Blog: Content writing and content strategy insights

11 tips for getting the most out of conferences

Tomorrow at 4 AM I’ll get in a taxi and set off for two conferences in Australia. I started writing down some realistic aims to remind myself what I hope to gain from this expensive exercise. In the end, it’s all up to me: as usual, what you give is what you get.

I admit, some conference programmes are intrinsically boring. But on the whole, conferences are people, and people are certainly not boring. So the more prepared you are to learn and have fun, the more benefit you reap.

As a short-sighted face-blind introvert with some hearing loss, I’m slightly handicapped at big social events, and networking is a difficult exercise for me. Maybe that’s why it helps me to spell out these tips. They’re not just for you: they’re for me!

The truth is I don’t go to conferences for fun—and yet I usually enjoy them tremendously. You can too.

Before the conference

    1. Think first: why are you going to this particular conference—research, keeping up with developments, marketing, networking, all of the above? Then set a few measurable, realistic objectives. Examples: At Gov 2.0 in Canberra I want to ask at least 10 government web people what they need most for their intranet and web writers. Other aims might be to meet a particular speaker personally, swap business cards with 10 peers or potential customers, or find how many regional councils are using Sharepoint. Even if your goals are very modest, it’s satisfying to achieve them.
    2. Clear the decks before you go. Be fully at the conference in body and mind, not half there and half in your office. Email is verboten during the day, OK?
    3. Pack with a list so you don’t forget your computer charger, business cards, knickers or passport. Forget the high heels (men, that includes you), be yourself but do meet the dress code. Remember conference venues can be too cold or too hot.
    4. Study the programme and venue, Google the speakers, and plan your day accordingly. The ideal accommodation is the conference venue or something a short, leisurely stroll away, so you start fresh. Mark the sessions you want to attend. At smaller workshops you have a better chance of making a genuine connection with people. Keep an open mind, and include some sessions that are way outside your area of interest. Some will excite you much more than the stuff you already know about.


At the conference

    1. Once the conference starts, relax! Have a good time, soak it all up and have fun. You’ll benefit more if you’re relaxed. You learn better, you are more open to experience. Feel free to deviate from your meticulous schedule. If a session starts boring, it will only get more boring, so slide out of the room and either join a different session or visit the trade booths. When you feel your brain is bursting, take time out. You need it, you deserve it. (And you may meet somebody interesting in the garden.)
    2. Introduce yourself to people left, right and centre—delegates, speakers, organizers, sponsors and suppliers. Swap cards with everyone you meet as a matter of routine, as they do in Japan. And use your elevator speech!
    3. Take notes any way that suits you: mind-map, video, photos, Word document or jotting notes in the conference booklet. Follow the conference on Twitter to find out what others are thinking and put in your two cents’ worth. Maybe blog about the conference on the fly, but don’t take copious notes: you’ll never read them again, and you will miss out on conversations.
    4. Don’t sit with your workmates all the time, or you might as well stay at home. You will frighten off the people you wanted to meet.
    5. Make a running to-do list, adding to it during the conference. Then whittle it down to the most important 4 or 5 action points. Be realistic.


After the conference

  1. Write a 1-page summary of what you learned and what you plan to do as a result. Differentiate between significant action points and routine items such as following contacts on LinkedIn.
  2. Keep in touch with the people you met: those connections are the most valuable asset you’ll gain from almost any conference.

Photo of Emperor Penguins at a conference in Antarctica from


Making videos on video: we're learning by doing

Video. It's so daunting. You make one, it's not very good, so you conveniently forget about video for weeks, or months, or years. Then you make another video, which is also not particularly good.

Alice and I have decided to take the bull by the horns and learn by doing. So we're launching into a series called Video on Video, in which we'll look at every barrier, every challenge we face. I've already noted 23 of these, from getting the audio loud enough to maintaining a consistent brand when the two principals, Alice and I, are so very different from each other. My experience is that I cannot learn more than one thing at a time, so that means making at least 23 videos on video.

We hope eventually to make some videos worth watching.

Meantime, this series will enable you to learn from us as we stumble along, getting better all the time—we hope.

I know there are at least 23 things wrong with this first video, but please give feedback anyway. That way we'll find out which mistakes annoy you the most, and attempt to tackle those first.

Plain English awards: celebrating the communications Cinderella

Plain English is, by definition, clear to the intended reader. This clarity has a positive impact on efficiency, productivity and customer relations. Famously, plain English also saves money for the organizations with a plain English culture—often hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Given the facts, you'd think every organization in the world would be keen to promote plain language in all their internal and external communications. Not so: I'm afraid plain English is the opposite of sexy. The very phrase 'plain English' suggests something dowdy and dull.

The average person, if quizzed about the meaning, imagines plain English means dumbing down into words of one syllable. Plenty consider themselves too smart for plain English.

It can be a lonely old business, a thankless task, promoting the very real benefits of clear writing in government, business, technical documentation and the professions.

To the rescue of the communications Cinderella—the Writemark New Zealand Plain English Awards. These high prestige awards draw attention to excellent writing in the public and private sector.

Three interesting categories:

  1. Best plain English sentence transformation
  2. People's choice awards, including the Brainstrain awards for gobbledegook.
  3. Plain English financial documents. Woo-hoo, great idea!

Enter now. No glass slipper required.

Check out the Contented business writing courses: brilliant online courses for brainy people. You'll be amazed at just how exciting plain English can be.

Image: Cinderella, painted by Sir John Everett Millais

International business English on the Web: put it on your bucket list

You could put Contented online writing courses on your bucket list—but don't wait too long! We teach international business English on the Web: and you need those skills right now.

This year we've given presentations at conferences in three countries, for technical writers, government web site managers, local government web teams and community volunteers. Each time, we take along our little pink bucket.

So far, the little pink bucket has never been used to build sandcastles or put out a fire. Instead it's where people drop their business cards in the hope of winning a copy of Write me a web page, Elsie! and a chance do the Contented Diploma in Web Content courses free.

At the STC India conference last week, the lucky winner was Vinish Garg, President and CEO of Congratulations, Vinish!

Nice to win but why wait? Our next newsletter will announce an end-of-year holiday special. Watch for it and grab it.

Don't miss out:
Sign up for the Contented newsletter now

Vocab alert: "Diploma" has multiple meanings

In Australia, "diploma" has a precise meaning, one that implies a pretty serious study programme. You wouldn't embark on an Aussie diploma lightly.

It's not like that all over the world, however. Internationally, a diploma can be anything from a post-graduate 2-year course of university study to a short, solid professional development qualification, like ours.

Oops, that's another international terminology trap! "Professional development" in New Zealand applies to all professions, but in some countries is used mostly by the teaching profession.

Our Diploma in Web Content is an integrated bundle of 10 discrete short courses. You can complete the work and pass the tests (hopefully) in about 10 hours; you're enrolled for 3 months so you can benefit fully.

We use the word "diploma" because:
~ there's no international agreement on what a diploma should be
~ we need to differentiate between a 10-course diploma and a single 1-hour course.

Get it? Our Diploma is a short, focused, practical study programme that easily fits into the working life of busy professionals. You can do it, starting tomorrow and finishing within 3 months.

Nevertheless, terminology is a real problem, because in Australia the word "diploma" seems like a nonsense for a qualification that takes 3 months. Credibility suffers.

We're thinking that for Aussie graduates we might provide an alternative version of our hard-copy Diploma, using words that make sense in their work environment. But what phrase should we use?

"Professional Development Diploma"?

We need your advice please!

Photo: (c) Tokyo Institute of Technology in spring.

Tip: Remember your web content is data

Your web content (and everything else you write for business) is treated as data. Therefore:

  • Write headlines and page titles that describe the document or give its key message.
  • Write a summary of the document straight after the headline.
  • In link-text, put key information about the page people will jump to (not "Click here").

Virtually every time you write a business or professional document, it exists in electronic form. That electronic document is electronically labelled and stored in various electronic ways—not in a metal filing cabinet. And it will be treated as data, so that other people can find the document when they search.

The internet is hyperspace, with multiple dimensions, and that's where your document lives.

  • Entire web pages are lump of data that can be re-used in many places.
  • Headlines and summaries are crucial bits of data that can appear in many places.
  • Other data that's obviously re-usable: contact details, share prices, corporate information, news items, photographs, slides, information... I could go on all day.

That data can be used and found in 1,000 places simultaneously (not just on the original piece of paper). For example, it could pop up in Google search results, on other web sites, in spreadsheets and PDFs, in Google Docs, online newspapers, on FaceBook and Twitter.

Writers, these fundamental facts about modern communication mean we need to write in a particular way. Picture your words in hyperspace—or at least in a different context: they should still make sense.

Google warns book authors... in print

Google's advertisements in newspapers around the world, including Niue and the Cook Islands, amuses the New York Times writer Noam Cohen and many others.

But the reason for the retro ads is a bit scary.

Google, the online giant, had been sued in federal court by a large group of authors and publishers who claimed that its plan to scan all the books in the world violated their copyrights.

As part of the class-action settlement, Google will pay $125 million to create a system under which customers will be charged for reading a copyrighted book, with the copyright holder and Google both taking percentages; copyright holders will also receive a flat fee for the initial scanning, and can opt out of the whole system if they wish.

Take it or leave it, o ye copyright holders: if you don't like it, opt out... provided you noticed that advertisement in the first place. I'm personally all for Google's grand plan for my own works, in principle, but this strategy is rather like being judged guilty unless found innocent. I want control over my own works and who publishes them.

And if it comes to a battle between a Niuean poet and Google, I wonder who would win? Hm, that's a tough one. But give me a couple of days and I'll figure it out.