Not Everyone Finds Conferences Fun Or Creative
I believe I've written here before about my family members who won't attend conferences in their fields. The uneven quality of the workshop offerings at these things makes them feel they're wasting time. They're also serious introverts. Not only are they unlikely to be able to take advantage of the networking opportunities at conferences, those networking opportunities are torture for them.
This past Saturday I met a woman at the NESCBWI Conference who had been there since Friday. She was mulling over how much benefit she was getting to from her experience. She asked me, "Have you had a single workshop you were satisfied with?" Though I had, I also had to admit that I'd given some thought a little earlier to whether or not I would be getting more from my day if I'd spent fifty or sixty dollars on books about process and locked myself in my sunroom with them.
Uneven quality. No possibilities for networking. Yearning for a sunroom. Sometimes you do have to wonder if conferences are a good use of time.
Realistic Expectations And An Open Mind
As I've said before, in order to get anything from conferences, you have to keep your expectations realistic and your mind open.
Expectations. The odds of you coming away from a conference with an agent who is going to get you a multi-book deal for your still unwritten manuscript and sell it to Hollywood are very, very low. Not every workshop you take is going to be stellar. Some of them are going to be really disappointing. You're going to see some agent presentations that leave you wondering what's the big deal about agents. You're going to see some keynote speakers who are incredibly charismatic, which will be both entertaining and soul destroying, because you'll be all too aware that you are incapable of doing anything like that. At some of these places, the food is really bad. (But not at the Sheraton in Springfield.)
You have to go into conferences aware of all this and reconciled to it. You really don't want to go into these things as if it's Christmas and you're sure you're getting a pony. That sets you up for a very bad conference.
An Open Mind/Beginner's Mind. On the other hand, if you can relax and not sit in workshops waiting for a gold ring to appear so you an snatch it before somebody else does, you may notice creative jolts. A speaker on Subject A may say something as a total aside that gives you an idea for something unrelated to what you're there for, which happened to me Saturday morning. While trying to make out what a disorganized and disappointing workshop leader is doing, you may come up with your own plan for how to do what she she was supposed to be speaking about. You may notice how another conference goer takes and maintains notes and later start up a similar system for yourself. (Yeah, that happened to me.)
Essentially, you have to expect that it's going to be the odd little moments at conferences that will provide you with the most benefit, not the advertised events.
The Ultimate Test For Determining If A Conference Is A Good Use Of Time
Years ago, I worked for an agency that ran training programs for municipal and state employees. We were grant funded and had to justify our existence, in part by showing that what we did had value for the people we did it for. We tried to do that by conducting post-training surveys, well after the contact date.
Why? Because we were trying to avoid the halo effect, the belief that a training program was good because the participants had a good time or liked the trainer. We wanted to be able to tell if the training the participants received changed how they worked. Because the point of a training program, or a conference, is not to have a good time or to get a creative buzz on. It's to change how you work, your behavior.
So putting aside the whole fun with friends and getting off on creativity business (legitimate reasons to attend a conference, IMHO, for those who roll that way), a very practical way to determine whether or not conferences are a good use of your time is to pay attention over the weeks and months after you attend one. Notice whether or not you're using things you learned there. Anything at all, whether it was real material from a real workshop or something related to a brainstorm of your own.
Hmm. I'm going to try to do this during my Friday goal and objective checks.