Excerpt: You know who we’re talking about. The attendee who gets eye-rolls and sighs, yet manages to show up conference after conference.

Last month, I attended the Pennsylvania Conference for Women, an incredible day-long conference with over 5,000 attendees and more than 100 speakers. Between hearing from a line-up of well-known personalities like Marion Jones, Tory Johnson, Shama Kabani and um, the feminist who led the entire women’s liberation movement, Gloria Steinem, I attended sessions on the future of social media, traditional publishing vs. self-publishing and making the transition from employee to entrepreneur.

In the midst of frantically jotting down notes at each session and feeling inspired by the driven and successful women around me, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated with my fellow conference go-ers. Instead of taking full advantage of the resources surrounding them, many attendees were indulging in just plain bad conference-going behaviors. Now don’t get me wrong; I think conferences are a fantastic place to share knowledge and network. But some bad behaviors I simply can’t forgive.

Here are three ways to avoid being THAT person at the next conference you attend:

1. Don’t ask a question so super specific that it only pertains to you and your individual situation.

You know who I’m talking about. That really annoying person who raises their hand, introduces themselves and their company/side biz/book/whatever they’re trying to promote, and proceeds to go into extreme detail with their question. They try to turn what is supposed to be a general, open forum into their own personal coaching session. Definitely not cool or helpful to anyone else in the audience.

If you have specific questions, ask the speaker after the session, or better yet, email them later, after they’ve had some time to unwind from the conference. Besides being polite and respectful to other session attendees, you will most likely get a better and more personalized answer.

2. Don’t challenge the speaker in the middle of their session.

On at least two different occasions at this conference, people stood up to disagree with the speaker and share their own insights with the group. I could feel the other women around me cringing and rolling their eyes.

No one pays a hefty ticket price to see a session get hijacked by a fellow attendee. If you were the expert, you would have been invited to speak at the conference. Even if you disagree with something the speaker says, it’s never appropriate to interrupt them in the middle of their session to spout off your own opinion.

Instead, take the conversation to Twitter or write a blog post about it. It’s absolutely okay to share your point of view, but do so when it’s appropriate and makes sense.

3. Don’t push your business card at everyone and anyone who will take it.

As I waited to say a quick hello to author Emily Bennington (who by the way, wrote a fantastic career book called Effective Immediately) after her combined session with a high-profile former editor-in-chief of a prestigious magazine, I witnessed a conference attendee push to the front of the line of others waiting to talk to the speakers and thrust her business card into said editor’s hand. The attendee didn’t preface the business card pushing with any kind of hello, handshake or conversation. She simply said, “Here. I wanted to give you my business card” and walked away. There was no call to action and certainly no real reason to give the editor the card.

The editor took the card and politely thanked the woman, but I couldn’t imagine what was going through her head at that moment. Handing out business cards with no real purpose or goal is completely useless; if someone doesn’t remember you or the conversation they had with you when they look at your business card, they most likely won’t be contacting you any time soon.

Instead, this particular woman could have used her quick thirty seconds with the editor to comment on the content from the session or share information about a relevant blog post she recently wrote or saw. After a real conversation, perhaps it would have made sense to exchange a business card. But in this situation? It just felt awkward and self-serving. Not the way you want to be remembered.

What bad behaviors have you seen at conferences lately?

Jessica Lawlor is a public relations professional in Philadelphia. In her free time, she manages a book review and writing blog and is currently writing a novel.

15 Comments

  1. Jude

    The one who “asks a question” that’s not a qestion but a run-on of self indulgence taking time from others who want to ask genuine questions. It happens a LOT!

  2. mcase5622

    People coming in after the presenter had already started speaking, walking to find their seats while standing in front of others as those already seated were trying to see what was going on.

  3. Mspamelabell

    What about the person engaged in their own self-absorbed conversation while the speaker is talking. Disregarding the fact that their holding everyone hostage to their random non-related thoughts. How rude, disrespectful and irritating! Shut up so we can hear the expert, please!

  4. Nanikekela

    There was a woman who made a joke about not hearing the instructions and as the speaker gave them again she turned to her neighbor and started another conversation. The people in the audience who think they’re part time comedians are annoying.

  5. ResuMAYDAY

    There’s always the person that forgets to turn off their phone and the person who asks a completely off-topic question… As someone who is a speaker, I’ve experienced all these things (including the three from the article). While 99% of my presentation participants are delightfully engaged and ask inspiring questions, there’s always someone who asks that specific-only-to-them question, or a question that would take the presentation in a completely different direction. I’ve also been challenged by someone who disagreed with me and have come up with a few interesting strategies to counter-act those people, depending on the situation. A good speaker knows how to deflect all these things, and more. As far as people that hand their business card to me without conversation, I add their email to my email list and then toss the card.
    Kudos, Ms. Lawlor! I’ve only seen articles on being a better speaker, never a better audience member. I applaud your perspective from the other side of the microphone!

  6. Shama Kabani (Hyder)

    Thank you so much for this insightful post. And, I am so glad you enjoyed the presentation! = )

  7. Kamal Soan

    Wonderful Post, new insights of learning “How to be Polite in a Conference” 🙂

  8. Rebecca Carranza

    Please don’t get up and walk out of the session in the middle or toward the end. It is reasonable to leave within the first few minutes if you find the topic does not suit you, but it is mighty distracting to participants and speaker to have people get up in the middle of a presentation and leave to get a good seat at the next break-out session or just because. If you have an engagement that makes it necessary to leave, either skip the entire presentation or sit quietly near the door and slip out.

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  10. Kenna Griffin

    How about just not attending the conference. I’m amazed at how many people go to conferences just to stroll around in their casual clothes, acting like they’re the end all, then going out at night. I go to conferences to learn. I’m serious about it. I get annoyed when others aren’t. I want them to just stay home.

  11. Maigrir

    Indeed some people destroy possibilities to network than they create. Everybody feel their intentions are fake.

  12. Michelle Young

    I absolutely cannot stand when people are knitting and doing other craft projects at conferences…fellow librarians, please stop this unprofessional behavior at conferences and meetings! I understand that you are talented enough to listen and make a sweater but truly, this is not the time or place. We struggle hard enough getting people to understand that our profession is dynamic, interesting, and that we are people with graduate degrees and this is not helping (please save it for your hotel room). Thanks.

    • Elizabeth Campion

      Kinetic learners learn better when their hands are busy while they are listening. They may look like they aren’t paying attention, but they may be taking in every bit as much information as you are.

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  14. Amy

    I’m always amazed by conference attendees who raze the tables of the vendors in the exhibits during the conference breaks. Grabbing as many free promo items as you can stuff in your free sponsor-logo tote bag is rude, unbecoming and reflects poorly on your organization. Professional dress and workplace manners are appreciated by your peers. You are not at a spa vacation or a Vegas buffet, so lose the yoga pants. Your conference ID tag shares your name and professional affiliation with everyone in attendance. Will you enjoy undoing the “first impression” you made when you were trying to see how many cheesecake brownies and cans of Diet Coke you could fit in your purse?

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