While it is, without a shadow of a doubt, hard work organising a conference, it can also be hard work attending one. At least if you do it properly and intend to get as much out of the experience as you can. There is all sorts of pre-, during-, and post-conference work to be done, from researching speakers to following up new contacts. We’re not saying that it’s all work and no play, but if you’re serious about building your career or your business, and about continuing professional development and personal growth, then you should follow these four tips to make the travel and separation from your family worthwhile.
In no particular order
1) Scott Belskey says that one of the most important things he’s learnt from years of attending conferences is to keep his general notes separate from any actionable steps he plans to take once he gets back home.
You know how it is, you take copious notes that you know will change the way you work or live, and then you kind of forget about them. They often get lost or buried in a drawer somewhere. You don’t want that to happen with your plans of action. These are the practical things that you can do immediately to improve the way you work, live, and play.
Belskey recommends that you take your action steps and transcribe them as soon as possible, preferably to a task management tool or some other personal organiser that you use religiously every day, so you can see them and stay on top of them.
2) Pre-conference planning is essential. Use the agenda that you’ve been given to choose the sessions that you think will interest you. If you end up with more sessions than time, go online and research the speakers. In fact, research the speakers anyway. Google is great, obviously, but don’t forget to check out their social media profiles. Once you get a feel for the speakers, you can narrow down your choices.
Scott Berkun says that you shouldn’t be afraid to leave a session if you aren’t enjoying it. There is no point hanging around bored, unhappy or otherwise dissatisfied for 60 – 90 minutes when you could be riveted somewhere else. Give speakers 15 minutes to warm up to their subjects and impress you, and if they fail, walk out – quietly and unobtrusively – to try the next session on the list.
3) Schmooze. You can call it networking if you want, but it’s not just about business, it’s also about finding like-minded people with whom you could be friends. Conferences tend to offer plenty of opportunities for socialising. There’s the registration right at the beginning, every tea break and lunch, and if the conference is over several days, there is usually at least one dinner.
These opportunities are great for meeting people, but you also want to hang out a bit – shoot the breeze, if you will. Belskey recommends inviting people for an early breakfast or dinner, and invite them to invite others, so you end up with quite a nice informal crowd.
Lou Dubois says that you shouldn’t underestimate the potential of the trade booth floor. Many conferences allow vendors to set up displays and exhibitions, providing them with a widow for opportunistic sales, and providing guests with one extra chance to mingle, as well as learn more about the companies that have been presenting.
4) Follow up on the connections you make. This means that you have to remember the people with whom you’ve connected. Chances are good that you’re going to walk away from the conference with dozens of new business cards and you probably won’t remember who everyone is. Belsky recommends that you split the cards you get into two groups: the ones you will follow up and the ones that will end up in a drawer. Write some notes on the ones that go into the follow-up category. For example, “Great knowledge of sewer systems in China – must invite as guest speaker at upcoming charity dinner”.
Some people treat conferences as paid vacations. They go to cut loose, drink complementary drinks, and eat canapés until they feel sick. Other people get so wound up by the pressure to pay attention and learn that their brains shut down. It’s important to find the middle ground. You need to take conferences seriously enough that you represent yourself and your company in the best possible light, while maximising the insights gained, and networking as much as possible. But you also want to make it fun.
That’s why the socialising aspect is so important, and why you should remember to tone down the business spiel and take a genuine interest in your fellow conference goers as people, not just as business contacts.