How to Not Work (REALLY) & Be Present at Marketing Conferences

Published on January 18th, 2019

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It was 2014. I was so excited to go to my first INBOUND, but by my second morning in Boston, I was already miserable

Before the sessions even started, I knew I was going to be missing at least one of my scheduled talks -- probably two -- and would likely need to work through some of them in the afternoon. 

I spent those three days constantly trolling for open outlets, empty seats, and spots in Club INBOUND, because I still had to work. 

While I try to come across as a confident, professional, Totally Put Together™ adult as much as possible, I was completely stressed out during that week. 

When I finally boarded my train back home to Maryland that Friday, I felt somewhat inspired and marginally excited by the little that I was able to learn.

But this tiny Carrie Bradshaw that lives in my brain couldn't help but wonder:

"Was going to INBOUND really worth that level of pain and anxiety?"

Of course it wasn't.

But it was also my fault. And if you relate to that story, I regret to inform you that it's your fault, too.

You see, working at conferences is probably one of the most insidious issues we marketers are terrible at addressing.

We're downright impressive in our utter refusal to discuss it openly and honestly.

We accept it as a given. Like having to eat vegetables or pay taxes. We put on this big show about how we're not allowed to be happy at conferences; instead, we must always be a slave to our masters. 

So, we pack our bags with a sigh and resign ourselves to yet another conference we'll never totally commit to being present for.


My suitcase for #INBOUND17; not pictured --socks, scattered hopes and dreams.

That couldn't be further from the truth. We're acting like victims about a situation totally within our control. 

So, today, I'm breaking the silence. Together, we're going to rip off the band-aid and have a real talk about how you can take control of your own marketing conference experiences

Because if your inbox is anything like mine -- chock-a-block full of conference announcements, early bird ticket specials, and calls for speakers -- you know the time to start planning is now

You Need to Set Expectations with Clients Early & Start Planning Right Now

"So, I'm going to be at a conference next week, and I'm going to need to reschedule and/or cancel some of our check-ins."

Please don't ever do that. 

If you know you're going to a conference, let your clients know as soon as possible. "I know it's May, but I wanted us to look ahead to November, as I now know I'll be attending XYZ conference."

Clients don't like being surprised. Clients do like knowing you're always planning, working ahead, and thinking about their needs.

When you have these conversations -- you may decide to wait until closer to the event to hash out the tactical plan, even though you let them know early about your absence --  you need to be very clear about a couple of things:

  • How much you will (or won't) be working during your time at the conference; and
  • How reachable you will (or won't) be during your time at the conference.

Obviously, you know your clients and your workload best, but my recommendation is that you set boundaries with clients, instead of letting them tell you how much you will or won't be working during that week.

"But, Liz. I'm special. My industry is different. My company is unique. My clients are needier than anyone else's on the planet."

You know what? You're probably right. 

However, in my experience, there are two guiding principles that work for every single type of organization -- B2B, B2C, B2G, nonprofits, food trucks, higher education, puppeteers -- in these expectation-setting conversations.

First, be upfront and let them know you'll have limited access to phone and email, but provide them with either backup contacts or assurances that you'll be checking your emails and voicemails periodically, in case there are emergencies.

Second, make an action plan everyone agrees to and work ahead, so you don't have to do work during the week of your conference -- and, more importantly, no one expects you to. Don't put big due dates in that timeframe, and don't commit to meetings or strategy sessions.  

"But I Work In-House & Don't Have Clients"

Even though you don't have a portfolio of clients to manage, you need to prepare in advance and set boundaries with the people you work with and for.

Heck, if you're still in the process of getting approval to attend a conference like INBOUND or IMPACT Live, include a plan as part of your pitch that goes into detail (with timelines) about how you'll work ahead. 

That way you not only increase your odds of getting that conference opportunity approved because you're such a great planner and team player, you also have set the expectation in advance that you do not intend to work at the same velocity.

👋 Also, howdy, neighbor. I don't have clients either. I work in-house for IMPACT. But guess what?


I only got to have this moment where I danced (aggressively) and sang (loudly) along to "Greased Lightning" with Ann Handley in the balcony during at break at IMPACT Live last year because I planned in advance.

Far in advance. 

Otherwise, I would have been in some corner downstairs, editing, publishing, and hating life. Because our articles, newsletters, and podcasts do not publish themselves. 

Be Honest with Yourself & Stick to Your Guns

No matter how much future-proofing you do with clients or coworkers, you need to make peace with two unimpeachable truths:

  • I have never gone to a conference where I haven't had to spend some time doing work. Neither will you.
  • Your clients and your boss aren't your biggest barriers to being present at a conference -- you are.

So, before you board the plane, train, or automobile destined for your conference, you need to have a very serious conversation with yourself about your boundaries.

Here's how I do it. 

At least two months in advance, I take a sheet of paper and divide it into four columns with the following category headings:

  • LOL, Absolutely Not
  • The Rulebreakers
  • Where I Am Weak
  • The Show Must Go On

"LOL, Absolutely Not"

In this category, list the projects, assignments, and clients you will absolutely not be working on during your conference.

This list is the hill you will die on, your line in the sand, or whatever metaphor you want to apply. Once you have this list in-hand, immediately work through it and make a plan to either get ahead on those projects or talk to those clients.

This is your most important and time sensitive to-do list. So, create it as soon as possible, and then get to work immediately on putting your mind at ease with plans and boundary-setting conversations.

"The Rulebreakers"

No matter how many boundaries you put in place or look-ahead conversations you have, you know there are those people who will not listen. They will still call and email and smoke signal and send carrier pigeons to your hotel.

Like the clients who text my husband at 4 a.m. on a Sunday at least once a month or email him on Christmas Eve about something asinine that could have waited until Monday morning or, you know, a day that isn't a holiday.

(I have elaborate revenge fantasies about these people. I'm also aware I have issues.)

So, make a list of those people. Then... what's next is up to you.

You can either accept that some folks are going to be reaching out to you while you're gone -- and sometimes for good reason, especially if they reside in the C-suite of your organization -- or you can have some heart-to-hearts. 

For those you decide to talk to, to set those extra super-duper boundaries, you may want to put an emergency contact in place. You know, someone they can talk to in your absence. 

And for those you do decide to grant a pass to -- either because of their position or the fact that they don't listen -- one word of warning. 

This list of exceptions should be extremely short. Mine is only five people long -- and two of them are Tony Danza and the Pope, because I'm Italian.

That's the level of exclusivity we should be dealing with here. 

If everyone is a VIP, no one is a VIP. Capiche?

"Where I Am Weak"

Now, list out those projects or tasks you cannot let go of -- you know the ones I'm talking about.

No one is bothering you about them, but you can't stop tinkering, offering advice, or checking in on these tasks. In fact, the only one creating urgency around them is you. In your brain. To yourself.

You monster.

Once you have your list of weaknesses, do two things:

First, find people to take over as many of those tasks as possible. There's a good chance you won't be able to do this for everything, but this is that moment where you need to let go.

"But, but, I'm the only one who can do this."

Lies! That's not true, and you know it! 

Moreover, no organization should run that way.

As terrible as it sounds, you need to work yourself out of a job and not be the only one who can do something.

We all want to feel needed and indispensable to our teams, but you need to be able to step away from what you do for work -- no matter how big or small -- for your own sanity. You can't always be on.

So, stop volunteering or holding on, and start delegating. 

And if you're still saying, "Liz, I am the exception to this rule," and you're not a CEO or startup founder, you have larger issues you need to address.

You need a friend, a priest, a dirty martini that's heavy on the olives and also a good listener... I cannot help you.

Second, find someone who will yell at you when they see you creeping. 

What I mean by that is, someone who will say to you, "You are not supposed to be doing that. You said you wouldn't be doing that. DUDE, stop what you're doing right now."

They can be with you at the conference or back at your home office. It doesn't matter. This level of intervention works well face-to-face and from afar.

In case you're wondering, Jessie-Lee is that person for me. 

"Why are you on Slack?"

"You're supposed to be off."

"I appreciate you, but go away."

"Put that laptop down, or so help me..."

"I see what you're doing -- stop it."

She says these things to me. A lot. 

Screen Shot 2019-01-23 at 6.43.26 PM

Here are Jessie-Lee and I hanging at #INBOUND17.

Your person also needs to do this. It's the most necessary kind of tough love, and I would not make it through conferences without her verbal shakedowns. 

So, go get you a Jessie-Lee. Not mine, of course. 

"The Show Must Go On"

Look, some things are still going to need to happen. A phone call here. An email there. Some important items that will require your attention at some point, or at least periodic check-ins. 

So, make your list of people, projects, and priorities that must continue with your input (predicted or unexpected) while you're at your conference. 

Much like the "you get a pass" exceptions on your Rulebreakers list, this should be short. But be aware that it will (usually) scale with your position or tier within an organization. 

For instance, if you're a director, VP, or C-level executive, you know there's no way you can just take a vacation from your business 100% at a work conference. That's not reality. 

But that's also why you made the other three columns on your list. 

You will have room for these interludes if you've done a good job of drawing your lines in the sand and being clear about what can be delegated, planned for in advance, or pushed off until later. 

The shows in this category can only go on without you losing your mind if you've made room for them.

If you don't make the room, you'll go crazy. And you'll have no one to be mad at except yourself.

Don't Waste Your Investment in Yourself

You know what sucks? Spending so much time pitching how valuable a conference or event will be to your career and your company, only to fritter away that investment with poor planning and a lack of self-discipline.

It blows my mind how many times I watch marketers remain a slave to their calendars and their laptops while at a conference, when they could have avoided it entirely.

They'll physically put their body in a room for a session, but spend the whole time writing up an email newsletter or scheduling social posts they put off doing before they left. Sometimes for multiple sessions! 

They'll miss mind-blowing keynotes, because they have to take that one call from a client they failed to set clear expectations with far enough ahead of time -- now they're stuck being available, because otherwise they'll fail that client and cause larger issues down the road.

Then those very same marketers will turn around and say, "Yeah, that conference just wasn't worth it."

No. The conference was worth it, but you did yourself a disservice. You set yourself up to be in a position where you could not be present.

I know this from experience. I've been that marketer.

Don't be like Liz from #INBOUND14.

The only thing standing between you and remarkable, career-shaping, life-changing conference experiences where you get to learn and explore and network and get inspired is you. 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to start making my plans for IMPACT Live

(I know myself. If I don't start planning for Q3 in Q1, I've already lost the battle.)

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