… or any other conference by the way.
(The original planned title for this post was something like “How to Get the Best out of VisWeek” but I changed it after having noticed how psychotic this guide is. I am sorry, that’s me, I cannot change it now … yet I’d bet many of the mind tricks I talk about here are common to many people. Enjoy the guide, I really think it is useful. That comes from the bottom of my heart.)
I came back from VisWeek 2010 about one week ago and it was very intense and engaging as usual. Great, great, great conference. It’s a bit like putting your brain in the dishwasher for one week and then trying to make sense of it. This is how I feel all the time at the end. Lots of inputs. Lots of ideas. But not enough time to digest it.
I could have prepared a blog post to tell about the main trends, ideas, innovations, etc., but I am not ready for that I am sorry. Too much stuff. And not enough energy for it.
Now I just need a brain dump. But at the same time I desperately wish to offer something useful to you my dear readers. So, a lovely and useful article I once read came into my mind: How to Get the Most out of Conferences by Scott Berkun (if you don’t know Scott, make sure to give a look to his stuff) and I decided I could try to go along the same lines. Just a little bit more random … a bit more targeted … a bit more personal.
Every conference is an experience per se, but after years of attending visweeks and similar events I think I can suggest valuable information that applies consistently to several events.
I happen to observe and experience pretty much the same mechanisms and psychological tricks every time. Plus, I notice I get better and better at them (but very far from perfection) as time passes. And this means that by reading them you might already get better yourself.
Please note that I am not necessarily implementing all of these advices. Some of them I consistently disregard. As I said, I am far from perfection. Yet, these principles guide my experience every time.
Ok, enough words. Let’s dig into the guidelines.
(Note: This is based on the role conferences have in Computer Science, which is notoriously different from the role they have in other domains. In particular, publications in CS happen to be even more important than publications in journals, provided the conference is a good one.)
My advice is grounded on three pillars, whose relevance I have been realizing year after year by attending tens of research conferences and meetings.
- Pillar 1: A relaxed mind and healthy body are keys to a productive conference (we want to preserve the most important currency: mental energy.
- Pillar 2: Conferences are for human interaction not for papers.
- Pillar 3: Being only passive spectator is a crime … and a terrible waste of your time.
Healthy Body and Mind
- Take time off: You might be tempted to follow each and every papers session, workshop, panels, etc., maybe even jumping from one to another during parallel sessions. Relax, take your time, skipping a session is not a crime. Draining your precious mind is a crime.
- Explore the hotel: Hotels, especially in the US can be really nice and hide interesting surprises. During this last visweek I had my shoulder/neck pain cured by a very professional lady at the hotel spa, and I ended up having sauna and steam bath. Waste of time? The opposite, I had much more energy to spend afterwards. I had other friends going to the gym or swimming pool or similar stuff. Well done.
- Explore the city: This is a classic and I don’t think people don’t understand that. Anyway, when I say explore I mean explore! Not only going to the restaurant a few blocks form your hotel. Walking, if possible, is especially good.
- Wake up early / Don’t rush: I am still not too good at it but improving. Waking up 20 mins before the first session starts is not a good habit. Wake up early, have a great breakfast, plan your sessions attendance, relax from minute 1 of your brand new conference day.
- Eat quality food: It’s easy to end up eating or drinking crap all the day when you spend your whole day in a hotel running from one session to another. This is not just unhealthy but also unproductive for your brain. Your brain needs plenty of water (yes plain old water) and quality fresh food. Sugary stuff is especially bad because after the first spike of energy you feel sluggish and sleepy … which in a closed and poorly illuminated environment means you are going to have a great sleep in the middle of a talk.
- Don’t rush: It’s easy in the busy schedule of a conference to end up rushing. You have the sessions, a person you absolutely want to meet, that museum in the city you absolutely want to visit, the telephone call you cannot miss. That’s normal but don’t rush. Rushing disrupts your mental equilibrium and makes you anxious. Skipped a session? Too late? Don’t worry …. take a breath … slow down. It’s ok … take it easy.
- Don’t carry too much stuff around: I’m so bad with this one! When you carry too much stuff around (proceedings, PC, leaflets, business cards, camera, etc.) you first overload your back but also you make your life more complicated and you might end up getting nervous because of this. And you don’t want to be nervous at a conference. Leave your stuff in the hotel room, bring a minimalistic set of very useful objects (I must admit it, I was envious of all those who carried just a slim and and light ipad around, I want one!)
- Seek the sunlight: This is especially important for those who suffer jet lag. I’ve noticed that the combination: jet lag + spending the whole day inside a hotel with artificial (dim!) lights is a deadly mix. You bet around lunch time or just after you’d sleep for two days in a row. The only remedy I know? Take sunlight. Go out! Which by the way is in accordance to what I said above.
- Attend panels, workshops, posters, BOFs: Some people follow religiously the paper presentations program and forget the wealth of information and interactions happening in other slots. All these alternatives have a high degree of interaction among the attendants and, as such, hide a lot of potential for inspiration, new ideas, collaborations, etc.
- Be compassionate and constructive: Criticizing for the sake of it is way too easy … and normally it hides some weaknesses inside you. I notice it in myself all the time and I hate it. There is always something during the conference that hits your nerves (another rainbow color scale? a bad presentation? that similar accepted work and yours was rejected? that beautified paper?) but negative thoughts are bad for everyone, especially for you. Offer constructive suggestions and help and you might end up learning something yourself. Or, in doubt, shut up! There’s nothing to gain in gratuitous criticism.
- Accept and value criticism: This seems to contradict the previous point but it doesn’t. Firts, constructive criticism is good. Second, if you receive some criticism don’t put a shield in front of you, learn to listen what the others have to say and to clear your mind from any preconception. Listen and value it as a default mode … then you will have time to decide if you like it or not. But default mode is: ok this is worth listening.
- Learn to listen: In the busyness of a conference, when you are full of thoughts, it’s easy to find yourself having a conversation with someone and thinking about something else. That’s normal. But you might miss relevant information. Stop for a moment, focus on your interlocutor, strive to remember faces, names, facts, stories. It always make a positive impression on people when you remember their names and especially their stories.
- Don’t be timid: I used to be timid. Well, I actually am timid still. But what can I do? Conferences are for interaction and I never wanted to miss the opportunity to speak with great people. So I just work against it. It’s like speaking with the gorgeous blond girl you notice in the room. Take a deep breath, don’t think too much, and say something stupid. Well no … try to say something intelligent. One trick: people love when you know who they are and what they do. Some behave like if they are indifferent, but they are not.
- Have great lunch/dinner with great people: Every meal is a great event in a conference. In front of a table and a hot meal everyone turns normal and more human, it’s easier to speak, laugh, lose the tension. It’s also easier to better know people from a personal point of view, which is often the most exciting. Look around, ask, don’t fall into the trap of staying alone.
- Go to the mic, ask questions: At the end of every session there is time for questions. Why not asking one? C’mon you must have one. If Ben Shneiderman always does it, why not you? That’s the protocol: go to the mic, wait for your turn, tell your name and affiliation (speak up), and ask a great question. Not one to impress people, a good one you passionately want to have answered. Or yes, why not, one to challenge the speaker. But not with a negative intent! Just because you want to see the reaction. Because you are asking for the best.
- Give lots of passionate feedback: That’s one of my favorite. Walk around, give a look to posters, demos, whatever, catch the presenter of that paper you found interesting, ask that question you couldn’t ask, and give lots of passionate feedback. Especially, try to genuinely help everybody make things better. People love to see you are interested in their work and are ready to listen to your ideas, they are valuable. Always. I’ve been receiving lots of feedback myself and I love that. And I don’t miss the occasion to give lots of feedback and stay curious about everything.
- Help juniors, challenge seniors: Don’t be a jerk, it’s way too easy to ask tough questions to novel phd students and do your best to make an impression with seniors. Do the opposite. Give lots of credit to juniors and do your best to make them better. Reserve the tough questions for the big names and try to see what is their reaction, if you are brave enough.
- Seek feedback on your work: We all have work to show. Maybe half-baked stuff, a few screenshots, a rough idea. Don’t keep it for yourself. A conference is a great opportunity to feed your mind with new food for thoughts. I’ve heard many times of people not talking about their idea because they think someone could steal it. That’s bullshit and totally nonsense … and particularly surprising in the open environment research should be. Don’t be afraid, expose your ideas. One last thing: and don’t be depressed if you get lot of negative feedback. It might happen.
- Use twitter … in moderation: Connecting to the conference channels with twitter is so much fun! People seems to feel a bit more free to give honest feedback on twitter and this is invaluable. Plus, it lowers the barriers for making friends. If you participate actively, many people will know you and you will know some of them even if you never met before. It lowers the barriers. And it’s extremely informative. There is a downside: you might get caught in the twitter fever and spend all your time with your face stick to the screen. Don’t do that, lift your head, make real friends, smile, go out.
- Make friends: That’s invaluable. For me a conference is like a huge party that lasts for days. I want to make friends. It’s not about my job, it’s about genuinely being interested to people and listen to their story. I have friends I met the first time in a conference many years ago and we are still in touch. That’s great and I love it.
Ok done. I really hope you could get something useful out of it.
And what about you? Do you have your own psychosis and tricks? C’mon I am sure you have. I could have listed a thousand more. Let me know … let us know.