all over the country became a conference where you and a group of your tweeps can meet up. This made the conference not only a professional development opportunity to learn new skills but also a chance to deepen friendships and strengthen your network. It is organized, sponsored, and supported by the association running the conference (in most cases) which adds legitimacy and purpose to the usage of it.

On the first day of the conference, the backchannel provided fellow tweeps a chance to locate each other right from the start of the keynote speech with tweets like this one from @LeslieMPage:

During the opening speech 55 tweets were sent responding to questions posed by the speakers, posting resources the speaker had shared, and sharing quotes that struck a chord. A perfect example from @OberBecca:

Now, I have followed a backchannel before for other conferences so I had an idea of what types of tweets would be most helpful and what would hopefully engage those, who are not in attendance, to contribute. What I did not expect was the amount of effort and time it takes! Contributing to a backchannel can turn into a part-time job while attending a conference. You can find yourself so involved in your tweets and other participants’ tweets that you forget that you are in the room with the person providing the information. My analogy for this is going to a concert and focusing on the screens on the side of the stage that give you a close up of the performer, rather than looking at the actual performer. How is that any different than watching the performer on TV? If you are in their presence, pay attention to them! With Twitter, your mobile device can turn into that screen at the concert right in your lap and in place of being a participant of a conference, you are now a bystander. So, as great a resource as this could be, remember to be mindful of the presenters and be careful not to be rude.  Educate conference-goers of what you’re learning by tweeting resources, quotes from the presenter, or questions posed by the audience. Do not tweet that the lunch spread looks delicious or that the room is chilly.

The first day of the conference backchannel rendered 152 total tweets of which I contributed 31. The backchannel had sucked me in. It was exciting, it was fun, it was leading to more connections, more resources, and had me more engaged in a conference that I had ever been before. I’ll get into my experience of the second day of the conference in my next post which will highlight the explosion of the backchannel (over 400 conference tweets!), what happened when my phone died resulting in being cut off from the backchannel, and an epic tweet-up.

Here’s my card. Write me, don’t type me.

It just dawned me on while reading an article about updating/upgrading your business card that a cool idea would be to include an address label on the back of your card, maybe even an address label and a stamp. Imagine that!

Instead of writing your Twitter handle on the back, or your LinkedIn profile, or your Facebook URL you simply say, “Great, I’d love to hear from you. On the back of my card is an address label and a stamp. Please write.”

How encouraged would you be to write that person a letter? How different would they stand out in your mind?

I think I might start to look for a supplier that can make this happen just out of curiosity. Perhaps at NASPA 2011 you may see my business card flying around with an address label and a stamp already on it.

That’s my idea for the day (first on in a looooong time!) – who says it couldn’t happen?

Rock on,

Joe