As I mentioned on Twitter the other day my conference season is just around the corner. This year I’m attending both the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) and National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL) conventions. After five years I think I’m finally getting the hang of attending a conference and getting the most out of it; here are a few tips if you’ll be attending these or one of the other fine conferences coming up!
Pack light… Don’t try to take everything and the kitchen sink, especially if you’re flying. Take the bare necessities. This will both lighten your load and make it easier to spend several days on your feet. I was able to attend my first NCCL conference — five days — with just a back pack. (The secret: rolling your clothes.)
…and leave room for goodies. The downside of that first NCCL conference was that I didn’t have any room for the free books, materials, and assorted goodies I got from various publishers and vendors. Fortunately my associate director drove to the conference, so I was able to give them to her to take back to Illinois. If not for her I might have had to explain to my wife why I left some shirts and pants behind.
Make the most of your time between sessions. Don’t get me wrong: I love attending breakout sessions, whether to hear a new speaker or find out how other dioceses are approaching particular challenges. But the real value of a conference is the connections made with other people. Don’t be afraid to approach a speaker or other attendee and engage with them; they are great resources that can be tapped after the conference is over! (Three years ago I even created an “audio postcard” by recording interviews with attendees at NCCL!)
Volunteer. Conferences are always in need of people to help with registrations, plan liturgies, escort speakers, hang signage, or just act as gofers. Volunteering is a great way to network and meet other dedicated catechists.
Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Did you go to a breakout speaker only to discover that the topic was vastly different from what you expected? Feel free to walk out and go to a different session. After all, your time is valuable and there is no sense in attending a session that you find uninteresting or unhelpful. Personally I operate on a five minute rule: if a breakout speaker or session hasn’t grabbed my attention within five minutes, I’ll generally try to find another to attend.
Stop by the exhibitors. If the conference you’re attending has an exhibitor’s hall, make sure to walk through it at least once. Lots of publishers have demos of new programs, special rates for attendees, and other “perks” that make it worth while. Perusing their booths also helps the conference: organizers rely on exhibitors purchasing booth space to cover some of the costs of the conference, but exhibitors won’t return if attendees don’t stop by.
Participate in the back channel. Twitter is one of the greatest conference attendance tools I know of. Through the use of hashtags it’s easy to find other attendees and have a conversation about what you’re seeing and hearing — even if they are sitting on the other side of a 1000-person ballroom!Even if you can’t attend a conference, following hashtags can give you a virtual convention experience. (The hashtags to follow for NCEA and NCCL are #NCEA14 and #NCCL2014, respectively.)
What advice do you have for people attending a conference this year?
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