Tricks of the trade: clever tips for finding stories at conferences
by Lesley Evans Ogden
How do you nab great stories at conferences? That’s a question I’ve been toying with a lot lately, because in late December 2015, I had the opportunity to attend The Society For Marine Mammalogy Conference in San Francisco. There, I was one of 14 COMPASS Journalist Fellows scouring the scene for stories.
This was a large conference, with over 2200 scientist attendees. Yet just down the road was the American Geophysical Union, a meeting almost ten times the size. The sheer numbers of experts, all with potential stories to tell, got me thinking about how to “do” conferences without suffering from information overload and a constant case of FOMO (fear of missing out).
Whether the conferences you attend are about science, food, travel, culture, or anything else, where, exactly, do good story opportunities come from?
To answer that question, I asked fellow journalists to tell me what they do before, during, and after a conference. Below is a non-random sample of their wisdom.
Some are short tips. Others are detailed explanations. I’ve organized them from shortest to longest.
Pippa Wysong, Freelance Science Writer. Contributor at The Toronto Star, Globe & Mail, and others.
I’ve been known to read every single abstract before going to the conference (assuming there is an abstract book/website) and mapping out the ones to check out before going. For the AHA that was like reading a phone book.
One tip I got from working at Alzforum is to spend a lot of time at the posters. You can get instant feedback from both presenters and onlookers (outside comment) and sometimes, just seeing where crowds are hovering may lead to unexpected stories. Plus, going to visit posters can provide a much-needed mental break from long talk sessions!
Nicola Jones, Freelance Journalist, frequent contributor at Nature.
When looking for quirky stuff at massive conferences, search for “new” “unique” or “surprising” in the abstract database. Or look for hot-button-topic keywords, like “GM embryo” or “controversial” or whatever is in your beat. Go to the overview talks and chat to everyone in the front row. Don’t waste time sitting through boring talks you don’t understand… if you suspect it might be interesting underneath, go to the talk just so you know what the speaker looks like, then come back just as they head for coffee and grab him/her. When looking for the big news, hit the keynotes and buttonhole the speakers for lunch chats to get the real gossip. Ask them what talks they thought were interesting and why. I confess I once went to a AAAS and didn’t attend a single session… I checked the speaker list beforehand and pre-arranged coffee dates with anyone big and important and interesting, and used it just as an efficient way to meet people for future reference.
I generally go to more business, as opposed to science, conferences. And while I do look for stories at conferences, I also think of them as subject primers or cocktail parties; milieu to survey a field or crowd.
For MarMam’15, I thought of some topics that I’d be interested in ahead of the conference. Then used key words to search the spreadsheet of abstracts. In my case Cntrl F ”Asia,” “whale-song,” “dolphin-tuna (fisheries).”
I relied heavily on the agenda, circling all the talks/posters I thought would be interesting. If I got stuck at a confusing talk, I read attendees’ name tags and googled them. Eg: “Frances Gulland + whale.” If anything interesting came up from the talk or name tags, I’d approach the speaker/ attendee to ask for an interview and often sweetened the deal by offering to buy them lunch or coffee with my per diem monies.
Post-conference, I emailed the people I interviewed and asked after documents they mentioned or asked for updates on projects and publications, important dates.
For me, everything about preparing for a conference is on a sliding scale, depending on the conference itself. How many presentations there are, how many people will be attending, whether the conference is local or international, how many other journalists I expect to be there and if I already have an assignment on a conference topic will all influence how I’ll prepare and cover the conference.
When we were recently at the Society for Marine Mammalogy conference, I knew that there would be at least 13 other top-notch science journalists there because we all had the same fellowship.
So in this case, just as when I attend AAAS, I asked myself what I have to offer when there are many other journalists covering the conference. What I bring is my past experience, so I’m looking for connections between the new information and the big picture. I’m also looking out for patterns and trends. I’m not going to chase the big news, because I know that staff writers and freelancers with better relationships with news publications are going to get there first.
I prepare for every conference in advance as much as I am able to. Sometimes you don’t get much time with even a bare schedule of presentation titles, let alone the abstracts. I’m a big fan of planning ahead. I think any conference can be overwhelming if you don’t have a game plan.
The SMM conference was unique for me because all the presentations were so short. Normally, if there are several talks I’m interested in (or no talks I’m all that interested in), I’m happy to bounce from session to session to see what seems interesting. But at this conference, you would miss the whole talk in the time it took to walk from one room to another.
There is something to be said for sticking it out, though. So many of my article ideas have come from some little comment, aside or footnote in a presentation, article or paper.
The irony about all this talk about preparations is that for me, it’s all just setting me up for serendipity. Louis Pasteur said that “Chance favors the prepared mind.” What I’m doing with all my preparation before a conference is hoping that I will be ready to receive all the unplanned, unexpected information, ideas and insights that you can only get when you talk to new people, visit new places and listen to new ideas.
If I ever came home from a conference with only the stories I expected to get, I would be very disappointed.
The first thing I did was just take a really deep look at the program. And I started to map out and understand what was going to be talked about in general, and look at the things that were really specifically interesting to me. I looked for names of people that I’ve interviewed in the past to see if they were going to be there… So before I got there, I knew that there were certain presentations that I definitely wanted to attend, and I knew that there were others that were at the same time that I couldn’t attend, that I would need to target some other way. I also started looking at the Twitter feed and Instagram, following some people ahead of time, responding to a couple of things, and just putting feelers out that I was out there…
I wanted to come out of it with two articles ready to write. A lot of what I do is news writing. So I wanted to be able to get these things done and out there while it was newsworthy and fresh. I also wanted to find sources for people I could turn to in the future – increase the depth of my Rolodex — and find out what stories might be coming down the line. Then, kind of like you, doing this spin-off article that has nothing to do with marine mammalogy (how to cover a conference), I came up with half a dozen article ideas just from the experience of being there…
I didn’t set up a lot of meetings ahead of time. It was more important for me to set the stage that I was going to be there, and say “if you want to talk to me, come and find me.”
The couple of meetings I did have when I managed to sit down and talk for a little while, happened through Twitter… That led to a couple of good story ideas. It was tough, because there were SO many people, and everyone was walking through the hallways talking to each other. There was no gap between sessions so it was very hard to grab people and talk to them, so my strategy was just to collect as many names as possible so I could contact them afterwards…
What did you do after you got home?
Even before I left, I started making a list of the story ideas I’d come up with. I hit the end of page two before I’d even started – they kept coming, and by the time I was done I had 4.5 pages… I’d collected business cards, emails and Tweets we’d exchanged, and [after arriving home] I just made sure that list was complete.
Paul Kvinta, MarMam15 COMPASS Journalism Fellow. Freelance Journalist, contributor at Outside, Popular Science, Men’s Journal, and others.
Since I write long narrative magazine articles, my goal for the conference was simply to unearth one pitchable story idea. That would constitute a success for me. By pitchable idea, I mean something with obvious and compelling story elements, as well as an invitation from a scientist to join him/her in the field some time in 2016.
My approach was to scan the paper/presentation/poster abstracts and hunt for anything promising. This was a laborious slog, given that there were, what, 1,500-some abstracts? But I didn’t know any other way to do it. Also, for my purposes, I need to see story elements, and the abstracts didn’t really provide these. At best they provided vague clues to possible stories. Still, I made it halfway through the abstracts and jotted down 4 or 5 possibilities.
I then sent emails to the various scientists connected to these 4-5 abstracts. I told them that their work looked interesting to me and that I’d love to meet them for a coffee/beer while at the conference. Most responded back and agreed to meet with me. With some, I arranged logistics before the conference. Others told me to call them when I arrived SF to arrange meeting times.
I approached the conference this way after consulting with my wife. Unlike me, she attends conferences all the time (she’s an advocate for the elderly and a federal employee). She said I should view the conference as a one-time chance to meet with almost any marine mammal scientist, that this is the one time of year all these guys are together in the same place. Sure, she said, I could sit through presentation after presentation, but that’s a total crapshoot in terms of finding a story idea. Better to pre-arrange meetings with the people who most interested me. Anything else I might learn about via presentations or posters — that would be gravy.
The focus of my time at the conference was meeting with the half-dozen scientists I had contacted. All of these folks were great. However, nothing really jumped out at me immediately, story-wise.
IRONICALLY, the one pitchable story idea I got at the conference came from my randomly sitting in on a presentation! Sort of. One of the scientists I had agreed to meet with was giving a brief presentation Wednesday morning. I was scheduled to meet with him afterwards. I decided to sit in on a couple of presentations before his. After the first or second of these talks I stepped out into the hall, headed for the bathroom. A USGS scientist followed me into the hall and introduced himself. He said that he is a regular reader of my work, and that he recognized my name tag. He had just read a piece of mine in the December issue of Outside and wanted to tell me he liked it. So we got chatting, and he told me about this GREAT story idea. It has everything — death, drama, fascinating science, and, most importantly, people behaving badly. I couldn’t believe it. He tells me I must speak with his colleague, so he gives me her name and number, and I call her immediately. She agrees to meet with me later that day. We meet in the poster room, at one of the tables, and she is awesome. Most importantly, her story is awesome. And she’s way into telling me about it.
Since the conference I’ve been in regular contact with the scientist who briefed me in the poster room. She has provided me with key contacts and introductions. I researched the idea for about four days, and over the weekend I wrote up a pitch for my editor at Outside. Sunday night he told me he loved it, and we’re due to talk today. No assignment yet, but things are looking positive.
One thing I did know was that no matter what approach I chose, just being at the conference could well lead to something. Just landing oneself amid hundreds or thousands of wildlife-oriented scientists has to be a good thing for a journalist covering wildlife, right? And that’s what happened. My story idea came from my just being there. Had I not been there, I almost certainly would never have come across it. Also, I met people who no doubt will be helpful in the future.
Wow. I learned so much. I hope you did too. Got any clever tips for squeezing the most juice out of conferences? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.
Lesley Evans Ogden is a nerdy bird scientist turned freelance writer-producer. From the burbs of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, she is an occasional Story Board contributor, but her main gigs are with New Scientist, Natural History, BioScience and BBC Earth, though she writes for many other places too. Say hello on Twitter @ljevanso.
The above interviews have been edited for length.