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As a freelancer, I don’t get out much. This year, I decided to change that.
When an invitation came to attend Collision in New Orleans, it seemed like the perfect fit. The timing was good and the conference looked amazing. It’s about tech, with special focus on women in tech; right up my alley.
I aimed to rock this thing by dealing with potential issues in advance. Good planning, plenty of information and real commitment to not sweating the small stuff would help me make it through. Here’s my pre-conference checklist — and how it shook out in reality:
1. Set goals.
Before I said yes, I asked myself why I wanted to go to this thing. It was certain to be expensive,but would it be worth it?
I decided to go for the opportunity to network and interview and write about people and technology I might not otherwise get the opportunity to learn about. My goal was to get a boost in readership with great stories that could lead to new opportunities.
Reality: The jury is still out, but if my readership grows and I gain some new opportunities as a result, it was money and time well spent.
2: Find my tribe.
With all the people attending, I had to know some of them, right? I hit social media to find out, and it turns out I did. In fact, some people I absolutely adore were going.
Reality: It was more difficult than I anticipated to hook up with friends. We are all busy and going in different directions. I keep missing Ahn Nguyen and Rachel Moore somehow, and only passed Beki Winchel a few times, even though we shared a rental house! Still, knowing I had friends nearby helped put me at ease.
3. Research speakers.
To make the most of my time, I decided how many interviews I could reasonably make, and prepared questions and discussion points tailored to each interviewee. There were some exciting people on my list.
Reality: I wasted much of my advance research. With thousands of journalists in attendance, speakers had to budget their time. The list I made turned out to be useless. As we got closer to the conference, I was flooded with emails from people who chose me, and frankly, most of them were a great fit. I wanted to talk to women at the top of tech, and fantastic opportunities cropped up. I operated on instinct, had genuine conversations and picked up some great insights. The results might even be better than planned questions.
I began tweeting and posting using the conference hashtag weeks in advance, responding to people I don’t know who will be there, retweeting information from organizers, making new connections and plans to meet.
Reality: I’m still hashtag retweeting like mad, but the real networking value is in face-to-face. Not even on purpose — just sharing space — I met dozens of writers and editors. I sat on a couch to rest and found myself accidentally eavesdropping on an interview with Rob Cox from Reuters. Sorry Rob. I couldn’t tear myself away. I tried to not be creepy.
5. Conversation icebreakers.
It’s not always easy to start or join a conversation, and I thought a working knowledge of New Orleans might come in handy. I am always surprised when people don’t know what etouffee is, because it’s crack to me. I cannot get enough. I found a travel guide to New Orleans that details the best places to find my favorite foods and describes the different areas of the city we’ll be close to.
Reality: Knowledge came in handy during conversation, but I didn’t really need icebreakers. Everybody was there to network. Introductions came easy.
6. Personal decisions
I work from home, I don’t have clothes! I obsessed over what I would wear. I shopped online for weeks, rejecting everything. I wanted to look professional without looking like I tried too hard. I bought things like false eyelashes and under-eye concealer.
Reality: In the end, I decided to be 100 percent myself. I packed shorts and decent shirts. It’s usually hot in New Orleans, and there would be a lot of walking. I wanted to be comfortable. I decided not to wear makeup, because I don’t. People were dressed in everything from suits to shorts. Most people wore comfortable casuals. One guy rocked a striped shirt and pants with a crazy allover argyle pattern. Say what you will, it was memorable and got attention.
There a few items that I wish I had brought:
A big supply of breath strips/mints: But I did bring a whole pharmacopeia. My rolling laptop bag was packed with heartburn remedy, Pepto Bismol tablets, ibuprophen, gas pills, and Zyrtec. Just in case. The Big Easy is all about rich sauces and red beans.
Wireless headphones: I’m easily distracted and not accustomed to a lot of activity. I would have been better prepared for last-minute interviews if I had found a corner in the journalist room and blocked out my surroundings with noise canceling headphones and rain sounds to get some work done.
Comfier shoes: My flats are comfortable, but not enough. By the first afternoon, I wondered if it it too late to buy a Segway. Are those still a thing?
Cash: The public transportation system and the parking lots at the convention center are cash-only and exact change. That would have been good to know in advance. I never carry cash.
Mini laptop: My laptop serves as my desktop. It’s not made for travel. It has a 17.5 in screen and weighs eight pounds. I bought a small rolling bag, but it’s still pretty inconvenient. Everybody had a mini laptop, and they were obviously much easier to lug around. Toni McQuilken showed me her brand new Surface, and I’m envious!
Umbrella: Why didn’t I bring an umbrella?? We’re having a monsoon. It’s chilly and windy and rainy…in New Orleans. In May.
Spare phone battery: Mine dies too quickly, and always at the worst possible time. I wasn’t alone. The phone charging area remained packed.
Better cell phone: The lighting in the dim cavern of the journalist lounge was easy on the eyes, which was great, but my cell phone has a terrible low-light camera that turned out to be useless. I had to wing it. Next time, I’ll choose a phone with a better camera.
Now that the conference is over, my best piece of advice is this: Know what you want to accomplish, and keep your eyes on the ball. Weigh the value of each presentation against your objectives and decide which ones to attend in context.