Advice for first-timers not attending a tech conference

Written by @marcemarc on Sunday, 24 May 2020

Can’t attend a tech conference? Considering ‘pretending’ it instead? Is this your first time? Here are some practical things to remember.

This year’s Umbraco tech conference ‘Codegarden’ #cg20 is unfortunately cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.. However quite a few people have expressed a desire to ‘do something’ to ‘virtually’ pretend to be there, and Umbraco HQ have asked yours truly, a hardened veteran of ‘pretending’ conferences to provide some handy tips and advice for the ‘first time’ pretendee.


Firstly you have to be clear on your motivation, why would you want to be perceived to have attended the event? I’m often asked why I would tweet during a conference when I’m not actually there, and the counter answer I always give is in the form of a question - why would you tweet at a conference if you WERE there?

You might be providing support via social media noise and buzz for the event
Trying to feel part of the shenanigans
Showing off to your peer group and work colleagues that you are the type of person who goes to tech conferences...

But all of these aims can easily be achieved by ‘pretending’ the conference, AND you save on travel expenses, plus it’s good for the environment.

Your motivation is important as this shapes the evidence you gather, if your aim is to just make some work colleagues think you went to a thing, that’s a much lower bar to achieve than trying to rewrite history and make people who were actually at the conference think that you were actually there and that they had a conversation with you. My suggestion for first-timers though, is aim low, pretending a conference isn’t something you can just leap into, you can’t pretend you did the keynote, nobody would believe you!


Which brings us to believability… here on your side is the fact that it is really unlikely that anyone would ever ‘pretend’ a conference, that conferences are busy events with lots of people and lots going on - so people are much more likely to believe you ‘were there’ and they happened to miss seeing you, with only scant attendance evidence, than assume the opposite which would be frankly bizarre (*wink*)... anyway the key thing here is believability - don’t overdo it! - one ridiculous claim can puncture the illusion of your attendance, keep things simple… luckily a lot of tweets from conferences are mind-numbingly banal… so it’s easy to slide a tweet into this humdrum noise to begin establishing 'credibility of presence', without giving things away, particularly early on…
… this applies even if the conference is completely cancelled - and you are group ‘pretending it’ - the pretence won’t be sustained if we all arrive on the back of elephants etc - although if the surrealism scales over the conference days, we can certainly all leave on one...

Early on

The start of the conference is ripe for the early establishment of pretendance… nothing really has happened yet… so it’s hard to be caught out - everyone is excited, all social media output is around ‘seeing people’ or remarking how ‘everybody is lovely’ or ‘the venue is great’... great possibilities to join in BUT WAIT A GOD DAMN MINUTE! - and this is a key first-timer mistake… you haven’t provided any evidence for how you got there!!! You need to get some ‘journey’ evidence in there to really establish credibility… you can start with a picture of a bus or train or anything transport-related in your vicinity… (remember believability - no camels) tweet this out with the conference #hashtag and the golden mantra for any festival/conference attendee/pretendee:

“And so it begins... “

Bang you are in the game!

It’s up to you if you want to provide some evidence of ‘jeopardy’ to the journey - but if you do, remember people will want to see a picture of you on a plane ready for take-off, having conquered that jeopardy… so again, keep it simple.

If travelling to a foreign country, you’ll probably want to remark about something culturally different around the time your virtual plane was due to land… there will be plenty of images on the internet you can pinch about that country or its airport - but if out of inspiration just announcing enigmatically

“Country, I am in you…!”

Will be enough.

Bumping into someone on your journey who is also attending the conference, is a tempting credibility establishing step - but remember those people will immediately know that didn’t happen, and your followers will expect a selfie with those people… however, if you know someone else who is also planning to ‘pretend’ the same conference, this could be a perfect mutual credibility establishing strategy - but do realise if the other pretendee is an idiot they could completely undermine your pretendance, if at a later date they are caught out pretending the wrong lunch menu…

Photographic Evidence

Now the conference has started, there is pressure on any attendee/pretendee to tweet some sort of image from the venue - it establishes that they truly are there (remember we are trying to sync in with what normal ‘attendees’ do!)... this is a key moment… after the conference starts you can always cop out and say it was sooo busy you didn't really have time to take photos and tweet… you’ll have a successful conference pretendance but it will be boring! But, come on, if you WERE ‘there’, and experiencing the initial level of ‘giddy excitement’, you know, you need to get something real ‘out there’ fast.

In normal circumstances, you can ‘surf off’ other attendees photographs… and really you are looking out for anything that features ‘this year’s’ festival logo and colours… you can usually ‘fake’ your own image by then quickly cropping that logo contained in someone else’s image and then ‘remark’ how cool the conference ident is ‘this year’...

Another ‘classic fake’ is to look for people taking a photo and sharing the conference ‘lanyard’ with their name printed on... Again a quick photoshop later (matching font is important) you’ll be sharing a photo of YOUR lanyard, with YOUR name on it… sweet! (in later years reflecting on your timeline with your kids, you won’t remember whether this conference is one you attended or pretended)

Any tweet praising 'the organisation of the first day' has a high chance of being retweeted by conference organising account, just don’t do this if there is general chaos as it will seem really really sarcastic.

Sometimes the organisers will release a teasing shot of the festival ident or t-shirt design months in advance on Twitter, it might be possible to construe your own piece of merchandising based on this sneak preview, for example before Codegarden 17, the whole ‘FRIENDLY’ hoodie was teased in a tweet, and there was enough time to produce the ‘FIENDLY’ pastiche, which was so convincing, people just assumed it was the FRIENDLY one available in the merchandise area in a different colour:



 This year at Codegarden 2020, although it’s not happening we know from early teaser tweets that there will be Umbraco socks with the slogan ‘High Five your Socks’... Warren shared an image on twitter...


So I’d get in quick with any sock references or sock based puns… perhaps referencing the Matt and Lee sock puppets from cg18 etc

If photoshopping isn’t your thing, then as it’s the tech community and nobody really knows what people look like in real life, try commenting on somebody ‘known’ in the tech community’s relative height - but do of course make sure that person is there, and that their relative height is vaguely known by people eg. in the Umbraco community it would be a dead give away if you said

“Wow, just seen Per Ploug… he’s so actually tiny in real life”
“Just accidentally bumped into Shannon, my god, sooo much taller than you would expect”


The use of a mole to take generic venue photographs can be a real handy boost to the first-time pretendee - but don’t ruin that attendees experience, for your own self-aggrandisement by constantly messaging them to try and get a shot of the merchandise stand, or an empty stage or the inside of a caravan etc etc, having multiple moles is much better, and if people try to ‘call you out’ for pretending - as they are ‘on to you… ‘ then inviting them into the pretence and recruiting them as a mole, is a great way to continue playing the game, without upsetting people.

When the conference isn’t happening moles are of no importance but having similarly pretending co-conspirators can also help boost the quality of the authenticity of your tweets.

Putting yourself in the picture

It might be really tempting to take an image shared on social media from the conference and add yourself into it using Photoshop, but again STOP! - classic rookie mistake!! You only really share pictures on social media from YOUR camera - so think think think - how would you be taking a picture of yourself? It’s subtle, but you’d really only share an image of yourself if you were taking a ‘selfie’ or you asked someone else to take a photo of you with your camera because it made sense…'composition' is important for believability.

For example, in this picture from #cg19 you can see there was a wall of MVPs names and a ‘gold guy’ living statue… it would be ‘weird’ not to have a photo of yourself with the gold guy…


In this scenario, because it’s totally expected that an MVP would have their photo taken here, and social media will be ‘awash’ with similar photos, the quality of the photoshopping isn’t really questioned, you’d be surprised about how slapdash you can actually be during the daytime… remember people will mainly be following things on tiny mobile screens and be rushing, whereas in the evening, people have more time to look…

... at the end of the ‘same day’ this was taken, I pretended to be on umbraCoffee (a bold move since it is a show recorded on YouTube.. But fortunately most people who would normally watch it were at the conference...), but the unique nature of this image means the photoshoppery needed to be of a higher degree to be convincing: (check out the reversed version of me on the screen above the sofa, respect to Helen's photoshop skills)


So the tip really is to see what photos other people are sharing and whether that sparks any opportunity for you to do the same… it’s all about telling a shared story.

With a conference not taking place, this is still true, to some degree you’ll have to ‘go with’ other people’s flights of fancy to ‘keep up’.

The final tip on adding yourself to photos, is to ‘be on point with your clothing’… last year's conference t-shirt, you’d think would be a dead giveaway but actually lots of people do wear previous years t-shirts throughout a conference, to show their ‘long term’ investment in the thing… (I liked it before you)... the older the T the better… if it’s a one day conference, try not to be changing outfits in your images that would be weird, similarly for a three-day conference make sure that each day you have clean different clothes on in your images… don’t want to successfully pretend but be considered a ‘bit smelly’ by your audience.

High stakes

Don’t forget to have fun! But remember whilst photoshopping feels the most creative and can establish the greatest amount of attendance credibility in a single tweet - it is by far the riskiest thing you can do for giving the game away… poor photoshopping or just getting something wrong it can quickly make it game over… of course, the high risk brings a lot of the excitement of pretending, but always remember, don’t get carried away - realistical banal photos are dull but they aren’t scrutinised in the same fashion, and they are much more establishing. You are only aiming to pretend the conference, not be the most exciting delegate there/not there. Think photos of ‘the amazing food’ rather than ‘look at me on stage’.

Key Events

Things will happen during the conference, that’s I guess why people go, you’ll need to have the schedule handy and follow closely any social media outpourings from the festival #hashtags or Instagram accounts… to pick up on them… it could be an amazing talk… or an incident involving notorious community members or a shock award announcement. The key thing here is ‘speed of response’ - if you can blend your social media message of ‘YOUR’ thoughts on the thing just as the story is breaking... Then everybody is focusing on the ‘event’ and the unfolding story, and nobody is questioning whether you are actually there or not.

Making up your own key event would be audacious at an existing conference, but I don’t think impossible, (so much happens at a conference that not everybody can really know what is happening everywhere to everyone at any one time... And people can repeat things they see on twitter, even though they are there, it can be an echo chamber - I’d aim for that chaotic bubble of when talks are finishing just before lunch for the best chance). When the conference is cancelled though - you are going to have to invent something… so pick a talk or get creative, plan with co-conspirators - but there is no pointing pretending a cancelled conference if nothing of all of any interest happens, - bearing in mind within the laws of Physics pretty much anything can be allowed to happen… But you know not on Day 1… don’t get cocky!

A quick win at an existing conference is Interacting with somebody on social media who gave a talk, you can perhaps ask them if they are going to share their slides? And they are in such an elated mood from having given their talk that they will definitely reply, which gives great credibility, if you are complimentary about their talk, their ego may even retweet you!

You’ll need to find out if somebody is pretending a talk during the cancelled conference to make this work and be in their mutual interests.


A surprising thing that can occur for the first-time pretendee is a feeling of ‘guilt’, you are sort of deceiving all these nice people, and this can be compounded if these people reach out to you on twitter, to express disappointment at not being able to see you, and trying to arrange to meet you… this happens to me quite a lot.. And you can either try and fake it and say, yeah, let's meet up after the ‘next’ xxx talk and then hope the person forgets or you can follow my preference, which is to completely confess to your absence, express your disappointment at not being able to meet them and beg that they help continue the charade… if you're lucky you’ll get a new enthusiastic photo mole!


At a completely cancelled conference, you can be guilt-free, you know anyone contacting you in this manner, is also playing along too, and you are safe to arrange to ‘meet them’ later in the day.

Wrapping it all up.

Well done! You’ve nearly made it… as the conference draws to a close it’s customary and polite to express in your final set of social media outpourings some sort of wise closing emotional expression on the event.

Do say how sad it is to say goodbye to people,
Mention hugs etc (describing physical interactions gives a real sense you are physically there…)

also don’t forget to pronounce:

“Wow, can’t believe #xxxconf is over - best one ever”

And to thank all the organisers, and wish people ‘safe journeys home’

Another great way to end it, with a guaranteed retweet from the festival organising account is:

“Early bird ticket purchased for next year!!! Can’t wait to do this all over again in 2021”!

WAIT! - But you are not completely done, are you? You thought you’d done it… you’ve still got to get back home and get depressed about being at work, and missing the conference vibe.

So there needs to be a photo of you at home (easier to organise this one), perhaps with a beloved pet, and perhaps with a variation on the message:
“Shattered, happy to be back home, but xxx conference was everything I dreamed of”

Followed up a few days later with

“Anyone else missing being at xxx conference”


If it’s important to you not to be telling fibs, you can always give no context to your images, it is other people assuming you are there, not you telling them that you went! - and consider wording your tweets ambiguously: “It’s always great to be at xxx conference…” (whether you are there or not) - “I wish I’d seen XX’s talk, why do I always manage to miss the best talks?” (again always true) or “Day 2 has started, feeling overwhelmed, feel like I’m not really taking part” (very honest right?)

The Blog Post

Finally, to totally nail the pretendance you need to conjure that ‘conference attending blog post’ - Now you might be panicking thinking how are you going to put together a detailed blog post of a conference that you didn’t actually attend? You didn’t see those talks? How can you possibly comment???

Well, the good news if you read those ‘xxxx went to xxx conf’ type blog posts, they are all written like a high school book report, we did this, we did that, we saw this talk, then this one, then it ended, it was good. They tend to list talks they attended, but not talk content and repeat 3 key points from the keynote, all in all, it’s very easy to fake… but of course, being a creative pretender you’ll want to establish more credible attendance than the actual attendees!

At least one of the talks of the conference will probably have been done before, at another conference, and filmed… you can watch that and pick up on some nuance, to feature as your favourite bit. Failing that speakers will share their slide decks, just a case of finding something poignant - no point picking the speakers’ slide with their twitter handle and place of work as your highlight of the festival…
the main trick is to take an established key event from the festival and relate to how that ‘made you feel or think’... this way your blog post seems much more real than the ‘attendees’ attempts and it should be the icing on your pretendance experience!

When no conference has taken place you’ve got free reign here to establish a really creative narrative piece… but remember, remember believability! - you didn’t administer CPR during the keynote!

Tech Conference Pretendance Checklist

As this is also a parody of the ‘pre-conference’ blogposts for first-timers, I’ve noticed these always end with some sort of checklist of things for first-timers to help them prepare:

  • Photograph yourself in various standing/sitting positions, smiling - holding a drink and in various outfits.
  • Cut yourself out in photoshop, so you are ready to go with some transparent background pngs of yourself if you need to make some quick images during the festival
  • Look at Flickr feeds of previous conference years, to see what goes on, usually, it’s the same venue etc
  • Find out who is going/not going
  • Wear sunscreen (these sort of blog posts always end with wear sunscreen).

Anyway, I don’t have time to pretend #cg20 this year, so I won’t be taking part myself in the festivities, but I do hope these tips really help you have a fun pretendance this year, and at future tech conferences that you ‘need’ to be seen to have attended.

Do take a moment to add yourself to the #cg20 group picture that Lars and Lotte are organising here: and check out Candid Contribution's code patch hackathon and virtual celebration.

And Happy pretending everyone! Until next time…. Keep it real! I mean Keep it unreal!, ok I just don’t know what’s real or unreal anymore...


@marcemarc 'at' #cg19

@marcemarc 'at' Umbraco UK Festival 2018