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.


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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