The BarCamp Virgin's Guide: Making the most of your first BarCamp

What is a BarCamp?

Wikipedia’s description is BarCamp is an international network of user generated conferences — open, participatory workshop-events, whose content is provided by participants — often focusing on early-stage web applications, and related open source technologies, social protocols, and open data formats.”

Got your head around that one? Yeah, it’s a bit dry. This post should demystify a little what happens at a BarCamp event, and what you can get out of spending your weekend with geeks rather than chilling out at home.

Totally different to regular conferences, BarCamps are more open and less structured. This means, when you arrive, you’re likely to see this kind of grid, where you can jot down what you’d like to talk about. It’s an opportunity for people from all backgrounds and all skill levels to have a go at sharing some knowledge.

Sounds scary? It’s not essential that you present in front of a group using a Powerpoint presentation and a laser pointer while wearing a suit. In fact, suits are definitely not recommended.

Where do I find out about events like this?

Check out the BarCamp homepage for events in your area, look out on or ask fellow Twitter users for suggestions.

Keep a close eye on registrations since tickets tend to go quickly, with gatherings ranging from twenty to hundreds, depending on how brave the organisers are and how large the venue is.

How can I prepare?

  • Have a think about the general theme of the event & associated topics that interest you: Could you talk about any experiences you’ve had, questions you’ve answered by either successfully completing a project or, if you’re brave, through a failure you’ve gone through.
  • Look at the list of attendees, which should be public… Anyone you’re burning to meet and get to know? The day will fly by so be sure to go say hi at the first opportunity!
  • Have an open mind: Join a session on a topic you know nothing about, play a game of Werewolf with new friends or start a conversation with the next stranger you meet.
  • Arrive on time: Come early if you want/can help with registration and setup, but don’t show up too late or you might miss on some of the social activity and goodies.

Tackling your first presentation

Presentation slots are generally 30-40 minutes, so you don’t need to do a doctorate thesis. It’s definitely not all about monologuing in front of the group for the full half-hour, it’s about sharing your experiences, asking others to pitch in with ideas or just leading a useful conversation.

  • Present something simple that people with less experience, who are new to the industry might be interested in.
  • Not sure what level of knowledge others will have? Present something completely wild and silly (“how to make the perfect margarita” was a hit at a past BarCamp I hear)
  • Nervous about being in front of people? Do a shared presentation with someone who complements your skills well. You’ll have someone to lean on when you’re not sure what to say next, and it’s more fun together.

But I’m not a spotlight kind of guy/gal…

Still getting cold feet? You can still help in a number of ways. The organisers are volunteers and (generally) have only two hands each. So if you’re not too keen on doing a presentation, why not lend a hand with registration, coffee breaks, cleaning up or setting up the A/V system?

One of the best bits of a BarCamp is the memories you take home with you. But if you’re like me and you have the memory of a goldfish, the key is to capture the event in some way. So why not offer to blog or record the event on video or in photos? If you’re a podcaster, create a VoxPop clip with the participants.

What do I need to pack?

Wherever possible, you’ll be able to stay on-site overnight for the BarCamp. You’ll find yourself staying up late chatting, coding or playing games. If that’s the case, you’ll need some of the following:

  • Laptop if you want to blog or take notes during the event. Don’t forget your charger (and adaptor if the event is abroad!) and your screen adaptor if you need to plug into a projector.
  • Business cards: Moo cards come highly recommended. Make sure you have somewhere safe to store the cards you’re given.
  • Scribble notebook & pen: You might not want to have your laptop out at all times, so pen and paper is essential.
  • Power strip: If you can, bring a power bar to plug into the much-coveted few outlets. It’ll allow more people to benefit from power during the day.
  • Video/photo camera: Immortalise the day in video and photos. Be sure to upload your content and tag it with the event’s hashtags (eg. #smclondon08 for SocialMediaCamp London 2008) and put a Creative Commons friendly copyright.
  • Money: Some events provide food, thanks to the sponsors, but others don’t, so come prepared to go buy lunch somewhere nearby.
  • Materials: Bring your presentation or demo (if you have one) on a USB stick or CD.
  • If the BarCamp is an overnight one, you’ll probably want to pack a sleeping bag and pillow.

What some BarCamp veterans say…

Tara ‘missrogue’ Hunt, Citizen Agency co-founder, public speaker & blogger, says:

“Personally? BarCamp was an exciting idea for me, but at first I was afraid to stand up and talk… just wanted to observe and have one on one conversations… maybe ask a few questions from the audience. After a while, though, I decided to take the leap and put myself on the speaking schedule.

I’m glad I did, because it started my career! I went from speaking at BarCamps… Really getting my chops wet and practicing my skills. I got stronger and stronger as a speaker. One day I was approached by a conference organizer who asked me to give a workshop on my ideas. Next thing I know, I’m speaking all over the world and have WAY more professional confidence than I’ve ever had. That all started with BarCamp. It gave me the opportunity to really push myself into the next level.

Mel Kirk, social media gal extraordinaire says:

My first experience of a barcamp was during SXSW and was BarCamp Austin… Totally awesome! We heard some people chatting about it and decided to drop in… I still have my pass and lanyard as it was one of my highlights. They had this awesome T-shirt station where you could buy a t-shirt and then have a number of different designs printed onto it. I didn’t have enough cash to buy one but I really wish that I had, they were gorgeous.

There was a whole buzz about the place – it was in a really cool bar – totally laid back and relaxed and I met some amazing people that I would never have otherwise have met. Because it was a lot more laid back than a normal conference-type set up, people feel more relaxed to ask the presenters questions which leads to much more of a conversation type feel rather than content being pushed to the audience.

I’d recommend a BarCamp to anyone – it’s filled with amazing talented people willing to share and discuss their knowledge… where else can you get something like that?

Nik Butler aka Loudmouthman says

“don’t let anyone convince you they are not the werewolf”

Got BarCamp stories to share? Suggestions for new attendees? Leave a comment below!

17 thoughts on “The BarCamp Virgin's Guide: Making the most of your first BarCamp

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  3. Julius

    Great post Vero,

    I just added you to my list of resources. The first barcamp I attended I was very very excited about it. I am going to attend BarCampLondon 5 (my 5th one) this weekend and still feel the excitement!

    I met very interesting people out there, not spoiled by large buffets and not bored by endless bullet points.

    Looking forward to SMCamp and will be soon announcing another one in London for November



  4. Vero

    @Kat I won’t be at BarCamp London this weekend, but you, me and Safety Goat have a date over beers sometime soon I reckon!

    @Julius Thanks for the comment, enjoy BCL5, and can’t wait to see what your event will be all about.

  5. Sandrine

    Thanks again Vero – this was my first Media Camp and I loved it ! Thanks for organising it all and if you ever need some help for the next one, let me know ! 😉

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  13. Arun Basil Lal

    Hey, I am from Kerala in India and we have a BarCamp Kerala tomorrow (just 7 hours from now). Its not my first, but I was taking this virgins guide.

    I had almost forgot my cards and the pendrive. Thanks a lot for the checklist.

    Love you 🙂

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