Reporting From Tech Conferences

Posted by admin on August 18th, 2012 filed in Technical Writing

I met with a colleague who volunteered to report from a technical conference to share my experience and tips (I have been one of the netbeans.org reporters from JavaOne for three years). Here my jotted down notes… May be useful for other technical writers.

Planning:

  • Look through session list beforehand and prioritize sessions, so you have a plan A and plan B for each time slot.

Hardware:

  • Bring chargers and I/A extra charged batteries. There are external battery packs that can recharge smartphones
  • I personally brought a full-keyboard smartphone to keep notes while attending sessions. You may type faster on a laptop, but laptop batteries do not last as long as smartphone batteries. A netbook also works. Sure, there will be outlets, but you constrain your writing opportunities if you only chase from socket to socket.
  • Laptop: Get into the habit of going offline while you do not actively use the WIFI (e.g. while summing up your notes), it saves battery power.
  • Bring a small backup device (e.g. old iPodTouch) in case your main hardware runs out of batteries or dies. You can still take notes on an iPodTouch, and you can tweet, it’s just less comfortable.
  • You can “interview” attendees and speakers too, this is unique content. Dictaphone? Keep it short, < 4 mins! Find out how and where to post audio/video, i.e. practice recording and embedding A/V into your blog.

Software:

  • Find out what you need: Twitter client, blog access, Facebook client, TwitPic, simple image editor, etc… Set up a Blog or ask to be contributor to an official conference or company blog.
  • Clients exist for desktop, iPhone/iPod, smartphone. Set them up on all your devices (notebook, netbook, smartphone). Install, log on to, and test all clients before the conference!

Content types: Blog, tweet, photo

Blog:

  • A blog is a “one page” article summing up your personal take-away notes from a session. Blogging is not Marketing. You don’t have to cover every point of the session like a reporter, it’s also acceptable to focus on one aspect that you are interested in, that you want to remember. When taking notes, it’s Ok to just list items — but don’t blog just a list. Sum up the speaker points in sentences and put them in a real/personal context (e.g. “Do you know problem X? Today I learned how to solve it.”).
  • Include the speaker’s name and background somewhere in the text. Include a link to the conference and where slides and further info can be found. Mention if materials are password protected or for attendees only.
  • Bonus: Write down interesting questions from the audience plus answers! This is unique info that can not be found in any slides!
  • Write the blog offline in a text file and only paste it into the blog editor when your draft is done: Saves batteries and you do not lose text when the connection to blog is lost.
  • Practice posting so you know how to format and transfer the blog draft from your devices quickly.
  • Remember you can add pics to your blog, makes it more attractive to readers. E.g. practice embedding your own mobile phone shots of the crowd or the stage. (Do you know how to take non-blurry pictures in the semi-dark on your device?) Also prepare stock art and cartoons that fit the conference audience. Which image formats fit the blog? (E.g. practice cropping pics to wide horizontal banners on your devices.) Write an intro paragraph, then embed one of the pics, then paste the main content — looks nice.
  • Blog Editing: takes time, you won’t expand your notes to a blog during a 5 min break. Save time by taking turns if you can, with one colleague taking notes at sessions, while the other is editing and publishing.

Twitter:

  • Twitter is for quick one-liners and realizations that pop into your head. “If you have to think long don’t tweet it.”
  • Can be organizational (“session x is full / session x moved to room n / pick up lost phone at reception”), useful (“Did you know that A supports B?” / “Just learned how to fix X by reading LINK” ), a question (“X suggests using Y, anyone ever tried it?”), or funny (“OH: OMG we’re out of jolt!!” — “OH:” means you post anonymous quotes from bystanders).
  • Don’t tweet “Product A [LINK] looks pretty”. Give people a reason why they should spend time reading the posted link, e.g. “LINK answers question X”.
  • Use the conference hashtag (e.g. #MYCONF2011) and technology hashtags (“learning about #Agile at #MYCONF2011”)! Hashtags attract more readers. Look up correct tagrefs beforehand (don’t accidentally pick an unrelated one).
  • Look at your @me for replies of your followers. Shoot a quick reply back at your @followers.
  • Follow the official feed, and RT (retweet) important announcements.
  • Follow the conf hashtag and follow people back who said something relevant, they may follow you in return.
  • Keep your Twitter name and messsages short, so others can add comments to it when RTing (don’t have to use all 140 chars). Don’t use “txt” shorthand unless absolutely necessary, it looks unprofessional.
  • Use TinyURL.com or Bit.ly to shorten long URLs — figure out and practice how these work beforehand! Prepare important shortened URLs (most important sessions, or product pages for your company) and keep them in a text file.
  • There is also Twitter-Facebook integration that reposts your tweets to facebook. The conf may have a Facebook page set up — find out beforehand.

Photos:

  • Get a Twitpic account to store and post mobile pics quickly.
  • Include your photos from facebook, twitter, and blog posts.

Troubleshooting and preparedness:

WIFI at conf center is often down or slow. Find out ahead of time how your twitter client reacts to being offline (does it queue unsent tweets or drop them?) If it drops them, be prepared to collect tweets in a text file. Then if the WIFI comes back soon (within 1-2h) you can go back and tweet the most relevant one tweets later. Use the rest for a blog or skip them (if no longer timely).

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