Reading this post on the value of conference participation prompted some thoughts on the subject, from my perspective as someone who’s done it a couple dozen times, with a wide range of results.
A few years back, I had never presented or given a talk at a conference, but had attended quite a few. I’d always treated conferences and events with a focus on meeting people and absorbing the “state of the art” for whatever the industry or topic at hand. After a few conferences around a given sector, though, they begin to run together. If you’re a doer who is continually self-educating, you quickly find out that you’re already caught up with or ahead of the game on much of the subject matter you’re there to educate yourself on. With the pervasiveness of online information, you can read up on any subject without waiting for the so-called experts at a conference to tell you about it.
I think 2011 was the first time I gave an actual talk to a crowd of peers on a topic I cared about (read: not for school or an assignment). I’m not a natural at public speaking, so breaking down that wall and just doing it wasn’t easy. Ever since, though, I feel that events and conferences are barely worth attending unless I’m an active participant—whether I’m putting something out there I’ve been recently working on, talking about products or projects of my company, or even simply talking on a subject I enjoy and want to promote.
That’s not to say all events are wasteful if you don’t have an opportunity to present. After all, not every one of the thousand attendees can take the mic and have the floor. The value of active participation depends on your objective or desired outcome from the event you’re attending: strictly educational, promotional, or to meet and engage peers in the community. For whatever my motivation is going into an event, I find that a mission to engage with as many people as possible is where I draw the most value. I form lasting relationships that go beyond the last day of the show, and ultimately contribute to the other two motivators: I end up learning a ton and find plenty of areas to promote what I’m doing.
Ultimately, my primary reason for promoting public speaking to my peers is that you always get a return on the time you invest doing it. At the most minimal level, you get a lot smarter on your subject matter if you’re forced to organize your thoughts and convey them to someone else. And most of the time, you’ll end up having interesting conversations and meeting new people based on throwing something out there.