How you can make conferences better
As I'm traveling home from PyCon CZ and ran into a blog post by Hynek Schlawack titled The Price of the Hallway Track and I wanted to follow up on that.
In that blog post from 2019, Hynek criticizes a trend where people overly promote hallway track in conferences over going to see the talks. While I'm not saying don't go to any talks myself, I've been hyping up hallway track myself in the past so I’ve definitely contributed to this without intending it as such. It’s a great blog post and shines light on the topic from a different perspective.
One thing I sometimes find hoping in conferences is a bit less crammed program. I’ve been to some conferences that had a single room, single track program with not enough breaks and no program after the last talk ends. It can be hard socially hard to hallway track in those and I usually feel very tired and unfulfilled from those events.
I've seen so many times people participate a conference (maybe their company paid for it), they sit through every talk, feel exhausted by it and go home unhappy with their conference experience. That's what has lead me to promote the hallway track as the best part of conferences but it's important to remember the downsides that Hynek writes about.
[—] it [not watching talks] also sucks for the audience both in the talk and later on YouTube. Because the lack of butts in seats also means a lack of energy and a lack of energy means a worse talk. The content will be mostly the same but a speaker who doesn’t feel good on stage is not as much fun to watch as one who is enjoying themselves.
I can definitely agree on that. As a speaker, nothing kills a good talk faster than an empty room. Early in my career, I once traveled 4 hours to talk to a room with a single person.
I then followed through the original Twitter/X thread Hynek linked in the post and saw this tweet/xeet by Allen Downey:
I agree! Can I piggyback with a related point? The "hallway track" is most accessible to well-connected insiders. If you are not one of them, it can be discouraging to hear how great it is. If you are one of them, please help others connect.
That is also so true and reading it sparked this blog post. So let’s tackle a few ways you and I as conference attendees can make the conference a better experience.
Making connections and introductions
Let’s start with what Downey was speaking about. When I started attending tech events, I didn’t know anyone and mostly sat in the corner of meetups eating free beer and eating pizza, listening to talks and then going home. Eventually some people noticed I’m always there and started talking to me.
These days I love the hallway track and I talk about how great it is but I recognize it can be challenging to get into. So if you're in a conference with friends or having a discussion with people you met during the conference, actively invite new people to join those discussions and introduce people to each other.
Eating the breakfast on the first morning of the event can be daunting if you don't know anyone. If you see anyone standing around alone, ask if they'd like to join you and introduce the people in your group to them. That will do wonders to getting people into the "inner circle" of the discussion and encourages people to do it.
Also, introducing your pre-existing friends to new people you meet in the conference is a great way to grow everyone’s networks and help them make new friends.
And if you're a speaker, go out of your way to hang out with more than just other speakers. Not everyone has the social courage to approach speakers or they might not know what to say so being open to discussions is a great way to do lots of good.
When I attended Strata Conf 2014, I went to speak to one of the speakers who was someone whose work I had followed with awe for a long time. I was so nervous I pretty much messed up all my words but she was super nice and handled it like a pro.
As a bonus, if you're able to have influence in your company on who gets to go to conferences, bring a junior developer with you and introduce them to the community and help them make connections and learn how to get the best out of the conferences.
Hallway track is something that nobody’s born an expert in, it’s one of those things people learn from other conference goers so let’s teach new comers how to get the best out of it without telling them to skip all the talks.
Follow the Pac-Man rule
After sharing the first version of this blog post, I learned from Flaki that there’s a thing called Pac-Man rule that encourages people to make it easier for others to join discussions and it’s brilliant.
The rule is: When standing as a group of people, always leave room for 1 person to join your group.
I love it! It’s easy to remember and easy to follow.
Talk to any speaker about this and they’ll probably all tell you it’s true. If someone is in the audience and nods along while you talk, it makes such a huge difference and is the smallest act of kindness someone can do to help a speaker – no matter how experienced they are.
I absolutely love when I see someone in the audience who nods along when I speak. Not only does it feel great to see someone being actively interested in the talk but often if I get bit nervous during a talk or forget something, I seek out those people to get a bit of social confirmation that everything's gonna be good and it calms me down.
It feels like I’m talking to an actual human being when someone does that.
That's also why online talks are so difficult for me as a speaker. It's so hard and discouraging to talk to a webcam with zero immediate visual feedback from the audience.
Chat with the speakers
Related to this, one of Hynek's great tips for encouraging especially newer speakers is to chat with them after the talk:
Talk to speakers after their talks. Especially if the room was empty, consider making them feel better after they gave their talk. Chat about the topic or just tell them you liked their talk. Speakers usually get very little positive feedback.
I love when people come to talk to me after my talk. Especially since I’m a shy introvert and it can be hard for me to approach new people. I had so much fun last weekend when people came to chat with me and I met so many great people and learned so much from them thanks to that.
And I know many of us do talks in conferences for this exact reason: to have opportunities to chat about our work and passion with more people and to learn from them and gain new perspectives.
Participate in the digital platform before and during the conference
One thing I like to do personally to create positive vibes is to be active in the digital platforms. Many conferences have Slack or Discord servers and sharing things, asking for sightseeing or restaurant recommendations (or inviting others to join) and giving feedback on talks and event practicalities are all things that bring more life to the event.
If you're a speaker, making yourself available to questions in the digital platform during the event can also help people by lowering the bar for people to start discussions. Sometimes this is facilitated by the organizers (although I think it's more common in online events) but usually nothing stops you from sending a message “Hey, if anyone has any questions or wants to chat, ping me here or find me in the event and come chat” after a talk.
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