April 2019
Text by Leah Guren

Image: © Roman Hermann

Leah Guren is the owner/operator of Cow TC. She has been active in the field of technical communication since 1980 as a writer, manager, Help author, and usability consultant. She now devotes her time to consulting and teaching courses and seminars in technical communication, primarily in Israel and Europe.


 


leah[at]cowtc.com
www.cowtc.com


 


 


 

Conferences: something for everyone

It is no secret: I am a big fan of conferences. I attended my first professional technical communication conference over 25 years ago and have been happily participating in them ever since.

For the past 20 years, my role has mostly been that of a speaker, but I still find the conference experience to be overwhelmingly beneficial for professional development.

The tcworld conference in Stuttgart is one of my favorites. It is well organized, impressively large, and has a lot of variety. I was recently talking to a colleague (rather enthusiastically) about my experiences there. He shrugged and said, "Conferences are so expensive. I don't really see the point. I can read the articles in the journals or watch a YouTube video."

He is not the only one who feels this way. Over the years, I have met many people who fail to understand the value of professional conferences. Often, they have never actually attended a conference, or perhaps they went to one small local event. This is unfortunate, as such people are missing out on one of the most profitable ways of investing in their careers.

So, what’s so great about conferences? Quite a few things, actually!

Educational sessions

In our career, there is an ongoing need for continuing education. We either need to perfect basic skills, learn advanced techniques, or develop skills to help us handle new challenges at work. There are many ways to do so, such as reading professional journals, attending webinars, or even signing up for classes. But a conference offers all of this in a much more compact format. Over a few days, you can listen to multiple sessions on a related theme or topic. You can even participate in workshops for a hands-on learning experience.

The latest thing

One of the challenges of working in a technology-intensive field is that there is an overwhelming amount of new information every year, including new methodologies, standards, and ever-changing technologies. We want to stay on top of all these changes, but it is not practical to invest endless hours of research and reading. Conferences are a great way to get a quick, efficient high-level overview of many new topics. Over the years, I have attended many sessions where I was able to quickly understand the basics of the latest buzzword. For those of us who are auditory or visual learners, it is more effective to attend a live session than to read a series of articles. And with the interactive aspect of being able to ask questions, you have an excellent way to be exposed to new ideas, to stay aware of changing trends, and to determine where you need to invest your time and energy in further in-depth study.

New ideas

Most of us have deadlines and work pressure that keep us focused on the immediate demands of the products we document. It is very easy to become used to doing things a certain way. We fall into a rut and find it difficult to come up with creative solutions to problems. Conferences are the ideal "whack on the side of the head" to get us to think creatively, consider alternate solutions, and be exposed to ideas or methods that we might not have discovered on our own. I love attending sessions that have (seemingly) nothing to do with any of my current projects, yet make me think about how I could add those ideas to part of a content strategy for a client. When people present case studies or share their experiences, we have an opportunity to see how others may have solved problems in a different way. I cannot think of another way to be exposed to new ideas so painlessly.

Different levels of information

Sometimes I hear people complain that conferences are for novices. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most conferences have a variety of sessions to meet the needs of a wide range of practitioners, from novice to experienced. Well-organized conferences clearly label sessions to help attendees select the right ones. If a TC with two decades of experience attends a session called "Basics of Document Editing," then it is their own fault if they are disappointed with the level of information! In fact, I find conferences ideally cater for the fact that most of us are both experienced and novice at the same time: we have areas of expertise, but there are other areas where we may lack any experience. At a conference, you can select the very advanced sessions you need and still attend some basic level sessions about topics with which you are unfamiliar.

Networking

Networking is one of the most valuable aspects of conferences for senior TCs, especially those of us who run our own businesses. We can reconnect with business partners, set up meetings with new potential clients, and maintain contacts. Sometimes just having a cup of coffee with a client is an important part of maintaining that long-distance business relationship.

Vendors

Conferences with associated trade shows provide easy access to software and service vendors. You can meet with many different vendors of similar tools, see demos, ask questions, arrange for trial versions, and more. I enjoy seeing products that I don’t yet need; I can mentally file that information away for the future. It is a great feeling to be able to provide a client with the name of a product or company that may be able to solve a problem. You never know when a client might need to do something.

R&R (rest and relaxation)

Conferences get you out of the office and away from your work environment. If you have traveled to a conference, you may be in a different city (or even country). You can take advantage of conference-organized tours or outings, or just explore on your own. Spend a morning in a museum or take a late afternoon break to explore. These little mini-vacations are important for our mental health! And of course, you can meet old friends and make new ones. You’ll return to work feeling energized.

Still not sure? If you have never tried a conference, I challenge you to try one in 2019. There are large conferences, small conferences, general TC-related conferences, specialty topic conferences, and even tool-related conferences. Take the plunge and see how conferences can help you learn, grow, evolve, and invest in your career.

 

Images: Leah Guren presenting at the tcworld conference in Stuttgart in November 2018 © Roman Hermann