This is a quick post I have written up on the train back from the conference so there may be mistakes, poorly-phrased conclusions, etc.
The EAGxOxford conference took place this weekend and was the first EA conference I’ve been to. This is a short post reflecting on my experience at the conference, including how I approached it, how I found it valuable, and things I’d do again/ would do differently next time.
As well as being a useful exercise for me, I hope this can be helpful to other people ahead of attending their first (or next) conference.
The short answer: I had twenty 1:1s across the two days of the conference and found this incredibly valuable and rewarding, very fun, and surprisingly manageable (if still quite tiring). Echoing previous posts, I definitely recommend scheduling lots of 1:1 meetings with people at an EA conference.
How I approached EAGxOxford
After confirming the logistics for attending the conference (trains, accomodation, etc.), I only started thinking more seriously about EAGx about a week ahead of it starting. Once the Swapcard was up and running, I made an effort to set up a bunch of 1:1s.
To do this, I used the filtered attendees on Swapcard for the areas I work in/ am particularly interested in (entreprepreneurship; mental health & wellbeing). I then went through about 30-50 profiles for maybe a couple of hours, finding a list of about 15 people I was excited to speak to.
From there, I sent each person a message saying that I was excited to connect, how I might be useful to them, and how I hoped they might be useful for me to speak to.
I had expected about half of these people would get back to me looking to meet but instead I received meeting requests from all 15. I think this high success rate was due to a few key things:
- I sent these messages maybe 24-48 hours after the Swapcard was set up for the conference, meaning that everyone I messaged likely had lots of times still available to meet
- I made it clear in every message why they might find it useful to speak to me, not just why I was excited to speak to them
- I run Effective Self-Help (ESH) full-time, a small mental health research project funded by EAIF, which I think made it easier for me to demonstrate why people might want to speak to me (given this project spans both of the filters [entrepreneurship; mental health & wellbeing] that I applied)
While not everyone may be as lucky as me in receiving only positive replies, I hope that my success encourages you to be proactive in reaching out and setting up 1:1s.
Beyond this practical work, I spent the few days ahead of EAGxOxford trying to engage with and solidify a mindset of being particularly sociable and proactive. While I tend to be a pretty chatty person, I tend to take a bit of time to warm up and can be hesitant to spark conversations/ introduce myself to new people.
I tried to pre-commit myself to being more proactive than usual in engaging with new people in three ways:
- By sharing and explaining this intention with a couple of close friends who I knew would follow up on this with me after the conference, giving me an incentive to actually do what I said I’d do.
- By forming some clear steps for how I’d follow through on this plan - e.g. using ‘how has your weekend/ conference been so far?’ as a default icebreaker/ intro for new conversations when stuck
- By formulating clear reasons in my head for why I was doing this - e.g. almost every EA I’ve met previously/ spoken to online has been super friendly; this is a 2-day conference with a bunch of people I’ve never met so if I make a fool of myself then I never have to speak to these people again!
How the conference was valuable for me
I got to meet a lot of interesting people
Unsurprisingly, holding twenty 1:1 meetings across the two days of the conference meant that I met a lot of people doing a lot of interesting things.
I would guess that I had conversations with around 30-40 people I hadn’t met before in total, including the more informal conversations I ended up having with many people during spare moments of the conference. There are also an additional 5-10 people who I didn’t have time to speak to over the weekend who I will arrange video calls with over the next week or so.
This seems to me like a lot of people! While some of my 1:1s were especially useful or exciting, I would say that all of them were valuable, roughly achieving one or more of the following:
- Setting up possible collaboration in future
- Giving me new ideas for my work on ESH and a clearer understanding of what I am trying to achieve
- Enabling one (or both) of us to provide useful advice, resources, or connections to the other person in the 1:1
Repeated explanation brings insight and clarity
One pleasant surprise from the conference was the value I found in explaining my project to lots of different people. Giving twenty or so introductions to what I’m working on and why proved a useful exercise in clarifying and refining my core ideas. I think with each meeting my quick summary of what ESH is, why I set it up, and what my plans are for it became more concise, more engaging, and more clear-cut.
As an example, I had previously written seven reasons for why my project may provide unique value. Given the need for brevity in a 30-minute chat, my 1:1s forced me to pick 2-3 of these reasons that best explain ESH’s value. This proved a really useful exercise, helping me to clarify which aspects of my work are most important to focus on and hopefully providing a better framework for making decisions around prioritising and directing the project in the future.
In other words, while repeatedly introducing who you are and what you do may seem frustrating, I think this can be a very useful exercise in clarifying what you do and why. If you can’t pitch your work in 30 seconds to a minute, perhaps there’s valuable insight you are missing into your key goals and approach.
You don’t need to be senior to be helpful
The most surprising aspect of my weekend was the extent to which I found myself giving advice and support to other EAs. I have only been working on Effective Self-Help for five months and this is the first significant role I’ve had within the EA community. I still consider myself relatively new to EA, to entrepreneurship, and to work on mental health & wellbeing (you can judge my experience for yourself here).
I had expected to spend most of the weekend growing the network of people I know in EA with similar interests, as well as asking for lots of feedback on my project and wider ideas for impact as an entrepreneur and mental health researcher within EA. Instead, I’d estimate that more than half of my 1:1s primarily involved me giving advice and support to the other person.
I think there’s a few possible reasons for this:
1. EAGx conferences are more student-oriented.
- This meant that as someone working full-time in EA who has received funding from EAIF, I was perceived as relatively experienced in relation to the pool of attendees (e.g. I will be attending EAG London next month and expect my experience to be different).
2. I think that both entrepreneurship and mental health & wellbeing research are comparatively smaller/ newer spaces in the EA community.
- This meant that my level of experience, while relatively modest, was also relatively rare and therefore useful to many attendees. As someone who strongly believes in the value of more work in these areas within the EA community, I was excited to see lots of people who want to find work and develop skills in these spaces.
3. I put on a non-trivial level of effort into trying to be helpful to other attendees, such as by:
- Filling out the ‘How I can help others’ section of my Swapcard profile in depth
- Asking myself during every meeting if there were connections or resources that would be useful to the person I was speaking to
- Being very open in my ideas and opinions when people asked for my advice (with general caveats that they may want to ask more people/ more experienced people before making significant decisions based on my advice)
- Encouraging people to have a very low bar for contacting me after the conference if they thought this would be useful
I’m optimistic that over the course of the weekend, I may have provided significant value to other attendees. Conferences are an opportunity to have an impact, as well as to develop connections and ideas that may increase your impact in the future.
As an example, I encouraged maybe 5-7 of the people I met to apply for pilot funding from EA Funds and offered to advise them on this/ look over their application if they did. If one of these people ends up working on a project for EA Funds who may not have otherwise, that seems like a pretty significant potential impact.
My main takeaway from this is that most EAs should approach conferences thinking seriously about how they can have impact by helping other attendees. Think about your network and the resources you’ve found particularly useful in your work and EA journey. You don’t have to feel senior in EA to likely be of significant help to other EAs at the conference.
Things I’d definitely do again
Schedule as many 1:1s as seems valuable and manageable!
- I was surprised by how manageable it felt to have so many meetings. By Sunday afternoon, the gaps I had felt strange and a little like a missed opportunity to meet another person or two.
- NB: I think it’s important to emphasise that the number of 1:1s that might seem manageable to you may be significantly less… or more! I find chatting to people one-on-one particularly fun and exciting. Choose a level that feels right for you.
Invest time in my Swapcard profile
- I wrote a fairly detailed profile, spending maybe 3-5 hours creating it and then proactively searching for people
- I think the time I spent doing this was a principal reason for the very high rate of positive responses I received
- I think the detail on my profile helped the people I met have a clearer sense of what topics might be most useful to speak about, or questions that they wanted to ask me
Carry a mug around with me all day
- A little more light-heartedly, I ended up a mug around all day on Saturday and Sunday. I think holding on to a mug served as a really useful reminder to stay hydrated and to take little breaks by getting water, tea/coffee, a snack, etc.
Things I might do differently next time
Use a notepad instead of my phone
- I thought taking notes on my phone would be quick and convenient. However, I had a couple of occasions where picking up or getting my phone out to make notes interrupted the conversation as the other person thought I needed to speak to someone/ get to another meeting/ was being a bit rude/ etc.
Bring a small sign with my name on it
- I found spotting people’s names on their lanyard when trying to find who I was meeting next surprisingly difficult. Lanyards seemed to easily get flipped the wrong way round or be partially obscured by someone’s clothing. Having a piece of paper with my name on it to put next to me on a table or hold when trying to find a new person might avoid this problem pretty easily.
Attend a talk/ workshop!
- I had planned to attend 2 or 3 talks/ workshops over the weekend but ended up skipping these to have more 1:1s. This felt pretty valuable but I also heard great things about some of the talks and workshops other people attended over the weekend. I think next time I’ll make sure to attend a couple of talks/ workshops and see how much I was missing.
Hopefully, this (relatively) short reflection on my conference experience is useful to a few people planning to attend one in future. Feel free to use the comments section to post your own quick reflections on what you’ve found most valuable from any conferences you’ve attended. And if you’ve never been to an EA conference and are unsure of applying, please give it a go!
Thanks to everyone who was involved in organising EAGxOxford and to everyone I got the chance to meet this weekend! As an overall experience, I can’t stress enough how valuable and just plain fun I found the conference.