Wednesday, May 14, 2014
How Not To Attend a Professional Conference
A few months ago I decided to attend my first National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. They have two National Meetings per year; the one I attended drew over 13,000 attendees for 5 full days of technical sessions, symposia, poster sessions, lunches, a large exhibition, and networking events. The event was too large for the Dallas Convention Center; sessions were held at half a dozen nearby hotels as well.
The ACS is the largest professional association in the world, and it encompasses all fields of chemistry from petroleum to nanomaterials to pharmaceuticals to polymers, and the entire spectrum from academic research and education to commercial R&D to industrial production and sales. My first mistake was that, other than attending mostly symposia in the medicinal chemistry track, I didn’t have a plan to focus on a limited number of these options.
I came a day early to attend the annual meeting of the International Activities Committee, which seemed like my best bet for meeting potential clients. I introduced myself at the meeting and had a brief chat with an administrative assistant who has handled translations for the Society in the past, but I didn’t make a great impression or valuable contacts. (I have exchanged a few email messages with the administrative assistant and connected on LinkedIn, but the relationship has stalled.)
Over the next several days, I attended symposia where I learned about advances in medicinal chemistry and other topics, which is great for developing my specialization. I also went to every networking event I could and forced myself to come out of my introverted shell and strike up conversations. At some events I “worked the room” and talked to a dozen people or more; at others, I stayed at a table with a small circle of people all evening.
On the whole, every conversation went pretty much like this:
Me: (general greeting and small talk) “So, what do you do?”
Stranger: “I research X” or “I work in Y. What do you do?”
Me: “I’m a Russian translator. I specialize in translating for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, so I’m here to learn about advances in the field.”
Stranger: (look of complete confusion) “Are you presenting?”
Me: “No, I’m just here to learn and network.”
Stranger: (still looks confused and loses interest)
Me: “Do you have a card? Here’s mine.” (exchange cards)
I never figured out how to move the conversation forward. When I spoke to people who were presenting later at the conference, I wished them “good luck” in Russian and explained the phrase. This sometimes got a friendly smile or chuckle, but often the poor person I’d cornered became even more confused.
Worst of all, when I attended events sponsored by the International Activities Committee and people insisted that there was no need for translation because all scientists speak English nowadays, and besides we can all use Google Translate, my responses were weak and often I got cut off and pushed aside.
At one session on alternative careers for chemists, a technical writer spoke about working as a freelancer and independent consultant. I decided I really should speak to her after her talk; we share many freelancing challenges, plus she is also a career counselor and I thought it might be nice to pick her brain a bit. I thought that asking her a question would be the best way to open up a conversation, so I asked “What advice would you give to an introvert who finds professional networking a challenge?” Albeit not a particularly incisive question, it was all I could come up with at the moment; I was expecting her to suggest that I practice in front of a mirror or join Toastmasters. Her response? “You just have to suck it up and do it.” End of conversation. She immediately turned to speak to someone else.
That night in my hotel, I realized I was completely bombing at my first non-translation conference. I thought about all of the other things I’d failed at over the last two years of freelancing, and how I’d picked myself up and learned negotiating skills, marketing techniques, business management, organization, and more. All of those fumbles had not ended my career; I’d learned from my mistakes and used those lessons to improve. I went for a run that evening and decided to relax for the rest of the conference and just soak up information.
Fast forward about two months. A local friend and colleague (Steven Marzuola) got a handful of free passes to the Offshore Technology Conference, an annual trade show for the oil and gas industry held every spring in Houston. It draws hundreds of companies, from the biggest international oil majors like ExxonMobil and Shell to tiny family-owned companies that make rubber seals and gaskets. I thought I might attend some of the technical sessions, but it turned out that the free guest pass only got me into the exhibit hall. Most of the people manning the exhibits are there to sell their products; they’re not the people in the company who would handle translation or make contracting decisions. So I decided to take a completely different tack.
Most of the exhibits, especially for the big companies, were displaying models or full-scale prototypes of their equipment. So I would walk up to a big shiny thing and look at it, walk around it, lean in close, turn handwheels, touch surfaces… When a company representative introduced himself, I’d just point at something and say “What’s that?” or “What kind of valve is that?” He’d give a brief explanation, and if he seemed friendly and open to further conversation, I’d say “I’m a translator; I translate design documentation and specs for equipment, but sometimes I’ve never even seen it. So I came out today to look at equipment and learn all I can.” If he got quiet after that, I’d thank him for the information and move on. (I also tried to be aware of other visitors to the booth; especially for the small companies, showing at the OTC is a significant expense and they want to talk to as many potential buyers as possible. Their time is valuable, so I’d only linger if there were no other takers lurking behind me.) If he asked what languages I translate, he’d often be surprised and quite interested. He’d usually offer to answer more questions or show me more equipment. I got to see the inside of ball valves, gate valves, and butterfly valves. I saw frac stacks with ball launchers. I touched intumescents and coatings and alloys. I felt drill bits. I learned about drilling mud and changed a screen in a mud shaker. I picked up a poster showing various offshore drilling and production platforms with all the parts labeled. I got to put on a hardhat and climb up to the operator’s cabin on a top drive platform. A few exhibitors asked for my card and said they might need translation services. Most were just happy to show me their products and answer my questions. I would always end by shaking hands and saying “Thank you so much for your time!” Although I only gave out about a dozen business cards, I left feeling much more positive about my experience, and I can’t wait to do it again.