NCPHactive: Conferencing From My Laptop

When I first saw the notice for (Re)Active Public History I immediately put it on my calendar. I hadn’t participated in the first Twitter mini-con organized by the National Council on Public History (NCPH), so I was intrigued to see how this would work. Would it be a glorified Twitter chat? Would it be akin to tweeting a hockey game?

This Twitter mini-con did not disappoint. Let’s take a look at how things went down - the format, the value, and some tips for participating the next time an opportunity arises.

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Your Conference Program

The set up of NCPHactive was remarkably effective. Each presenter had 30 minutes to “present.” They would send out a series of tweets, attaching photos, slides, memes, and links to a variety of wonderful resources. Allison Tucker, at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, provided particularly helpful links to their Front Page Dialogues, a fantastic resource to help historic sites incorporate current events into their programming. Each presenter left some time for Q&A at the end of their session, and I was impressed by how well they responded to questions.

One interesting advantage to their format is that there weren’t overlapping presentations, so conceivably, one could attend every session. And because this all happened on Twitter, one can always go back through the conference hashtag to dig up threads of missed sessions. I approached it like an in-person conference, attending the sessions that had the most direct connection to the work I’m doing now, and picking up others as I could.


Conferencing Inside and Out

I approached this mini-con expecting to gather some good information, but skeptical that much would be accomplished in terms of networking and making connections. I was right about the former, and surprisingly wrong about the latter. I was able to “meet” people I hadn’t discovered yet, and had wonderful side conversations in my DMs. It was not unlike your typical hotel atrium chatter at a traditional conference.

I found this format to be especially appropriate for NCPH. Taking place on Twitter meant this history was about as public as it could get. I loved that I was participating in direct conversations that were reaching unintended audiences. (My hockey followers got an inside look at my history nerdiness.) And it was great to be able to tweet my non-history contacts who I knew would find relevance in the content, saying, “You should jump in on this.”

Get In On This Action

If you’re not on Twitter yet or you’re just getting started in social media, check out this piece by John Fea about history Twitter and here are some thoughts on conference tweeting that might be helpful.

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If you are on Twitter and ready to present, excellent! Here are some tips that might help your presentation go a little more smoothly:

  • Write out your Tweets in advance, that way when it’s go-time all you have to do is type things into Twitter.

  • Number your tweets and compile them in a thread. This will make it easier for people to follow and for folks who may not attend your session live to go back and scroll through your information later.

  • Use the hashtag on every tweet and every response to questions.

  • Use visuals - pictures, charts, links to resources - but take into consideration that your audience may click away from your tweets to better view your content. This is a good thing! But you should then time your tweets accordingly.

There was some overlapping in presentations as people retweeted previous presentations or promoted sessions coming up, but this was minimal. If it happens during your presentation, don’t worry, it’s all good. And as much as I hate Tweetdeck, this was one situation where I really appreciated it. I was able to follow the sessions I was in while not missing follow up from other sessions. It’s a bit messy, but worth it to see multiple conversations and mentions.

Kudos!

NCPH and its speakers did an excellent job with (Re)Active Public History. It definitely wasn’t a typical Twitter chat. The structure and advanced planning gave it a professional feel. And the open engagement felt like a virtual networking session (only less awkward.) Twitter mini-cons can be an excellent vehicle for historians to be able to share their work and engage with each other and with audiences outside our traditional history nerdland. I hope other organizations will consider following NCPH’s footsteps.

And to NCPH...kudos on a job well done!



Small Talk in a Big Room

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You’re standing at the ballroom door leading into the conference happy hour. You see hundreds of your colleagues milling about, sipping wine, and chatting amiably. And then you start thinking. They’re smart. They’re successful. Their book projects are going waaaay better than yours. Ugh, there will be small talk in that big room.

Suddenly, room service sounds like a brilliant idea and you can’t get to the elevator fast enough.

In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain points out a historical shift in what were perceived as characteristics of successful people. In the 19th century, she notes, desirable attributes included citizenship, duty, honor, morals, manners, and integrity. (Aaaah...those were the days!) But by the early 20th century, those traits had shifted and now people were striving to be magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, forceful, and energetic. I don’t know about you, but I can think of plenty of historians who absolutely are the 19th century ideal, but shy away from those 20th century descriptors.

So what’s an introverted historian to do when that dreaded extroversion-driven networking session looms and it’s just not your jam? I have ideas.

Network Your Way

It turns out those big bashes where everyone exchanges business cards are the least effective way to make connections. And making connections is really what networking is supposed to be about. Does this get you out of attending them? Well, not entirely. Show up, have your business cards, pens, stickers, etc. ready and meet some people. But recognize the limitations of this type of networking session.

To build deeper connections in ways that may feel more authentic, consider the following:

  • Coffee Talk. It’s amazing how far a cup of coffee can go in building meaningful connections. Seriously. Invite a colleague to meet you at the funky little coffee shop down the street. You might be surprised how many people are able to spare a few minutes for coffee and conversation.

  • Events and Meetings. Every time you’re at an event or participating in a meeting, you’re networking. Actively listen, join in the conversation. Just say “good morning” to the person you’re sitting next to in the big conference session. Then follow up with people one-on-one afterward. Forward an article you read that might be of interest, send a thank you to someone who provided you with helpful information, offer to help someone who presented a need. Just say “it was nice to meet you.”

  • Social media. Social media is a gold mine for meeting people and creating connections. A conversation on Twitter can lead to cocktails at a conference. Instagram is an excellent place to showcase your work and discover what others are working on too. LinkedIn and Facebook provide forums for discussion and sharing resources. And never underestimate the power of email. Let someone know you enjoyed their exhibit, recommended their book, or used their podcast. That’s networking!

Plan Ahead

A little preparation can go a long way toward improving all of your networking opportunities.

  • Do background research. Before any event, do a little research on who will be there and what they are working on. Think about how your work connects with theirs. Having that information in mind will help drive conversation and make you feel confident when you enter the room.

  • What do you want to learn from others? Networking becomes a lot easier when it’s not about you. You’re about to be surrounded by smart people. What do you want to learn from them? When it becomes less about you and more about them, you take the pressure off of yourself and you reap the benefits of the star-power around you.

  • Change your perception of the situation. Still standing at the conference room door, dreading the thought of small talk? Instead of thinking of happy hour as something you have to do to meet people, think of it as something you get to do because you’re curious about what others are up to. Tell yourself you’re curious about the people in the room, that you’re excited to meet them, that you want to learn what they’re up to. It may feel a bit artificial at first, but pretty soon you’ll discover that it’s really true.

In the Moment

You did your prep work, you got your mental game in order, now it’s time to enter the networking ring. The good news is, you have more control over your networking encounters than you might think.

  • You get to decide how you show up. No matter how shy you may feel. No matter how much you really wish you were able to just hide in the archives. No matter how desperately you’re longing for that quiet library. You can decide to show up confident, curious, and social. It’s just coffee, or an email, or a Tweet. Take a deep breath and be whoever you need to be in that moment. Then you can go back to the archives, I promise.

  • Listen. If talking is the hard part for you, then listen. And follow up later in social media, email, or wherever is natural. You’ll make an impression when you can demonstrate that you were paying attention to the conversation and have more to contribute when the conversation is over.

  • Smile. That’s it. Really.

  • Find commonality - or differences. Because you’ll have done your research, you’ll know all about the people you’re meeting and reaching out to. Identify commonalities that you can connect around. Or find differences that you’re curious about and ask them about their experiences. Let them share with you!

  • Be comfortable with a little discomfort. People tend to be most energized and feel most rewarded when they’re doing something just slightly outside their comfort zone. Accept that all of this networking stuff is uncomfortable, then do it anyway, in ways that are just outside your comfort zone.

There are conferences on the horizon, projects you want to work on, and people you should be connecting with. It doesn’t have to be daunting. Start now, start small and eventually you’ll have broad connections and meaningful relationships that will help you and your colleagues engage more deeply with your work. Besides, I’m pretty sure all historians can have 19th century honor, morals, and integrity, and still find some 20th century magnetism too.

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Need some help getting started? Let me know.


To Tweet, Or Not To Tweet

In July 2017, I was in Philadelphia for the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). Washingtonians are open to pretty much any excuse to get out of town during the summer. We'll go practically anywhere to escape the scorching heat and unbearable humidity. Unfortunately, Philadelphia was brick-oven hot. I’ve never been more content to sit in hotel conference rooms soaking in all the history. This year, a traveling conflict kept me from attending SHEAR in Cleveland, but that didn’t keep me completely out of the loop. A quick scroll through Twitter and … yeah, I see you #Twitterstorians. Pictures of badges, laughs over cocktails, and practically verbatim coverage of some of the sessions. Were you at SHEAR? Were you tweeting? Should you have been tweeting?

Yes! 

Or no. 

Let’s talk it out.

To Tweet

There are historians who are incredibly good at live tweeting events. They stream together presenter remarks, share photos and videos, and they interact in ways that raise the discussion to a higher level. It’s a conversation in (sometimes) real time. It allows people unable to attend a particular conference to follow along at home, and it gives attendees a chance to contribute to related discussions happening outside the meeting room. Live tweeting builds community and expands the reach of historical work. This is exactly the good that Twitter can be used for and I appreciate those historians who maximize its potential.

Not to Tweet

But it’s no small thing to be able to record a conversation in real time in a way that will make sense to an outside audience. Mistakes are possible, in fact, likely. Misrepresentations of what was said during a presentation can challenge both the tweeting historian and the presenter. Juggling the need for accuracy with the desire to add value and process information is a tall order. For many, putting the phone away is the answer. There’s tremendous value in being singularly focused on a presentation, soaking in all the information, and using other mechanisms and techniques for communication after-the-fact.

So, What’s the Answer?

The answer is surprisingly simple: do what works for you. I’ve found I’m most effective when I use Twitter to let people know what sessions I’m attending, share some highlights, and provide a peek at some of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans. But during a session, I’ll be scribbling notes with a real pen on real paper for deeper consideration later. That’s just how I roll.

Whatever you choose, do it with professionalism, integrity, and authenticity. Everybody wins.

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Civil War Lives Questioned and Answered


Best Practice: The Question and Answer Session

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  • Have note cards and pencils available for audience members to write down questions during the presentation or panel discussion.
  • Assign a team member to collect the cards at the end of the formal presentation.
  • Conduct Q&A session by having a team member read aloud questions written on the cards and allow presenters to respond.

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Tell me if this has ever happened to you…

You’ve just enjoyed a thoughtful, engaging panel discussion. The speakers had fantastic content, you’re taking away materials and information you can begin using right away. You’re inspired and energized. Then the session moderator says…

“We’ll now take questions from the audience.”

Sometimes this goes very well. There will be meaningful discussion, you’ll discover someone remarkable in the audience, speakers will have a chance to share even more great information. But let’s face it, sometimes the Q&A session sucks the oxygen right out of the room.

 

There are two types of “questions” I find particularly frustrating:

  • The Got ‘Cha - These questions typically are an attempt by an audience member to stump a presenter with either conflicting information or a provocative opinion. It’s poor sportsmanship.

  • The Speechmaker - Oh, there might be a question in there somewhere, but it will be buried in a long speech where the audience member aims to demonstrate their own expertise on the subject matter. It’s often cringeworthy.

 

The good folks at the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History had a better way.

There are plenty of formats event planners can use for the Q&A. My least favorite is when a moderator randomly chooses people from the audience who then stand up and shout out their questions. This is the environment in which the Got ‘Cha and the Speechmaker thrive (and often multiply.) Having people approach standing microphones is a moderately better choice. Even better than that is having a real live person holding a microphone and cruising the aisles for audience members with questions. The staff member essentially becomes a referee, able to rephrase got ‘cha questions into something more constructive or to help move along the speechmaker.

Recently, I attended the Nau Center Signature Conference “Civil War Lives” at the University of Virginia. These folks had a great answer to the Q&A question.

“Civil War Lives” was a full day of 19th century history. Each session lasted 45 minutes, but did not offer an opportunity for questions. Instead, at the end of each presentation, we had a 10 minute break during which we could write down questions on note cards provided by conference organizers. After three morning presentations, all the presenters came back for a 30 minute Q&A session. Questions were read off cards and presenters were able to respond. (The same approach was used in the afternoon.) No got ‘chas. No speeches. Just productive discussion.

I like it and I would like to see it replicated in other meetings and conferences. It’s definitely an option I’ll be putting forth when I’m doing event planning.

 

What do you think? Have you experienced this approach or something similar?

What’s your preferred Q&A format?