I’d like to challenge the assumption that only the very talented or the very wealthy get to become conference attending globe-trotters. Sure, it requires some hard work and a little bit of luck doesn’t hurt, but really it just boils down to these 10 steps.
1.) Get a website. The first thing you’ll notice in this strange new-conference-every-week fraternity is that people aren’t just people. They’re brands too. Kinda sad, I know. But, welcome to the 21st century. The first step to branding yourself is getting a personal website. I recommend using your name. http://firstnamelastname.com. Obviously, your personal website is a blog. You should update it regularly with smart posts that show that you’re an expert about something. They should also link to other experts in your same field.
2.) Get a project. This one will take a little more time. But you need to be working on something other than just your personal website. Your project could be something you’re developing at your day job. Or it could be your own budding non-profit or for-profit company. If it is somehow trying to make the world a better place, all the better. If you have a project you get to call yourself an entrepreneur, or even better, a ‘social entrepreneur’. Conference organizers love that. Essentially you need to find a problem and make it into an opportunity. For Van Jones, that means ‘green collared jobs’; for Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon it was Global Voices; for Michael Smolens it was dotSUB.
3.) Collect anecdotes. You will be invited to conferences because a.) they think you’re a charismatic swell person and b.) because you can make a compelling presentation about your project. A compelling presentation depends on relevant and entertaining anecdotes. You need to collect at least five of these. If you plan on going to many conferences (you’re sure to see the same people, I promise), then you need at least 10 – 15.
4.) Become an expert presenter. Once you have a personal identity, a project, and a magic bag of anecdotes, you need to put it all together into an amazing visual presentation. Just like graphic designers are masters of Photoshop and Illustrator, you need to master your presentation software. All of the best presentations I’ve ever seen are done with Apple’s Keynote software, but I’ve also seen some impressive presentations with Microsoft’s PowerPoint (speaking of presentation, why is Microsoft’s website so ugly? Will they ever learn?). Whichever you choose, read the manual at least twice and practice, practice, practice. A must-read blog for all conference presenters is Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen. You can watch how the pros do it by looking at the ‘TED Talks‘ and ‘Pop!Casts‘.
5.) Don’t get nervous. Some people are naturally more comfortable speaking in front of large audiences than others. But no one is a great presenter the very first time. It takes practice and it takes experience. You need to know when to pause, when to become animated, when to make a joke, and how to time the tempo of your talk. All of those things get figured out with experience. If your first presentation goes bad, don’t beat yourself up, just think about how you want to improve it for the next time.
6.) Find the right conference. The best place to start is at a local BarCamp – something that’s grassroots. Most of these are heavily Web 2.0 and tech-centric, but others like Bil touch on social issues. Some of the so-called ‘alpha-conferences’ are the World Economic Forum, Pop!Tech, TED, Idea Festival, PUSH, and soon, The New Yorker Conference.
7.) Think collaboratively not competitively. One of the worst tendencies at conferences is for two people passionate about the same issue to argue endlessly about details with one another rather than thinking about how their two projects could complement one another. I assume this comes from either capitalism or darwinism – we’re all competing for the same sponsors, investors, and funders and so we try to (loudly) prove that our project/product is better than the competitors. Nothing is more distasteful for conference attendees, including investors and funders. Everyone will like you much more if you propose smart ideas for collaboration and partnerships.
8.) Be nice. During your conference-going career you’ll start out waiting in line to introduce yourself to speakers after they are done. And then others will wait in line to introduce themselves to you. No matter which side you find yourself on, the point is to be nice. There is always a power dynamic between who is on stage and who is in the audience. Do your best to remember that everyone is equal. ‘Cause everyone is.
9.) Reach out. Conference dinners often look like high school canteens – all the cool kids always want to sit together. If you’re a cool kid, try sitting at the chess players’ table. You’ll learn something new.
10.) Have fun. The idea of flying around the world and going to conferences where neat people talk about neat things sounds great. And, mostly, it is. But you’d be amazed how many people do it only to endlessly complain about it. Going to a conference is (almost always) your choice, so make sure it’s something you want to do. If you’re feeling stressed out, take a break. (Yes, that’s a note to myself.)
Bonus points: once you establish yourself on the conference circuit, there are two more steps. 1.) Latch onto an institution, usually a university or think tank. This gives you a salary, job security, and a title. 2.) Write a book. Everyone’s doing it.
So there you go. Not necessarily the easiest road, but if you’re willing to invest two or three years, anyone can do it.