Tag Archives: conference

Conference Tips for Newbie Evaluators

Wear that nametag like a rockstar

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.

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.
  • 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).
  • 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


Additional Resources:

And the countdown begins: 19 days until #eval12

When I realized that the American Evaluation Association’s conference is only 19 days away:


When I checked the schedule and realized the sessions start at 7am:


When I’m already flooded with work before the conference:


When I still have to finish a few presentations before the conference:


When I thought, hey, it’s not so bad, because this is how I felt at my first evaluation conference:

When I remembered there would be be plenty of happy hours at the conference:


And when I remembered I’d get to see all my favorite evaluators in one place:

Is the evaluation hurting the program?

We were extremely fortunate to have past and present Presidents of the American Evaluation Association as our guest speakers at the 2012 Eastern Evaluation Research Society’s conference – Eleanor Chelimsky, Jennifer Greene, and Rodney Hopson.

Even though the conference was a couple weeks ago, I’m still thinking about one of Rodney Hopson’s comments. He mentioned that sometimes he wonders whether evaluators/the evaluation are actually hurting the program rather than helping it.

I’ve certainly had similar experiences. Mostly, I’ve seen program staff get so excited about data that they want to collect more, and more, and then even more data. You can read about one of my experiences here.

This is a great idea at first. What’s the harm? More data is better, right?

But… a few months down the road, the program staff and I are swimming in more data than we can handle. And, we often have more data than we really need. After all, my goal as a utilization-focused evaluator is to collect information that will directly influence decisions about the program or the participants. Simple, quick, streamlined data can be more useful than complex, time-consuming data.

Have other evaluators felt like this? Have you ever questioned whether your involvement is hurting rather than helping?

How do you know when you’ve given a great presentation?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about great presentations, trainings, and workshops as part of the American Evaluation Association’s Potent Presentations Initiative (p2i).

Here’s something I’ve been pondering: How do you know when you’ve given a great conference presentation? My ideas so far:

  • People walk up to the front and talk to you before the presentation gets started (because they’ve already heard about you/your presentation and are looking forward to it)
  • People walk up to the front and talk to you after the presentation
  • People want your business card after the presentation
  • People ask questions throughout the presentation (and not necessarily only when you’ve paused to ask them whether they’ve got any questions – asking questions throughout is generally a great thing)
  • Barely anyone is playing on their cell phone (exception: if they’re tweeting about how much they’re learning in your presentation)
  • People are willing to sit on the floor or stand in the back of the room to hear your presentation
  • People are taking notes, sometimes furiously, to capture what you’re saying
  • Months later, you run into people at other evaluation brown bags or happy hours and when they greet you, they say, “Oh I know you already, I saw your presentation at the conference!”
  • Afterwards, people comment, “I learned so much!” or “You changed my entire way of thinking!”
  • People email you afterwards and ask you to co-present with them next year
  • People email you afterwards and ask for a copy of your presentation
  • People email you afterwards to offer you a consulting opportunity

I didn’t start writing this post with audience engagement in mind… but I suppose that’s what my brainstorming points to?

– Ann Emery

P.S. While I’ve accomplished a few of these, I’ve by no means accomplished all of them (yet!). These are things I’m aiming for and things I’ve seen happen as a result of other evaluators’ great presentations.