The Answer Lady: Making the Case for Conferences

Question: I’m a new technical writer, how do I convince my manager that an industry conference would be a worthwhile expense?

boss-beggingAnswer: To give you the best answer possible, I went straight to the source: conference managers and organizers. I spoke with The Content Wrangler, Scott Abel (Information Development World), Chris Hester (Conference Chair, STC Tech Comm Summit ), Ben Woelk (Conference Chair, STC Rochester Spectrum, held in April 2014), and Rick Lippincott (Conference Chair, STC Northern New England Interchange conference, held in March 2014).

The first step you should take? Go to the conference website and look for information that can be used for justification.

Some conferences, like STC’s Tech Comm Summit, have a “Convince Your Boss” page with a sample letter and wording to use when trying to justify the cost and benefits to your manager. This fits perfectly with the advice from Rick Lippincott, who says, “An important thing to do to help convince a manager that the conference is useful is to commit to attending sessions that are related to what your department is doing, take active notes during the sessions, and then on your return prepare a trip report that presents the information to your manager and peers.”

Rick also points out a new benefit that until relatively recently, wasn’t available. “As a bonus, an increasing number of conferences are recording the presentations and making them available to attendees as webinars after the conference is complete. A summary of a session is good, but being able to get your coworkers into a room and watch the same thing that you saw is even better. What this also means is that by sending one person to the conference, the rest of the documentation department may be able to attend virtually at a later time.”

While not every conference has a template you can use to convince your boss, you can find the information you need by looking at several areas on the conference website: About, Program, and Speakers/Presenters. The About page gives you a nice overview of the conference, and can tell you at a glance if the topics being presented are in the area you need to learn more about. The Program page gives you a good indication of the breadth and depth of the topics being presented. Some conferences have longer sessions, which means presenters can go deeper into a subject, leading to at most 4-6 sessions a day, so you’ll need to plan your argument accordingly. It’s not a hard and fast rule, as some conferences have fairly long days. The Speakers/Presenters page gives you a good biography of the presenters, so you can use the information to point out the subject matter experts and leading industry folks who will be there.

Your second step? Take a look at your company’s website or employee handbook for information on how and when they provide education and training opportunities. While a lot of companies have tuition reimbursement plans, these plans are often separate from training and conferences. For example, I’ve seen companies where the technical publications department has a conference budget, and allows each employee to attend one conference a year.

Third, you need to emphasize the advantage of subject matter experts and networking. The opportunity to not only attend sessions by leading experts in the field, but to talk and network with those same experts both in and out of sessions is priceless. In addition, you meet and talk with other people who are facing the same issues, and may have solutions you haven’t thought of for an existing problem. (Note: My next column will address connecting with conference attendees after the conference – keeping the connection going.)

Once you have collected all the information to justify your attendance, it’s time to convince your boss. Find out if there’s a form or a business unit template you should be using to submit your request. In some cases, such as smaller or more informal companies, but it is always good to make sure you’re following the company standard. It shows you’ve done your research, and you’re serious about your proposal to attend.

If all else fails, and your company is not willing to send you to the conference of your choice, see if your employer/manager will be willing to give you work time to attend the conference. For several years, I had a deal with my manager to attend the conference (without taking vacation time) on my own dime, as long as I attended a few sessions of interest to the team, and I made a trip report of the sessions I attended on my return. A good trip report should not only cover sessions you’ve attended, but the trends you see in the industry, so the company can stay ahead of the curve.

Good luck!

Rachel Houghton

Rachel has been taking photos as a serious amateur since she got her first camera at the age of 16 - a Canon AE-1 Program. She has a Nikon D100, a Nikon D7000, and is anxiously awaiting the new (as yet unannounced) Nikon D400. She's a technical writer, specializing in software documentation and online help, with more than 14 years of technical communication experience. She is a former Secretary for the Society for Technical Communication (STC), past program chair of the STC Technical Communication Summit, and is actively involved in the STC Willamette Valley community and reviews books for the STC journal, Technical Communication. She enjoys photography and Photoshop. Find Rachel on Twitter @rjhoughton or view her photos on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rhoughton.

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