11 tips for blogging talks and conferences

While I’m still not quite recovered from the jet-lag from the flight home, I thought I’d take a quick shot at answering a question I was asked frequently last week:  “How do you blog a scientific conference?”  So I thought I’d take a stab at some of the key points in case anyone else has any interest in trying.

  1. Focus! The hardest thing about blogging a conference is the amount of attention it takes.  If you are easily distracted, you’ll miss things – and it can be really hard to get back into a talk once you’ve missed a couple of key points.  Checking your email, twitter or surfing the web are all bad ideas.
  2. Listen! The speaker is really the best source for getting the key points.  If they’re doing a good job, then you don’t even need to see the slides – they’ll summarize the main points and make your job easy.
  3. Know your limits. If you don’t understand something, you’re not going to be able to summarize and explain it.  Frankly, product talks are pretty much impossible to blog – just point to the catalog.
  4. Read the slides.  A really bad speaker can make it hard to blog their talk, but fortunately, that’s what slides are for: summarizing the presenter’s points.  If you can’t follow along with what they’re saying, you can always interpret the slides for yourself.
  5. Know what to omit.  A really good speaker can be incredibly distracting, wandering away from the main point of the talk to tell stories or insert asides.  You don’t need to write down everything, especially if you can’t reproduce it well.  Capturing speakers jokes can be next to impossible.
  6. Think! It may sound odd, but the process of writing notes is about what you think is important.  You have to carefully interpret what the speaker is saying and decide what is that you feel is central to the arguments.  Blindly copying things frequently fails to tell the story well.
  7. Don’t guess! It’s easy to miss something (and yes, you will miss things), but how you handle the things you miss is important.  If you can’t remember a number or an exact phrasing, just summarize it – if you guess about the value or quote someone incorrectly, it can really upset both the speaker who’s work you’ve misrepresented or the audience, who may rely on what you’ve told them.  If you’re not sure on a point, be clear about that as well.  It’s better to err on the side of caution.
  8. Keep your thoughts separate. This can be challenging.  With all that’s going on, it’s easy to mix up your opinions with the speaker’s points, since your notes are really just your interpretation of what you’re hearing.   However, to preserve the integrity of the speaker’s points, you need to ensure that they don’t get confused.  I use a system of brackets to do so but any other clearly marked system will work as well.
  9. Type fast! This should be obvious.  The faster you can type, the more complete your notes will be.  Conference blogging is not for slow typers.
  10. Use the right tools. I blog directly in my blog’s editor, but you can use any other system that works for you.  The most challenging part is to make sure you have autosave on, and that it works well.  There’s nothing worse than losing something you’ve written – especially since you can’t go back to ask a speaker to do their first 10 slides over if something goes wrong.
  11. Practice! This isn’t a skill you develop overnight – the more you do this, the easier it becomes.  Start with a single talk and learn from your mistakes.

So, there you have it.  The top 11 tips I’d give for anyone who would like to blog a talk – or even a whole conference.   And, of course, don’t forget to enjoy the talks.  If you’re not getting something out of listening to someone else speaking, why are you taking notes on it? (-:

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