What I Learned at My First In-Person Conference in Two Years

What I Learned at My First In-Person Conference in Two Years 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Two weeks ago, the time had finally come for me to speak in-person at a large conference for the first time in a long time—nearly two years, in fact.

I’d known for months that this was coming, and I was really curious how it would feel to once again be face to face with both friends and strangers from all over the country.

In truth, this was actually my second time speaking in-person at an event since the start of the COVID pandemic, but the first one was a short in-and-out trip. It had been weird, but it all happened very quickly.

This one required spending several days in Las Vegas. And what better way to rip off the band aid of pandemic isolation than four days in Sin City?

I’m happy to report that it was a successful trip. It was a productive week, and I’m glad I went. But the experience could best be described as paradoxical.

It felt both very strange and familiar at the same time. It was great to see so many friends and acquaintances and reconnect with them, sharing hugs and handshakes again. But it was also uncomfortable and awkward being around so many strangers.

It was a learning experience for me. More than anything, it helped me better understand the complexity of our current times.

Below are a few reflections from my time in Vegas.

1. A little face-to-face time goes a long way.

My first few jobs, right out of college, included a number of roles where I was selling to people over the phone. I talked to some of my clients multiple times a week over the course of several months and even years.

I was able to meet a few of those clients face to face. It might just have been for a breakfast or a lunch meeting. Occasionally, it was for a more formal visit to their office. In every case, that short time we spent together in-person changed the dynamic of the relationship.

A little in-person time created a much stronger bond and accelerated trust. It felt like we really “knew” each other in a more meaningful way after we met. I was reminded of this power in Vegas as I met with new people and saw old friends.

It’s a big part of why we still feel compelled to come together for meetings and conferences. Being together allows for relationships to form and take root. It’s foundation building and fuel for our future interactions—which will likely not be in person as the pandemic continues.

I share this not just because it felt good to be with people again, but also because it’s an important thing to remember if you are trying to sort out what to do about bringing people back to the office.

Face to face time is important, but I think people sometimes misunderstand how and why. They wrongly think that you must be in the office together, all day, every day. Face-to-face matters most when it’s done with intention. Just showing up to the same physical place to work separately misses the mark.

If you want to help your remote or distributed team work better together moving forward, bring them together in-person periodically (when you can safely do so) and spend time getting to know one another and working together with intention. Then, when you go your separate ways again, you’ll be far better equipped to work together effectively, regardless of the distance.

2. Teachers are super-human.

I’m the child and grandchild of teachers. I grew up around teachers and have a profound respect and appreciation for how hard they work and the challenges of what they do.

That said, I had no idea how much harder things have been on them until speaking at a conference where everyone in the audience was wearing a mask.

Sidenote: another paradox of the week was that there is a mask mandate in place in Vegas. Everywhere you go indoors (casinos, shows, conference floors, etc.), 99% of people are masked. That, combined with the conference’s vaccine requirements, made the experience feel much safer than I expected.

I’ve often described speaking as being in a dance with the audience. There’s an energy and movement that happens during a presentation where the speaker and audience are giving each other signals. I make a joke, people laugh (hopefully). I tell a story about one of my kids, and people smile.

One of the biggest things I (and most of my speaker friends) have missed about speaking in-person is the energy you get from the audience when you are together in a room.

But masks change everything. You can’t see smiles. You can’t hear small laughs. It’s almost like the audience is seated behind a curtain. You know they are there, but you can’t feel them in the same way.

The presentation I did in Vegas was among the most challenging I’ve ever done. In fact, I remember thinking that it is easier to do a virtual presentation where I can’t see anyone on the other side of the screen than it is to have people seated in front of me who are hidden behind their masks.

I wish I could say that I fully understood how challenging our teachers had it over the past couple years, but this experience revealed that I had no idea. After speaking for just one hour in front of a room full of masked adults, I was exhausted. I have no idea how teachers do it for hours with masked children. It just reminded me again to be grateful for all the teachers. They are truly remarkable human beings.

This was also an empathy gut-check, another reminder not to assume you understand what others are going through and to extend as much compassion as you can to everyone you meet.

3. If you aren’t sure, ask.

One thing was clear pretty quickly: my social skills for the conference setting were rusty. Add on top of that the new complexities of how to greet people during a pandemic, and every interaction took on a new gravity.

Is it okay to shake hands? If not, how are you going to handle it when someone puts out their hand?

Are you willing to hug someone? If so, who qualifies for a hug and who doesn’t?

And how do you politely decline a hug or handshake without things getting weird?

Here’s what I learned. You need to know your boundaries. If you haven’t decided, then you are going to find yourself in some awkward situations. I decided that I am willing to shake hands in most situations (I’m also okay with hugging my friends). I can make a million arguments for why shaking hands is bad practice when it comes to hygiene and not spreading germs, but there’s something about the clasping of hands together that feels good. I enjoy the intimacy and connection of it. But that’s just my decision, not anyone else’s.

I decided that I would only shake a hand if it was presented to me first. I didn’t want to be the one forcing others into an interaction that felt unsafe.

What ultimately started playing out that seemed like the best practice was just to ask. “Are you shaking hands?” It gave the other person the opportunity to say, “how about a fist bump?” and still honor the invitation to connect without any weirdness.

But for me, the bigger lesson in this is to recognize that things have changed, and people are in different places. It’s going to take us a while to reshape our norms and hopefully, we will approach this with a desire to ensure everyone feels safe.

Things are different now.

As I’ve had the chance to reflect on the experience, the biggest take away was a reminder of how much has changed. No matter who or where you are, the events of the past year and a half have changed both you and your life in some significant ways.

But what those changes look like are very different for each individual person. And as we emerge from this experience and attempt to re-establish our lives, it’s going to be important that we do so with a great deal of care, empathy and understanding.

Some people will feel safe coming back to the office, while others will be terrified. Some will feel comfortable in face-to-face meetings, others will feel uncomfortable.

The key is to respect and engage each person where they are at to create a safe and meaningful path forward together.

What has your experience been like?

If you’ve recently attended a conference or participated in an activity you’ve had to avoid for the past year and a half, how did it go for you? What lessons did you take away?

Share your experience in the comments. I’d love to learn from you.

  • Carol

    I was also in Vegas a few weeks earlier for another conference.

    My takeaway is that we were were made for community. Not social media community. Not zoom community. In-person community. At the conference I had a true feeling that I was with “my people.”

    To your point, sometimes the personal engagement was awkward, but every person who showed up showed up prepared for awkward. And it worked out just fine.

  • Adriana N DiNenno

    Wow, I came to this same realization this week! “One of the biggest things I (and most of my speaker friends) have missed about speaking in-person is the energy you get from the audience when you are together in a room”

    I had a presentation to 250 and had these same exact thoughts. A whole new world.

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Jason Lauritsen