Benefits and challenges of tweeting a conference

Academic conferences are usually exhausting. You spend the whole day (or, more often, several days) closed in a lecture room, often without direct sunlight or fresh air, and try to absorb as much information as you can from (sometimes poorly prepared) talks of your fellow researchers. At some events, speakers change as often as every 15 minutes which makes it even harder to keep track of their talks. At larger conferences, stress from running between parallel sessions to catch all interesting talks adds to the mix. Nobody in their right mind would voluntarily add one more task on top of that — tweeting what others are talking about, right?

It might seem that live tweeting at a conference only adds more stress and work to one’s already packed program. Yet, it helps me pay more attention to what the speaker is saying and to identify the main message of the talk. As a result, I can learn better and enjoy the conference more.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with a solid tweeting experience. After all, Twitter forces you to express your thoughts as concisely as possible. For tweeting from a conference, that does not mean you should dumb down what you hear; instead, you have to pay close attention to what the key information is. You have to strip the information off all unimportant details (which might be crucial for the science but not necessarily for your audience). And that is also what you need in order to make good notes for yourself and remember what you heard.

Secondly, you have to adapt to your audience’s background. Most of your followers might not know why a particular research project is important and how it fits within the research that has already been done. One is thus forced to think about these questions as well. You might think that you already know the answers but you might easily find links between seemingly unrelated problems. And considering a known issue from a new angle (which you might do to help your audience understand its implications) can bring new and interesting insights.

Finally, it also helps me to concentrate better if I know that I am the only person who can share the conference with my followers. If I zone out for a minute. I will not know what the speaker said. As a result, I will also not be able to pass this knowledge on. Through accountability, I thus tend to pay more attention than I would if I decided not to tweet.

While there are certain advantages to tweeting a conference, the practice is not so simple. Tweeting the talks you are attending is great but you have to remember that it also takes your attention away from the talk. The more you tweet, the less attention you will pay to the speaker. And if you start reading the tweets of others, you can miss the talk completely.

My solution to this problem is trying to find balance. Keeping the number of tweets within a reasonable limit, I do not overwhelm my followers and have time to focus on my learning experience as well. In my tweets, I explain what problem the speaker is trying to solve, why that is important, and how it can be done. If there is some interesting information on top of that, I’ll share it as well. If the talk is short (20 minutes or less), I might even tweet less. And not getting distracted by Twitter? That is a question of self-control, and nothing more.

Even if you manage to keep things brief, not get distracted by Twitter, and not tweet too much, you can spend a lot of time crafting and perfecting your tweets. At first, your tweet is five characters too long, then a piece of (maybe crucial) information is missing, now the tweet sounds a bit clumsy. Before you know it, the speaker has moved on and you missed the one slide that was necessary to understand the rest of the talk.

You have to keep in mind that live tweeting is different from your usual tweeting. Most of the time, you have plenty of time to create the perfect tweet, but not at a conference. Here, you have to get the tweet out as fast as you can (but not at the price of grammatical errors or incomprehensibility, naturally). Your followers will understand that your tweets can’t be as polished as they usually are.

No matter what you do, you should enjoy your conference, learn new things, and talk to interesting people. If you find that Twitter doesn’t help you achieve that, let it be and tweet less; or not at all. What works for me doesn’t necessarily have to work for you.