I hate to fly. And when I say “hate,” I don’t mean it casually—the way some people say they hate brussel sprouts or a trip to the dentist. I mean a kind of neural revulsion that’s plump with intense fear and animosity.
Still, every month or so, I find myself on an airplane, inserting the loose metal buckle into the fitting, and tightening so the seatbelt fits firmly around my waist. More often than not, I’m headed to some business meetup or event. Most recently, I was at Confab London, a two-day content strategy conference.
Why put myself through it? Why suffer sweaty palms when the sky aggressively agitates the plane like a cocktail shaker? Why endure the specific brand of bored anxiety I get 30,000 feet in the air?
I have four reasons.
A lifetime ago, when I was covering town planning board meetings for a local newspaper, I arrived in the newsroom very late one night and told the night editor that there wasn’t a single thing to report on; no decisions had been reached by the board.
The editor—who I’m certain ate cigarettes for breakfast—schooled me thus: There’s always a story there, he said, even if it’s not the one you were expecting to write.
These days, I approach events with that mindset: You might walk into a conference with clear goals and expectations, but it’s also important to remain open to a measure of serendipity: to adopt a Mind Like Water approach.
Just as water finds its way into open fissures and crevices, I discover surprising insights and encounters at in-person events that I could never have planned for.
Sometimes those insights come in the way of actual education: A session makes me think about something with a fresh perspective. Sometimes the insight comes when I’m talking with folks and find myself surprised at the way a conversation veers into something magically unexpected.
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At events, I find that there’s always something there, even if it’s not what I was expecting to find.
Attendee tip: Set a goal and objectives. But, at the same time, don’t over-schedule your time there. Stay open for Mind Like Water moments.
My friend Scott Monty uses the word “preunion” to describe meeting people you’ve known online (through social networks, their blogs or merely email). We sometimes end up knowing so much about others we've never met that we form what Scott calls “prelationships,” or “meaningful interactions with people before we ever meet them.” And when we finally meet, then, it's a preunion, says Scott, who heads up social media globally for Ford.
The fact is that nothing beats a face-to-face connection, even for the most hyper-connected among us. Often, that deepens relationships. Or not. In-person offers real value not in putting a face to a name, but in putting a soul to a name.
Attendee tip: Are there people you know you want to meet in-person? Set up breakfast, lunch or drinks ahead of time. Don’t leave that part up to chance.
3. To Find Out What I Don’t Know
People tend to congregate with others who are like-minded. At least, I generally do. From a business perspective, that means I tend to interact with people who share a similar purview—those who, for example, are active in social media and embrace technology, content and social tools as a rich opportunity to change the way we do business.
In-person events offer the ability to knock me out of the bubble like a ball off a T-ball stand. For me, connecting with people who offer an alternative view is necessary to breed inspiration and avoid complacency.
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In other words, I go to conferences to learn things I know I don’t know: to fill in my gaps, or to find the help I need. But I also go to find out what I don’t know I don’t know, which is critical.
Attendee tip: Stretch a little. Look for one or two sessions outside of your comfort zone. Your comfort zone equals your dead zone, as Amy Gahran says.
A year or so ago at an event, I bumped into my friend and marketing strategist Rich Nadworny at a party coordinated by a client of his. One of the things he was hoping to get out of the event, he said, was a little inspiration, because he’d been feeling a bit in a rut. I said I felt that way, too, because there’s a very fine line between a groove and a rut.
I was quoting the songwriter Christine Lavin (“There’s a very fine line between a groove and a rut; a fine line between eccentrics and people who are just plain nuts.”) Conferences are a mechanism for guiding you out of a rut and into a groove, for all of the reasons I talk about here.
Attendee tip: I don’t really have a specific tip for this one, other than to give a shout out to Christine Lavin. Listen to her stuff; she’s an amazing musician.
I’ll Throw in a Bonus Reason: FocusOnline learning is an excellent way to get educated. I should know; we’ve built a business out of it. But in-person events often offer fewer distractions to learning.
In an online learning environment, distractions are always a click away, and it takes discipline of steel to not react to the ding of a new email hitting your inbox. For me, an in-person event grounds me, literally, in the moment, allowing me to stay focused on why I’m there—for all of the reasons above, of course!
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Ann Handley is the CCO of MarketingProfs and the co-author of Content Rules, the bestselling book on using content to grow your business.