10 ways to make the most of conferences


Teaching | Thursday, March 6, 2014

10 ways to make the most of conferences

10 ways to make the most of conferences

There’s so much to learn at conferences, and much of it doesn’t come from the front of the room. Use these tips to maximize your day. (Wikimedia / Nhenze)

Between the events I present at and the events I attend to develop as a teacher, I go to a lot of conferences.


I found out really early on that if I was going to ditch my textbooks — and my old, less effective ways of teaching — it was essential.

Until I found my professional learning networks online, it was the best way to grow.

In many ways, it still is the best way.

I’ve found that there are lots of different kinds of conference attendees. On one side are those who are in it for the lunch, the constant Facebook checking during sessions and the early exit for shopping.

Then there are the ones who mean business. Their mantra: “The tools and ideas I pick up today can make a huge difference in my students’ lives, so I’m going to make the most of it.”

If you want to make every moment count at a conference, here’s what you can do:

1. Bring your best Internet-ready device for typing. For me, that means my laptop. I love my iPad for lots of things. But when it comes to taking notes, posting to social media and viewing multiple websites, my laptop is best. Whatever does that best for you is what you should go with.

2. Sit near the front. I’m usually pretty easy to pick out at conferences. I’m the geeky bald guy in the front row typing up a storm. Sometimes I have a hard time hearing exactly what presenters say when I’m in the back. Being up front sometimes determines whether your questions get answered. If you can claim your seat early, you’ll have the best shot at getting handouts if the presenter uses paper ones.

3. Use a great note-taking program. For me, that’s Evernote. I love how simple it is, how easy it is to organize what I’ve written and how I can use it on virtually any device. I’m a huge proponent of Google Apps, and writing in documents can work just as well. There’s also Microsoft’s version of Evernote, OneNote,

4. Share your notes. What you learn at conferences doesn’t have to be filed away in solitary confinement in your computer or filing cabinet. Let others learn the lessons you’re learning. In many note-taking programs (including all three above), you can generate a link to give others so they can have access to your notes. I’ll create a link like that and send it out via Twitter to others at the conference. I’ll also put links to all of my notes and send them to colleagues at school who couldn’t go to the conference.

5. Talk to the speakers personally. Some of my best insights and best personal connections have come when I went up front after a particularly good session. Presenters usually are at conferences because they love to help. If you approach them with a sincere question or problem, many of them will bend over backward to help you. You may even get more personal attention than you anticipate.

6. Sit with someone new at lunch. This is the hardest one on the list for me. Often, if I present at a conference, I don’t know anyone. I get my lunch and look at the cafeteria like the new kid at school in sixth grade. Even if you’re at an event with colleagues, consider sitting with someone new during downtime — or inviting someone to join you. (Maybe that presenter with the “Please invite me to sit with you” look in his eye?) You’ll get fresh experiences and fresh ideas, and that’s what you’re really there to do.

7. Use social media. Most conferences these days create a Twitter hashtag to let participants share ideas and resources with each other. Social media is where the conversation behind the scenes takes place (and often that social media is Twitter). When others post messages sharing what they’re learning in their sessions, it’s like being in multiple places at once. Don’t forget to share the best stuff from your session via social media, too.

8. Be at conferences when you’re not at conferences. When I check out updates on Twitter, I’ll often see lots of messages from the same hashtag. That’s a giveaway that there’s a conference going on somewhere. If I look at the posts from that hashtag, I’ll learn some of the best lessons that real-life in-person participants are learning. It’s like getting free registration for conferences all over the country and world.

9. Watch your battery. If your battery dies on that all-important device (see No. 1 above), you’re stuck. In that case, you might exchange your front-row seat for one by an outlet to charge up.

10. Remember your creature comforts. I try to dress in layers, often with a fleece pullover as my top layer. It’s always good to have snacks and drinks on hand just in case they’re not available at the conference. And always grab some freebies from the vendor tables. Cool pens are a creature comfort for me, so I’m always on the lookout for them.

What advice would you add to the list? Give us your suggestions in a comment below!

(For notifications of new Ditch That Textbook content and helpful links, “like” Ditch That Textbook on Facebook and follow @jmattmiller on Twitter!)

Matt is scheduled to present at the following upcoming events:

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  • Cory Bougher says:

    I would suggest to anyone hosting a conference to have extension cords out and about for #9! I was having a hard time at #cgipad14 and #edcampindy. (both of which convinced me to finally join Twitter but I might be overwhelmed like Jennifer mentioned!).

    I would also suggest that staffs divide and conquer – you sign up for some sessions and I sign up for others. THEN we compare and share notes.

    • Matt Miller says:

      Ooh, extension cords … awesome idea. People sitting next to you could plug in too, and you could definitely make friends that way! Divide and conquer is a great strategy too … and sharing notes in a shared Google Doc or Evernote note!

  • Jennifer Tait says:

    Matt, I think that you have covered all of the things that I do at conferences. Yes, like you I sit up front most of the time at conferences or towards the front in the center. Yes, I am the geeky one typing fast and furious and sitting on the edge of my seat to hear what is next.

    I have presented at several conferences and I love it when someone comes up and speaks to me afterwards. It is funny that just a few weeks ago while shopping in Indianapolis someone stopped me and said “I can’t remember your name but you presented at ___ and you sent me all of those cool ideas.” Wow, I didn’t remember them, but they definitely remembered me or perhaps it was my laugh which once you hear it you know it anywhere (thank you, Daddy!!).

    I have found that I love to attend conferences and I want to get the most out of them that I can.

    Matt, I think I need to start using Twitter; I have never gotten into it but you are convincing me more and more that I need to check it out especially when you made the comment about being at conferences when you are not. I need to add that to my list of “To Do.”

    • Matt Miller says:

      Jennifer — I know … I love those moments when people realize that you’ve presented to them and they’ve been left with a favorable impression of you! It’s the best. Oh, something else that is the best — Twitter. You definitely need to check it out. If you want a good starting point, check out my “Social Networks for Teachers” conference materials (see the “Conferences” tab above). It will give you all the basics and some good places to start. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask! I’m happy to help!

      • Jennifer Tait says:

        Matt, I will check out your conference materials. I know that I need to get on Twitter, and I have tried before, but I think I got so overwhelmed and didn’t know what I was doing. I love technology and am usually the first in my school to jump in and try something, but if I get that overwhelmed feeling then I will just back away until I can find a comfortable entry point. You are giving me the encouragement that I need to look at Twitter again with fresh eyes. Just be warned, Matt, I will probably take you up on your offer to help.


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