Are you getting excited for the American Evaluation Association’s conference next week in Minneapolis?
This week I’m sharing conference tips for newbie evaluators and first-time conference attendees. While many of these ideas will be obvious for experienced evaluators, these ideas won’t be obvious for your coworkers and mentees who are attending one of their first conferences. Please consider sharing these tips, along with your own advice, with the newbie evaluators in your office.
Before the Conference
Here’s what newbie evaluators and first-time conference attendees should do before an evaluation conference:
- Assess your motivations for attending the conference. Are you actively job-searching and want to conduct informational interviews during the conference? Are you considering starting your own consulting business and want to chat with independent consultants? Are you trying to meet others with similar interests so you can partner on future projects?
- Start using Twitter and LinkedIn to meet people and figure out who you want to meet face-to-face at the conference.
- Pack an extra casual outfit and an extra business outfit. Multi-day conferences tend to get more casual over time; that is, evaluators seem to wear suits the first day, then business casual for a few days, and nice jeans on the last day. Exception: If you’re presenting, save your favorite, nicest outfit for the day you’re presenting.
- Don’t forget your electronics. It’s easy to buy a replacement toothbrush from the hotel’s convenience store, but nearly impossible to find a replacement charger for your laptop or phone.
- Bring cash for taxis, tolls, tips, and parking meters. You’ll also need small bills ($1 and $5 bills) for group dinners. (Ever try to split a check between 20 evaluators with 20 different credit cards? It takes longer to pay the bill than eat dinner!) I usually pack $100 in small bills.
- Find out what you’ll be reimbursed for. For meals: Does your organization use a per diem system or a reimbursement system? For alcohol: Alcohol’s typically not covered. For hotel internet access: Unless you’re working during the conference to meet a client deadline, your organization probably won’t pay that extra $10/day for internet. Instead, scope out the free wifi hotspots in the convention center or conference hotel. For airfare: Is there a limit on your airfare? Will your company reimburse you for baggage fees? For ground transportation: Will your organization reimburse you for taxis to/from the airport, or just shuttle buses? For your timesheet: Will your organization provide a charge code for the entire conference, or just the first few days? It’s not uncommon to work “on your own” on the last day of a conference, especially if it falls on a Saturday.
- Find out which organizations will be represented at the conference. Even if you’re not job-hunting now, start brainstorming who you’ll want to work with in 5, 10, or 20 years. I like to skim through the back of the conference program.
- And if you’re presenting at the conference, follow the preparation checklist and slide design guidelines from the American Evaluation Association’s Potent Presentations Initiative. Evaluation conferences are different than research conferences (read more here) so adapt accordingly.
During the Conference
Here’s what newbie evaluators and first-time conference attendees should do during an evaluation conference:
- Iron your clothes and hang them in your closet as soon as you check-in to your hotel. Multi-day conferences are exhausting, and you’ll need all the sleep you can get over the next few days. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overslept and ran to sessions wearing a wrinkled pair of pants…
- Keep your conference objectives in mind. Take charge and get what you came for! Networking won’t happen unless you initiate it.
- Take an evaluator to lunch (or breakfast, coffee, happy hour, dinner, etc…)
- Don’t work during the conference, even if it means working weekends beforehand to clear your schedule. If you’re presenting, don’t work on your slides during the conference (again, even if it means working weekends beforehand to finalize your presentation). Conference time is precious and is better spent learning and talking.
- That being said… Make time for self-care. Have quiet time in your hotel room, go to the gym, or take a walk outside.
- Skip a session or two for networking. My most valuable lessons and tips about evaluation have come from casual conversations with other evaluators, not from formal trainings.
- Trade business cards and jot down notes about each person to guarantee that you’ll remember them a few years from now (e.g. “Knows my friend Joe; lives in Baltimore but visits DC often; schedule coffee together.”)
- Tweet! Use the conference’s official hashtag (#eval12 for the next American Evaluation Association conference and #eers13 for the next Eastern Evaluation Research Society conference).
- Use Twitter to find #tweetups and happy hours.
- Attend a Topical Interest Group (TIG) business meeting at the American Evaluation Association conference. This is a great way to meet current and up-and-coming leaders in the field.
- Attend at least one session each on: 1) a brand new topic (to broaden your understanding of the field); 2) a beginner-level topic (to meet other newbies, and to feel more confident in what you already know); and 3) an advanced topic (to give yourself a reality check about what you don’t know).
- Ask questions during sessions. Don’t doubt their project, methods, or findings, or you’ll get a reputation for being an annoying audience member. I recommend straightforward clarification questions: “This is really interesting information, thank you. I’m new to this concept/project/approach. Could you give us a little more background about xyz?”
- Talk to presenters after their presentation. Don’t feel pressured to develop an elevator pitch or be an expert about their background or topic. Try this: “I learned a lot from your presentation, thank you. Where can I learn more about your work? Do you/your company have a website, blog, white papers, handouts, etc.? Do you ever visit DC? If so, would you like to have lunch the next time you’re in town?”
- Don’t arrive to sessions late or leave early. It’s bad manners and distracting to the presenters.
- Don’t worry about taking notes. Most handouts and slides will be available online right after the conference. My “notes” are my 140-character tweets.
- Wear that nametag like a rock star.
- And if you’re job-hunting… Print 100 copies of your resume and post them to the jobs board. Don’t share your resume with people you’re meeting for the first time unless they ask for it first.
After the Conference
Here’s what newbie evaluators and first-time conference attendees should do after an evaluation conference:
- Connect with everyone on Twitter and with a few people on LinkedIn.
- Send personalized, casual emails to 5-10 people you met. I’ve actually received emails with citations – “Hi Ann, I liked hearing about your work, it coincides with Smith (2010), who found a statistically significant difference between x and y. That is, until Miller (2011) employed a larger sample and found xyz….” Please don’t send anyone a literature review! Instead, write something like this: “Hi Ann, I liked hearing about your work. I’m going to apply xyz skill in my next project. Let me know if you’re ever in DC. I’d enjoy learning more over lunch sometime.”
- Schedule coffee, lunch, and happy hours with evaluators from your city.
- Share what you learned! Write on your personal blog, your organization’s blog, and/or the aea365 blog. Tweet. Lead a brown bag for your teammates. Bonus points: Explain what you learned to a non-evaluator (like a parent, roommate or significant other) without putting them to sleep. Translating interesting ideas from evaluationese into lay language is a skill that improves with time.
Have additional tips and tricks to share with newbie evaluators and first-time conference attendees? Please share your ideas below.
Thanks, Ann Emery
- American Evaluation Association members can watch Susan Kistler’s coffee break webinar, Ten Tips for Making the Most of the Annual Conference.
- Tips for First Time Conference Attendees by Susan Kistler on aea365
- Making the Most of the AEA Annual Conference by Bonnie Stabile on aea365