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.


  1. Amy, I like this post on several levels. The first is empathy: I've been there and done that: felt the blank look as the person I am talking to realizes I am not someone who can help them in their career and wonders how to move on politely. I've also been completely drained at an ACS conference. By day four at my first I just wanted to leave. I had completely had it with the experience - and I don't even find networking hard - it was the scale of the event that caught me out. The second time, I paced myself and it was much more pleasant.
    A second level is irony: I have attended two ACS conferences, and I had exactly the same satisfying experience in the exhibit hall there as you had at the OTC conference!
    Another reason is the great example you set: in spite of finding networking hard work, you are persevering and getting out there. Would that we were all as diligent to invest time and learn as you are.
    If I were to give one tip to others on how to attend a professional conference, I'd recommend the conclusion you reached: be willing to "just soak up information" the first time. Absorbing how people speak about their subject to peers is valuable in itself. Don't feel the pressure to work the room the first time you go to a trade fair. Your work will benefit merely from the vocabulary and phrasing that you absorb. Then you can add in active networking little by little as you develop a set of responses to the typically puzzled looks or shutdowns. It does get easier. Thanks for writing about your experience!

  2. Amy,

    Thank you for a great article. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and a conscious analysis of lessons learned. I think networking is not that easy for most people, and you do have to push yourself to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Especially as an independent translator/interpreter, when you do not represent a company, but just your personal self!

  3. I found your experience valuable, Amy. I'm also an introvert and find networking events quite a torturous path to gain contacts.

    Because I've worked in other industries (cheese & powdermilk making), I learned how to strike up a conversation in a hurry (and people never realize they've been talking to a deeply cocooned introvert).

    I do try to make a point of attending non-translation events for two reasons: a) in the off-chance that I might establish rapport with a potential client and b) to learn about the industry the event is portraying,

    As a matter of fact, I'm attending my second information security event in October (that's one of my specializations). I found out that bringing focus to the conversation earns you the attention and ears of whoever you talk, even if they don't care much for your services.

  4. Thanks for the post! I recommend Toastmasters to introverts as well, I've been a member for 6 years now. Invaluable.

  5. Amy, thanks for sharing your experiences. I have never been to anything like an ACS conference, but I have attended OTC exhibits since I was a teenager. People manning the booths are usually very willing to explain what their company does, even to non-customers. It's a great opportunity to put your hands on the hardware and ask questions.

  6. Karen, thanks for bringing up that point. Many of the larger exhibits at this type of conference have presenters who provide live narration and explanations of their company's products, often accompanied by computer simulations of the equipment or processes shown on large screens. Their work has made me more appreciative of the value of good presentation skills, whether they are selling offshore oil loading arms, subsea processing equipment (or jewelry and clothing on television, or translation services). That is something most of us can learn from.

  7. Very useful and insightful. I especially liked the contrast between the academic conference and the trade show.

    It does seem that many academic conference networking events have recently devolved into a sad mixture of status-validation, passive-aggression and vaguely desperate job seeking mania.

    Into such a mix even the most resolute and extroverted translator will encounter dismissal, confusion and lots of "over the shoulder" glances to see who else can do more for that person's career.

    I eventually learned to "go nuclear" (literally) with the more rude and dismissive people at these events (I do not tolerate disrespect to translators very well) and explain that my work in translation is on nuclear weapons and counterproliferation to prevent events like Al-Qaeda wiping the U.S. Eastern Seaboard off the map tomorrow morning.

    This gives even the rudest and most self-involved attendee reason to pause for a moment and think, "Wait, WHAT?" :)

    On a more practical level, you've found the ultimate secret to success, and it works equally for extroverts like me (I will wilt like a sad neglected flower if away from people for more than a day) and introverts, who draw their strength from isolation.

    Always lead with questions about the other person, their exhibit, their specialty or their experience at the conference. Keep the focus on THEM, not you. This can take some practice in re-directing the conversation back to the other person continually and away from being just a quick back-and-forth dead end like you explain in your first scenario encounter, but it's surprisingly effective.

    It also takes advantage of a counter-intuitive human cognitive behavior trait referred to as the "Ben Franklin effect."

    The Ben Franklin effect describes the observed behavior of people who do favors for each other. If a person does a favor for you -- shows you around an exhibit, takes time to let you handle the devices or instrumentation, etc. -- that person is far more inclined to do an additional favor for you. Our minds actually do not work on a quid pro quo basis, they favor repetition and well-traveled cognitive pathways.

    So the longer the booth attendee spends with you and devotes time and effort to you, the more likely your business card is going to be actively passed along to people who could use your services in the future.

    An excellent piece, Amy; straightforward, elegant and sympathetic.

  8. I was a veteran attender of the national and some regional ACS meetings for 15 years (1984-1999), and a dilettante for some 10 years before that. Your experiences brought back bittersweet memories! First, it's true - there is a divide between presenters and mere attendees. The first group are the players, and work hard to maximize time with each other and minimize time with everyone else. For many reasons. I always got more respect as a presenter, even "just" presenting a poster. Only slightly less exalted are session chairs (basically, introducers). They are viewed as earning the space they take up.
    ACS national meetings are the whole week, and if you're not exhausted afterwards, your hormones are probably set too high!
    My recommendation for a future try (if you still have an interest and enthusiasm) would be to give a presentation or a poster on something, maybe in the Chemical Information or Chemical Education divisions. I've thought about doing something like this, but so far just vague thoughts.
    Your average ACS meeting presenter/attendee will not have much respect for translation. I can almost hear the comments about how, "everybody already uses English". Gone are the days when most organic chemists understood German and most inorganic chemists understood Russian. There is also a conviction that translation is not something that should be paid for, because "my post-doc" can do that. This from people who probably charge ~$5000/day for a consulting visit.
    If I were trying an approach like this, I would ask what the person at their university/company does with non-English publications or patents. It would help if you knew there was a substantial literature in the area that does not appear in English translation. How is it handled in their university/company? Do they have a go-to source for translation, or do they do that in-house? If they outsource, can they tell you who/what agency they use? If they don't know, is there someone who could be contacted? Are they happy with the quality of the translations they receive? Do they think that having a translator with a chemistry background might do a better job, or add more quality?
    Every time I do a chemical translation and find something odd or foolish from a chemistry perspective, I always add a note to the client. When I proof/edit chemical translation done by a generalist, I always point out serious term and usage failures that might be anything from amusing to confusing to to opaque to the end client unless properly vetted and fixed by someone with expertise. That way, I hope they'll be more likely to choose me for a future project.
    I admire your fortitude doing this! It gives you some insight into what it's like being an assistant professor trying to make a mark in the world, to rise above everyone's noise level. We need more respect!

  9. Thank you for this timely article. I'm planning to got to a trade show in NYC in June. Your article is an extra call for me to be well prepared. I wish you'd been in France in 2012 to shadow Chris Durban at a trade event. She would look at a booth, strike up a conversation about a featured product in the booth, determine if the person was a decision maker, shortly she would ask if they had documentation in English, when they said, "No" or "Well, we are working on it right now..." She would say something along the lines of "As luck would have it, I am a translator." She'd present her card and chat a bit more. Then be on her way.
    When I finally worked up the nerve to accost a booth attendant, I started out well then immediately bombed. Sigh. It takes practice.
    I'm using this domestic event to hone my skills for an overseas event in the fall.
    The opening line I have planned for this upcoming trade show is currently "Nice widget... were you on the design team?" Other preparations: I've read How to Work a Room and The Prosperous Translator. I plan to study three to five of the exhibitors ahead of time, to be familiar with their products and priorities when I visit them. And per Chris Durban's recommendation, I will find and thank the organizer.
    Thanks again for sharing your experience.

  10. Thank you all for your insightful comments! One thing I've learned about freelancing is that it's a marathon, not a sprint; no matter how far I've come, I still have so much to learn. I'll take everyone's comments into consideration as I prepare for my next networking event.

    Stephanie (strobeleng), here's another great resource when preparing for your trade show:
    It's a wonderful interview between Joanne Archambault and Corinne McKay; I highly recommend you listen well in advance so you have time to implement some of the things that Joanne did before her first industry conference.

  11. Amy, thank for your interesting article! I identified myself with all that you have written. I have had some disappointing experiences but last year I insisted and was a little better but for this year I was thinking how I would plan myself. That other suggestion from you will also help me.
    Thanks again for sharing your experiences.

  12. Hi Amy, thanks for your article, I'm very glad you decided to give yourself a break and not be so hard on yourself after the first event! It was great hearing about the lessons learned from attending the two events - your second approach definitely sounds more enjoyable and rewarding than the first! I know from my own experience how miserable it can be to pluck up the courage to speak to someone at a networking event, only to have them glaze over and excuse themselves when they realise you're no use to them as a contact - as a response it is rather lacking in humanity, not to mention rather short-sighted - you never know when a business contact can turn into something more fruitful.

  13. From a client’s point of view, attending conferences in your subject domain specialty is a selling point – it shows that you are staying current in your field. You might include that information on your CV or website or even communicate it directly to the project managers you work with. As a language services company, we want to work with translators who pursue professional development opportunities.

    Regarding trade shows: maybe bringing tangibles such as examples of translations you’ve done for relevant products could help break the ice? Also, if you could get a guest pass to the exhibit floor, and there is an LSP in the area that you’ve worked with (or want to work with) maybe you could invite a vendor manager to come with you as a strategic partner? Just some thoughts. Thanks for your informative article.

  14. This is a really well written account that sums up what many have felt whether attending a conference inside or outside of one's chosen industry. As an interpreter in a world where the big conferences are mostly translation based, I have experienced identical blank looks during the ATA speednetworking events or while attending GALA's localization conference. Figuring out your 15-30 second elevator speech to explain what you do in a way that is relevant to the professional filter of others is a very valuable experience. Thanks for taking the time to write this post!

  15. Hi, Amy, thank you very much for this article. I am personally still a virgin as far as trade fairs etc. go, althoughI had already researched the matter and found the advice that you gained through hard experience - go round the exhibits and engage exhibitors; and just be an information sponge your first couple of times 'out there'. This experience has obviously benefitted you from several points of view - I could feel your enthusiasm and energy coming through as you discussed what you had been able physically to see and touch! It was most heartening and encouraging.

    The comments and feedback are also very informative and helpful, thanks to all.

  16. Hi Amy, thanks so much for this - both of these have happened to me, the first with the local chamber of commerce and a couple of exhibitions / conferences; but last year I took myself off to an NHS industry conference (the NICE conference) purely to get myself up to date with some of the new terms and concepts in the health service; I'm a medical translator, but you need to keep up to date with the health systems in all the countries whose languages you use. Like you, I found that as I was there mainly out of interest in the subject (and was equally careful not to waste exhibitors' time) and I came away not with new clients but with many new sources of information and a much better understanding of what the new terms really mean. Invaluable!


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