Going Paperless: Conferences and conventions

I have just returned from an incredibly fun conference, attending and participating in the Nebula Awards Weekend. In the science fiction and fantasy realm, the Nebula Awards are our equivalent of the Academy Awards. The awards are voted on by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and are given out in various fiction categories like Best Short Story, Best Novella, Best Novel, etc. I attended both as a member of SFWA and as a presenter of one award. I also accepted an award (the Nebula for Best Short Story) for the outstanding writer, Ken Liu.

When I first decided to go paperless, way back in September 2010, I had this idea in the back of my mind that it would be wonderful, one day, to be able to attend a conference and not have to deal with any paper. For my day job, as an application software developer, I’ve had to attend many conferences, and despite many of these conferences be “tech” conferences, I seem to always be weighed down with tons of paper: conference programs, course material, notebooks, business cards, handouts. What I wouldn’t give, I used to dream, to attend a conference where I needed carry nothing around but a small computer or perhaps even my phone.

Well, I still have not achieved a totally paperless conference, but this past weekend, I managed to come pretty close, so I thought I’d provide some tips on how you can use the various tools I’ve discussed in earlier posts to make conference attendance as paper-free as possible–and in some cases, more enjoyable.

Paperless conference materials

While some conferences make their conference materials available in electronic format, not all of them do. When I arrived at the Nebula Weekend registration, I received a conference program printed out on paper. However, the conference program was also posted on the conference website and I simply used Evernote’s Web Clipper plug-in for Chrome to capture the conference program into Evernote. I did this the morning of the conference to ensure that I had the most recent version. Walking around the conference with my iPad, it was only a matter of pulling up the program in Evernote and glancing at what I needed. To make that even easier, I added a Saved Search that pulled up the conference program so that I could find it quickly.


So the three tips I’d offer here are:

  1. Check for conference material online before the conference starts and load it into Evernote.
  2. Make the notebook to which you save the conference material an Offline notebook so that you can access it without a network connection.
  3. Create a Saved Search in Evernote to quickly pull up the conference program.

But what if there are no paperless conference materials?

Well, the Nebula Weekend just happened to be a local conference for me. But had I been traveling, I might have brought my Canon P-150M portable scanner with me. When I returned to my hotel room, I could scan in what material I had, sync it with Evernote and leave the heavy materials in my hotel room. Plus, scanning in the material with a Premium account makes it searchable, which can be a huge help.

Capture session notes

Most conferences have the same basic format. There are keynote speeches and conference-wide events, often with lots of breakout sessions and even different programming tracks, and the Nebula Weekend is no different. In attending the various sessions, I often want to take notes, so I create a note in Evernote as each session begins to capture what I need.

One thing I love about some of the recent updates to Evernote on the iPad is that it will automatically fill in the title of your note based on your Calendar app on the iPad. And the Calendar app on my iPad is synced with my Google Calendar. Since I put all of the sessions I want to attend in my Google Calendar, creating a note for that session is as simple as hitting “New Note.” Evernote will automatically fill in the title of the note with the title of the meeting on my calendar for the current time, “SFWA Business Meeting,” for instance, if that is what is on my calendar.

I can then take notes, make an audio recording of the session, take pictures, whatever right in the note. And it works even if I am not connected to the hotel network because Evernote will simply sync the note once I make a connection. No need for paper or pens. Well, that’s not entirely true…

Suppose that in one of the sessions, the presenter is sketching something on the whiteboard that might be of interest to capture. I could try to take a photo of it, but depending on where I am sitting, it might not come out clearly. However, I can open up an app like Penultimate, sketch out what the presenter has done, and then send that sketch directly into Evernote:


So, my tips for capturing session notes:

  1. Add the sessions you will be attending to your calendar app so that Evernote will pick them up for the note title when you are in the session
  2. Take advantage of apps like Penultimate or Paper that can send handwritten sketches directly into Evernote.

Networking, networking, networking

A lot of networking happens at conferences, and the Nebula Weekend is no different. Authors are meeting with editors or agents. We are being interviewed by the press or we are conducting interviews ourselves for various publications. There are book signings and meals of all kind. And it’s often helpful to have a record of all of this on something other than a stained napkin.

One idea might be to use Evernote Hello to capture a picture and information about each person you meet, but I’m not quite at that level yet. I still feel awkward saying, “Hi, my name is Jamie, what’s yours, and let me grab your photo by the way.”

Typically, what I will do is to create one note for each interaction–after the interaction has taken place. If I chat with an editor and promise to send a story, I’ll create a note and enter the gist of what we spoke about. If I chat with another writer and it’s important to capture that information, I’ll do the same. If a photo happens to be taken, I’ll add it to the note, but that isn’t always the case.

Sometimes, someone will hand me a business card, which I will tuck away until the meeting is over and then I’ll take a quick photo of it with my iPad or iPhone and bring it into Evernote.

And, of course, we are constantly eating at these conventions. The most important meetings, it seems, happen over meals, breakfasts, lunches, dinners. If you are interested in recalling what it was you ate, you can always use Evernote Food to capture that information. But since many of these meetings are important business meetings, it means that they are to some extent, tax-deductible and so I capture the receipts in Evernote, either by snapping a photo of the receipt or scanning it in at the earliest possible convenience.

To summarize my tips for capturing information about your conference networking:

  1. Create a note for each person you meet, after you’ve met them.
  2. Photograph or scan any business cards you’ve been handed
  3. Capture your meal receipts so you have a record for tax or travel expense purposes.

Capturing multimedia

I interviewed a few people at the Nebula Weekend for various science fiction magazines and markets. It was great to be able to record the interviews on my iPhone and later add the voice recording to the same note in Evernote that contained all of my interview notes for said interview.


Organizing your conference notes

As I’ve written before, I’m not big on tagging, but a conference like the Nebula Weekend is one place where I will make use of tags to quickly organize and find any and all conference related information. Here is what I did for the Nebula Weekend:

  1. Select a tag for the event. For the Nebula Weekend, I chose nebula weekend.2012.
  2. Create a Saved Search. I created one called “Nebula Weekend Conference Material” and it was simply a search for tag:nebula weekend.2012
  3. Tag each conference-related note with the tag you’ve with the tag you’ve chosen to use.
  4. Keep your Saved Search as your main entry-point into Evernote (on my iPad I did this by selecting Home->More->Saved Searches->Nebula Weekend Conference Material)

Whenever I needed to find something, I opened Evernote and my saved search showed me only those notes that were related to the conference. I generally sort my notes by most-recently updated. I could either skim them, knowing the newer ones were listed first, or I could type in a search.

A totally paperless conference?

I noted earlier that I have still not achieved a totally paperless conference. It is a little tricky at something like the Nebula Weekend, which is centered around science fiction and books. I am as much a fan as I am a writer and I lugged around a backpack full of books to be signed by friends and authors I admire. So to that extent, the conference wasn’t “paperless.” I was handed various pieces of paper throughout the conference, and while I converted them into digital format as quickly as I could manage, there was still some paper to deal with.

Perhaps the most glaring place where I could have been paperless, and didn’t quite have the guts, was when I accepted the Nebula Award for Best Short Story. There I stood, on stage in front of hundreds of other writers and industry professionals, many of whom I’d been reading since I was a kid. It might have been impressive to read Ken’s acceptance speech off my iPad, but I didn’t quite have the courage to do that. I had printed the speech out on a single piece of white paper, in a large and easily readable font, and I read his speech from there. But the next time I have to be on stage, I’ve promised myself to do it without paper.

It’s good to have a stretch goal.

(This and all my other Going Paperless post are also available via Pinterest.)


  1. Jamie – are you aware of any “next step” software that takes combining being able to effectively “doodle” like you can with penultimate or sketch, but to be able to add text blocks as well, and then post that result as a full note to evernote? I like penultimate, but all the flipping back and forth between apps to get everything into an evernote note is annoying.

    Yes, I want it all!!! 🙂 Thanks in advance for any advice, oh guru of the paperless!

    1. Kodermike, not at the moment. This would, of course, be ideal, right? At present, I don’t find the flipping back and forth too cumbersome, but that may be because I don’t have to do it too often. If I learn of any deep integration, I’ll be sure to let you know.

  2. I love your evernote tips. I have one tiny complaint and that is you write about the ipad (which makes sense, as it is what you use) but I have a kindle fire and an android based smart phone. I’m assuming that your tips work for the fire, but there may be differences. In any case, thanks for the tips.

    I’d love to hear you talk about archiving (I have tons of things that I clip to read at a later date, but sometimes it seems as if that date will never come…are you ever justified in “pitching” things you’ve clipped to evernote?

    Also, will you be at Worldcon this year?

    1. Barbara, thanks for the kind words. Yes, I use an iPad and I can only really report on my experience, but I do chat with folks who use other devices and if I can ever incorporate any of that second-hand information, I will try. Thanks for the archiving suggestion. You are not the first to suggest this and I’ve got it down (in Evernote) as a topic for a future tips post.

      And as of now, I do expect to be at Worldcon. I’m on programming there, and it will also (rather remarkably) be my first Worldcon. 🙂

  3. Kodermike,

    The app “Notability” allows you to doodle, type, and record all in the same ‘note’.

    It then allows you to export the note as a PDF, RTF or Notability file. Then you can send as an email, export to iTunes, Dropbox, iDisk, WebDav, or print it out.

    I just tried exporting a note (w/ doodles & text) as a PDF, then sent it to my Evernote upload email address (http://evernote.com/trunk/items/evernote-email) and it worked great. (Although it seems Evernote can only search through the text part successfully.)

    Hope this helps.

  4. Great ideas! The only surprise I had was when you talked about sometimes carrying a portable scanner. The camera on the iPhone4 is good enough to take pictures of any document and you can zoom in to read it on any computer, iPad or iPhone. I don’t scan anything anymore. Photos with iPhone are much quicker.

    1. Joshua, some of the conferences I’ve attended have pretty thick conference guides and other material. In these cases, there are 2 advantages of the scanner over the iPhone, I think:

      1. I can scan all the pages together at once.
      2. The scan results in a single PDF (as opposed to many, many JPGs) that is searchable within Evernote.

      That said, those conferences that don’t supply at least some of the material in electronic form are getting rarer–at least those which I attend.

  5. May I suggest CamScanner app. It scans to a single PDF.
    Enjoyed the article, BTW.

  6. Hi Jamie – creating multi-page PDF files using the iPhone camera, have a look at then JotNot app. Superb and it talks seamlessly to Evernote.

  7. Nice post as always Jamie. I wanted to add that travel documents (flight itineraries, ground transportation info, hotel confirmations, etc.) are always in Evernote for me when I go to conferences. Now that I’m a Premium subscriber, I’ll be shunting those items to an offline folder I keep on my phone so that when I’m in the airport trying to figure out how to get to my hotel, I can get to that info quickly.

    1. Robert, very good tip. It wasn’t on my mind for this recent conference I attended since the conference took place practically across the street from my office–which meant my travel consisted primarily of walking. 😉

  8. Hey Jamie, first time reader. 🙂 I was wondering if you know any good note taking apps for iPhone. I’ve looked up all of these apps on the app store but they seem to be for iPad. Thanks for reading 🙂

    1. Hi Jessica, I’m afraid I don’t have any good answers for you. The only time I take notes on my iPhone these days is when I am out of all other alternatives. I am still stubborn enough to refuse to scribble on paper so I will use my iPhone, but in those cases I will either use the built in Notepad app, or the Evernote app.

  9. I am pretty new to Evernote but was recently at a conference myself, wanting to use it. The conference provided the materials as pdfs on a disc, but I didn’t want to lug my laptop around. I saved the pdfs into Dropbox first and marked them as favorites so they’d be available offline, as I wouldn’t have wifi while in the conference. I downloaded them to my tablet that way, and then opened and added my own typed notes (bluetooth keyboard) during the meetings. Once I was done with a pdf, *then* I sent them to Evernote to make them searchable, etc. I don’t have a Premium account, so using Dropbox first enabled me to have them available easily. Also, since each time you edit a note it gets re-uploaded and counts against your monthly quota, I wanted to wait until I’d added in my own notes.


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