One of the reasons why you ought to start attending conferences (if you have not already) is to learn how to be better at your work.

Not only do you learn directly from industry experts and authorities through the knowledge sessions program, additionally, you have the invaluable opportunity to pick the brains of like-minded individuals via continued networking throughout the conference.

Below are some great tips on how best to spend your time.

How to spend your time

Aside from finding ways to meet people, consider the types of sessions available at most events. When I look at the advanced program for a conference, here’s how I rank the different kinds of sessions:

  1. Contributing to something: All events have ways to participate. Anyone can submit a paper, panel session idea, or workshop proposal. There is no better way to meet others and access the most interesting and friendly people than participating. Even the process of submitting something is rewarding: you’ll spend some time trying to express your work in a way that others can get value out of, which always improves your ability to think and communicate about what you do. Even if your submission isn’t accepted, you will have benefited. You’ll get feedback from the experts on the review committee about your work and your writing, which you could argue is a free service to you. Volunteering is a great way for anyone to transform a dull event into a fun and engaging one.
  2. Workshops: Academic events have slots for small/mid sized groups to spend serious time discussing a topic. The requirement for entry is usually a position statement, expressing your point of view on a subject, and your references supporting why you’d be a useful member of the workshop. These are consistently the most enlightening sessions, and give you the largest opportunity to meet and interact with intelligent people interested in a topic that you are interested in. Even in a bad workshop, ask around for people who want to go out to dinner. Sometimes the conversation over dinner is better than the workshop (but the workshop gives you access to the right people to have an interesting dinner conversation with).
  3. SIGs / BOFs : These tend to be loosely organized, and it’s often hard to find out which ones there are. Basically these are informal workshops, called special interest groups or Birds of a feather sessions. Sometimes they’re short meetings where people agree to create a new alias for discussion. Other times there is an agenda, with speakers, and it’s like a mini-session. Anyone can start one of these by following the information listed in the advanced program. They’ll help by giving you a room and a time.
  4. session in progressTutorials : These are half and full day sessions with an invited speaker. You typically have to pay extra to attend these. The sessions are often lecture based, which means a lot of sitting and listening. If you need training on some aspect of your job, and can’t find it local to you, tutorials are great. However, the sessions are often large, and for popular topics or teachers, can be hard to get into. Ask about tutorials you’re interested in, especially about the quality of the speaker.
  5. Panels : A panel session has 4 or 5 invited speakers sharing a time slot together. In better panel sessions, there is a diversity of points of view, and everyone is comfortable sharing them. But too often, panelists shy away from the intended topic, or avoid disagreeing with their co-panelists. They often feel pressure to represent their company or organization, which inhibitsactive and provocative discourse. This is why most panel sessions suck. It’s up to the organizer to avoid making this happen, but since they’re grateful for the panelists to attend at all, it’s usually hard to exert control over the tone of the session. Worse, some panels don’t allow for discussion, giving too much time to prepared presentations from each panelist. For these and other reasons, panels are a wild card, and often result in a fairly bland experience for everyone involved. When it works though, and the right people are invited and facilitated by the organizer in the right way, it can be the most enlightening session you’ll see at a conference.
  6. conversations by the posersPosters: Some conferences have poster areas, where professionals or students put together summaries of their work for people to look at. This can often be a lot of fun. I like the fact that it’s an active environment: you walk around to different displays, and drive the experience (instead of the persistent passivity of almost every other kind of conference session). Posters are a great thing to stroll through if you get bored in the other sessions. Sometimes there are scheduled times where the posters are manned, so you can ask questions of the people that did the work. This can be great fun. Don’t be shy: usually they’re thrilled that anyone is looking at their stuff, much less asking questions. However, posters have a short summary that appears in the proceedings, and if it’s a research project, similar material probably exists on a website. So you can get some of this experience after the conference.(If you read a paper later and find it interesting, email the person that wrote it and tell them so. You’ll get a direct line for any questions you might have).
  7. Demos: Some conferences have demo sessions, where each person or team gets 10 minutes to demo a specific design or research project. This can be fun to watch if the time limits are short: You’ll see actual designs and work, and judge for yourself how useful or interesting it is. If the demos are short, it won’t be long before one demo ends and another one takes the stage.
  8. Paper sessions: At more academic conferences, there are paper sessions, where the authors of selected paper submissions get a chance to talk for 15 minutes about their paper. This is the biggest waste of time for conference attendees. First, if there are proceedings, all of the papers are available to you to read or skim at your leisure (think: flight home). Worse, these folks were accepted on their ability to write a good paper, not on their ability to engage or communicate through a presentation. In many cases, the presenters simply talk through the same outline and structure that is in the paper, sometimes even scrolling through the actual text of the paper, reading highlight. It’s a very poor use of 15 minutes of air time. Nothing will make the paper authors day more than to get a short note from a peer or a colleague telling them they enjoyed the paper. Even better: those short emails can lead to connections that might be reinforced at the next conference.

How to build a plan

A day before the event, sit down with the proceedings and the small guidebook or agenda that they often provide you with. Go through with a pen, and mark anything that looks interesting. If you find things that sound cool but vague, flip open the proceedings and check them out. If it looks like something better captured in a paper, then it’s probably not worth going to. Circle all of the sessions that look interesting, and if two or more occur at the same time, flag the one you want to go to first.

Then during the actual conference, go to the first session you’ve marked. Have a plan to bail after 15 minutes if you’re bored. Odds are it’s not going to get better. Go to the next session in that time slot that interested you. Repeat the same thought process. Worst case, you can always return to one of the other sessions. The result is that you maximize your time spent in sessions you will actually enjoy, and minimize your time spent bored, hoping things will get better. If you run out of sessions to go to, head over to the trade show area if there is one. During sessions is a good time to introduce yourself to the various people manning the different booths. I’ve had some of my best conference experiences in conversations that started this way.

(Tips sourced from