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Conferences I'm Attending This Year

by Tom Johnson on Feb 28, 2012
categories: technical-writing

I'm attending three conferences this year: Confab, the STC Summit, and Lavacon.  Why did I pick these conferences, over others?

Ben Minson and me at the last STC Summit
Ben Minson and me at a previous STC Summit

I attended Confab's inaugural conference last year and felt it was a good fit for my web publishing role at work. Although my job title is "senior technical writer," I spend about 60% of my time being a web editor for LDSTech. LDSTech has a blog, wiki, and forum, and in many ways, it's the communication/awareness arm for our IT group.

Confab is a perfect conference for anyone involved in web publishing. I'm still wrapping my head around content strategy. Last year I learned that it means a lot of different things to different people. Mainly, whatever techniques you employ to give your content an edge is a content strategy. More than anything, Confab seemed like a web publishing / marketing / content strategy conference. Only a few technical writers were there last year, and you probably know them all (Scott Abel, Rahel Bailie, Ann Rockley, and a couple of others). Yes, only about five technical writers out of hundreds of attendees). Just like 2011, the Confab conference sold out early again this year. (I don't pretend to understand conference dynamics, but their staff seems to openly defy the law of supply and demand.)

When I'm not being a web editor, I write help material. Most of the applications I document are small in scope. I never document anything that has 1,000 topics or more. I remember once talking to Joe Gollner at a conference. He works on projects that have hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of topics. I can't imagine documenting anything so vast. I guess this means I've become more of a technical writer involved in lightweight projects. That suits me fine, though.

I initially wasn't going to attend the STC Summit this year. I submitted a proposal, but then changed my mind about the conference and withdrew my proposal. Because I helped review proposals for one of the tracks, I received a discount on registration. Despite canceling, I still had a nagging desire to attend the summit. Not so much for the education sessions, but because it's a conference that all my professional friends attend. It's the epitome of #techcomm. Some training budget funds opened up last week, and I managed to squeeze it in.

I'm not staying at the $200-a-night conference hotel, though, especially when that price doesn't even include Internet. The point in attending a conference or visiting any city isn't to abscond oneself in the hotel watching cable and lying on luxury pillows. The point is to get out and interact. I love walking around the city, exploring new places. I enjoy getting out of the hotel perimeter, past the point where every store caters to out-of-towners at hotel prices. Also, my travel budget isn't so vast that I can afford to stay in fancy hotels and attend multiple conferences a year.

The trouble with attending Confab and the STC Summit is that they take place two weekends in a row. This only goes to show that the Confab conference planners aren't targeting technical communicators, or that too many competing disciplines have conferences in the same short period of time.

The final conference I'm attending this year is Lavacon. I've never been to Lavacon, though I've helped out with the website for it. Jack Molisani asked if I'd like to present, and I got to thinking how nice it is to get out of the office in the fall, outside of the regular conference season. And yes, I do have a topic percolating that I'd like to present about: crowdsourcing writing tasks. The Portland venue makes the conference even more appealing, since I'm a northwesterner myself, born in Washington State.

Apart from these random details about conferences, have you ever wondered about the deeper reasons why we go to conferences? What draws us to attend? Perhaps it's because conferences hold the promise of an idea. Put together hundreds of professionals from the same discipline in a room, and all kinds of innovation should take place. Why doesn't more innovative thinking happen? Are we stifled by hearing the same voices again and again in presentations? Are we distracted more by the schedule than by the point of the gathering? Do we not attend with enough questions and problems to solve?

Last year my former colleague Derek came back from WritersUA and said the conference consisted of many excellent presentations and information. Like what, we asked? Tell us what you learned. Unfortunately the details of that conversation never materialized in much depth, which makes me think that the takeaways from conferences might not be any notes you write down from presentations, nor the people you meet during all the "networking opportunities," but rather an igniting of thought about your discipline and how to move forward in your professional endeavors. Derek returned more determined than ever to implement an enterprise-wide authoring strategy.

Although I'm not presenting much this year, I do lean towards a preparation model that may not be entirely sound. Whereas most conferences invite speakers who are recognized experts on topics they're familiar with, I think you should submit a proposal based on a topic you want to explore for the year. Then present your findings about your exploration at the conference. The conference acts as the culmination of months of research, experimentation, and thought about the topic.

I did that last year with the topic of findability at the Summit. Knowing I would be presenting on the topic motivated me to keep it foremost on my radar, and I explored the heck out of it, writing more than 40 posts on findability. But because of the difficulty of the topic, I never reached the triumphant conclusion that would lead to a knockout presentation. And not having that triumph in hand led to enormous stress as the date of the conference approached. Good stress, but perhaps more than I care to repeat.

This year, with just one topic on the agenda -- crowdsourcing writing -- I am taking it a bit easier. I'm not a total expert on this topic, but I've been wrestling with it for the past 8 months now. I've made more progress than many, and I know how to do it, just not how to pull it off on a grander scale.

I look forward to interacting with you at some upcoming conferences. Is there a conference I'm missing out on? I'd love to hear about it. More than interacting, though, I'd love to learn what unspoken takeaways you get from attending conferences.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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