5 Tips for Covering Conferences

Previously, I wrote about the value of attending writer’s conferences. As I recently discovered, covering conferences for magazines or the host organization can also be a lucrative and in-demand niche. Thanks to a referral from a colleague, I spent much of last week taking notes at a transportation conference, then turning my notes into articles for the host organization’s newsletter.

If you’re a quick note-taker who’s used to immersing yourself in new topics and meeting tight deadlines, then covering conferences could be a good specialty to explore. Here are some of the strategies I picked up from my conference giacg.

1.    Bring backup.
Most of my assignments allow time for following up with sources if I need clarification or more details. Not so with conferences. If you don’t get the info need during the panel, you could be SOL because panelists are often swarmed by colleagues or rushing to catch a flight immediately afterwards. I used the voice memo feature on my iPhone to record each panel as I typed notes in case I needed to refer back to it later. And in case my laptop’s battery ran out (not all the session rooms had outlets within easy reach of attendee seats) or my computer malfunctioned, I also carried my netbook with me just in case. (Fortunately, I didn’t need it.)
2.    Mark up your notes as you go.
Each session ran between one and two hours, so as each speaker stepped up to the microphone, I noted the time in my notes so I could easily find that section on the audio recording. I added other time markers when the speaker paused to switch slides or field questions. I also made quick notes on each speaker’s appearance to help jog my memory; this came in handy later when my editor asked for help identifying people in photos. And when a speaker sound something especially quotable, I’d mark it with several asterisks so I could easily find that sound byte when I wrote the article.
3.    Focus on the big picture.
By now you’ve probably gotten the impression that taking notes at a conference is similar to taking notes in a college lecture. In some ways it is, except you don’t have to worry about some obscure stat or story tripping you up on the final exam. A lot of the information may be unfamiliar, but remember that you don’t have to scribble down everything a speaker says. The important thing is that you’re able to summarize the main points and include a juicy quote or two from each speaker.
4.    Dress the part.
As I write this, I’m sporting a tank top and gym shorts, not an unusual outfit for the work-from-home crowd. But conferences are a much more formal affair, so I had to dig out working girl clothes like tailored pants and a cashmere sweater. In most cases, you can’t go wrong with darker, conservative colors and layers like a jacket or cardigan sweater, as session rooms can be over-air conditioned.
5.    Understand the opportunity cost.
Most days, I work from my apartment, fielding phone calls and emails from sources or clients in between writing sessions, so it’s fairly easy to schedule a phone chat or do it on the fly. But spending the week at a conference meant turning off my iPhone’s ringer and ignoring email and social media for most of the day, because I had to focus on panels and the hotel did not have readily accessible wifi. I’d decided that the opportunity cost was worth it but it did mean I wasn’t as accessible to my other clients that week and I had to work extra hard before and after to stay current on emails and deadlines.

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About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in Bankrate.com, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, MediaBistro.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.