Interacting with conference speakers

I’ve spent this week attending the STAR East conference in Orlando. Johanna Rothman, who was also there, posted an entry in her blog encouraging people to attend conferences and get to know the speakers. I wholeheartedly agree with her sentiments. I don’t attend conferences expecting to learn new things from the sessions. While certainly I do learn things from the speakers in the sessions, for me it’s just as important to meet new people, renew ties with people I’ve met in the past, and interact with the community of software testers face to face. It’s also important to me to get more experience speaking and sharing my ideas with people (that’s another entry, however).

That’s my personal perspective as a tester/community member. As a speaker myself, I feel a bit like being so strongly in support of conferences not being primarily about the sessions. Of course, I want people to learn things from my presentations. I’d be ecstatic if someone came up up to me after one and said that something I said was worth the price of the conference itself. Part of me would wonder, though, too, if perhaps they had missed out on chances for networking.

This does lead to some questions though. I know many people don’t feel confident enough to approach anyone, especially someone whose name they might recognize as someone who is a leader in the field. Having done this myself, however, I can attest that no person I’ve ever approached at a conference has bitten my head off. Quite the contrary, in fact. I’ve found the people I’ve approached to be passionate people, interested in sharing and furthering their knowledge, interested in conversing about subjects.

I do keep a few guidelines in mind when I approach people, though. Some of these come out of my own experience talking to people after I speak, others are things that are just the way I’ve always done things, and some are just common sense. I’m sure more items could be added to the list, and people may even disagree with these (and if they do, I hope they let me know!). Anyhow, here’s my guidelines:

  • Be friendly but not fawning. Everyone likes to hear praise, but too much flattery tends to sour things.
  • Immediately after the speaker’s presentation is not generally the best time to try to have deep and detailed conversations with a speaker. When I’ve just finished a presentation, my adrenaline levels are high. It’s a rush to do a presentation, particularly if I feel like the presentation went well. After the peak, adrenaline levels bottom out. It generally takes me an hour or two after a presentation before I am really back to any sort of conversational ability. I’m afraid I may have come across as curt or uninterested to people when that was the furthest thing from my intention simply because I wasn’t able to give their ideas the responses they deserve. I try to be sensitive to this and ask people if I can follow up with them on the idea after the conference, and try to stick to that promise to follow up, but sometimes I fail to convey this properly.
  • Sometimes speakers put an email address in their presentation materials. I’ve never presented at a conference that required the speakers to do this, and I would be surprised to hear of one that did. Since this information is not mandatory, a speaker who does put an email address in a presentation is explicitly giving others permission to initiate contact, in my opinion.
  • Above all, remember that speakers are people too, subject to the same emotions, the same fears, and the same concerns that you have.

Initiating contact with speakers has brought about some of the major milestones of my career, and I heartily agree with Johanna’s recommendations.