Alternatives to Face-to-face Technical Communication Conferences

Trends in Low-Cost Skill Development & Networking

Introduction

Few can dispute the benefits of attending a professional technical communication conference. Whether you attend the STC annual conference, WritersUA, LavaCon, SIGDOC, IPCC, or one of the numerous other technical communication-oriented meetings, you attend for the opportunities–to sharpen your current skills, learn new skills, catch up with tool and technology trends, pick the brains of leaders in the field, and network, network, network.

While the benefits are clear, justifying the expense associated with conference attendance can be challenging. Especially in years where your organization doesn’t support conference attendance or where a colleague gets to attend.

Let’s take a look at four lower-cost options that can provide many of the same benefits: webinars, virtual conferences, unconferences, and twitter chats. These aren’t the only alternatives, by any means. We’ve list some additional resources at the end of the article, and we’d love to get your suggestions in the comments!

 

Technical Communication Webinars Abound

Probably the most familiar conference alternative is the webinar, a web-based seminar or presentation similar to a conference panel. Webinars are usually presented live. The content is often recorded and archived so it can be viewed later, but interaction even during live webinars is generally limited.

Live webinars offer good opportunities to hear thought leaders in technical communication, and to ask questions. For example, a recent free webinar presented by Content Rules featured Scott Abel, Val Swisher, Jack Molisani and Sarah O’Keefe. The moderated session was an engaging discussion of the future of technical communication. Content Rules and DCL both have some great, free webinars that tend to be broadly applicable. MadCap and Adobe offer tool-oriented webinars that can help you gain knowledge. STC offers frequent webinars, and while the live webinars are relatively inexpensive, the free archives are only available to members. Translation vendors, content management companies, and other tech comm tool and service providers also offer webinars.

Webinars involve no travel, and are often free or low-cost (though some webinars can be costly). If you can catch a live webinar, you can often ask questions of the presenters, and possibly of other attendees, depending on the webinar setup. While webinars can offer some of the same information you might find at a conference, they aren’t as interactive. Like the traditional conference, webinars tend to be a one-to-many or few-to-many experience, with a select presenter or two presenting on a defined topic. Opportunities for networking and engaging other participants are pretty limited, though more live webinars now use social media for real-time and ongoing discussion. Webinars can also wrap sales-oriented content around great tool or skill knowledge, and sometimes end up feeling more like a product pitch than an educational opportunity.

 

Network from the Comfort  of Home at Virtual Conferences

Virtual conferences offer the scheduled, multi-presentation format of a traditional conference, but involve no travel. They tend to be free or low-cost. Depending on the conference, there may be little chance for virtual networking, or virtual networking may be a key part of the conference experience.

International Freelancers Day is a large, free and online conference that takes place every September. The 2011 conference included an opening keynote, closing statements, and two concurrent presentation tracks on topics ranging from social media to financial management, and lots in between. The presentations themselves are relatively short, between 15 and 20 minutes, but in between each session is a networking period of between 40 and 45 minutes. Organizers have made an effort to maximize the time and opportunity for attendees to interact with one another, perhaps coming as close to the rich hallway conversations that are one of the most important unofficial components of traditional conferences.

STC held a one-day, online virtual conference in 2011. The conference was moderated by Saul Carliner, and was focused on putting research into practice. It was well-received by attendees. Reviewer Bonnie Graham Gonzalez enjoyed the ability to chat with other attendees without interrupting the presenter. Of course, being able to attend a conference without paying for airfare or hotel, and possibly while wearing pajamas, are distinct advantages, as well. While Cuddihy specifically mentions the chat function as an advantage, the STC virtual conference schedule doesn’t indicate that there was any time specifically devoted to networking or participant interaction.

 

Unconferences

Unlike traditional conferences or virtual conferences, unconferences are spontaneous and participant-driven. TechWhirl’s own Mike McCallister describes unconferences this way: “One of the basic principles of unconferences is that at traditional conferences, the best conversations are the ones that take place in the hallways between and outside of the planned sessions.” Unconferences, explains McCallister, try to bring those discussions into the sessions. The sessions themselves are determined at the beginning of the conference, rather than weeks or months before the event. Any attendee can propose a topic, and active participation is the rule rather than the exception.

Unconferences relevant to technical communication are plentiful. InfoCamp is an unconference that started in Seattle in 2007, but now has events in several locations, including Canada and Germany. Attendees are “people excited by information,” and the list of presentations from Portland’s 2012 InfoCamp certainly displays that enthusiasm.  In October 2011, the STC Carolina chapter and the NC State SIGDOC chapter teamed up to produce SpeedCon, an unconference focused on communication. Potential presenters pitched their ideas at the beginning of the event, and the resulting slate of sessions covered  topics ranging from blogging to resumes. Another unconference with strong ties to technical communication is WordCamp, unconferences for WordPress users, developers, and everyone in between.

Agenda developed at the Citizen Journalism Unconference (photo by Rico Shen)

Unconferences are free or very inexpensive, and offer attendees a chance to demonstrate expertise on a topic. For attendees who have been thinking of presenting at a larger or more traditional conference, an unconference may offer an opportunity to try out ideas, and to try presenting in front of a group. Unconferences place emphasis on participation and rich discussion, rather than passive consumption of conference presentations. The events are mostly face-to-face, like traditional conferences, which is both a benefit and a potential drawback: lots of networking opportunities, but may require travel, adding to the overall cost of attendance.

 

Twitter Chats: Focused, Moderated Technical Communication Conversation

Twitter offers plenty discursive opportunities, as most TechWhirl readers are aware. But, while we can glean plenty of new and interesting tidbits from our twitter feeds, sometimes  we can benefit from a more focused, directed interchange – something like what we can get through a twitter chat.  According to Anne Gentle, a twitter chat is “periods of time set aside to talk on Twitter with a particular hashtag collecting and aggregating all the tweets within the time period.” The chats are moderated, usually with a topic announced ahead of time.

Search for information on twitter chat and technical communication, and one chat is present in most of the top results: TCchat2.0 (#tcchat20). This twitter chat covers a wide variety of topics and has great participation from some high-profile tech comm names. Recent topics include content strategy, DITA, and an entire month of chats on global considerations in technical communication.There are twitter chats covering marketing, PR, social media, blogging, and more. A public spreadsheet in Google Docs lists over 600 twitter chats.

Like most of the other options discussed in this article, twitter chats involve no travel. They are also free, but a lot more freewheeling and participatory than the average webinar or virtual conference.  Many twitter chats are archived for future reference – in fact, a great twitter chat about the topic of this article is archived here.

Twitter chats can also be a great way to showcase your knowledge. Julie Norris, the moderator of TCchat2.0, notes: “With Twitter chats, the ability to build your online presence, to show your expertise is unparalleled. You also never know who may be watching a chat. Perhaps there’s an employer, watching to see what a potential candidate is saying online, what info they’re sharing, how they’re received and how their input is valued.”

Twitter chat downsides? Depending on how many participants are involved in a chat, the tweets may fly by quite fast, making the chat difficult to follow. Chats, like anything on twitter, are public, so it’s important to consider the professional impact of your tweets. Also, while chats can be extremely dynamic, they tend to be focused around one theme and occur over a period of an hour or two, while traditional conferences tend to cover a range of topics.

 

Conclusion

If your employer’s travel budget, or your own, can support travel and conference attendance, then take advantage of the opportunities for networking and professional growth. If attending a conference is unlikely, however, there are plenty of opportunities for ongoing skill development, knowledge transfer, and networking available online. Even if you are able to attend a conference or two, these alternatives are worth exploring: build your reputation, look into tools you haven’t used before, or explore a different aspect of our sprawling and constantly-changing industry.

 

Other Resources and Ideas for Keeping Current

Association of Technical Communicators (ATC)

Technical Writing World (TWW)

Meetups

LinkedIn groups

MySTC (for members and non-members)

Local chapters of STC, ASTD, UPA, IABC, and other professional or industry-specific organizations

 

Thanks to Julie Norris and Mike McCallister for their generous input and expertise on twitter chats and unconferences, respectively.

Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson currently works as a Senior Technical Writer in the transportation sector, and has worked as a technical writer and editor at medical device, legal, and financial companies. She has a B.A. and M.A. in English, and was planning to be a professor before she discovered that working in a cubicle and hanging out with with developers and engineers was lots of fun. Laurie is a tech junkie and avid lover of DIY and handmade stuff. She also enjoys knitting, running, and taking taekwondo classes with her family. Laurie is on LinkedIn, and tweets less frequently than she should at @johnsonla.

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