Getting the Most from a Professional Conference

Posted by R. Anne Hull

I love going to conferences! I’ve added two certifications, gotten a job, provided valuable knowledge and expertise to projects and made some life-long professional colleagues and mentors from attending professional conferences. I’ve also wasted time, money and energy at a few. So now I look at these events as a two-way opportunity.

Professional conferences are opportunities to develop your own professional reputation as well as gain knowledge and ideas to do your work. Conferences are ideal places to find out what’s hot (and not so hot) in your field, observe the various debates and controversies under way, meet interesting people, make contacts for the future, and, in general, interact with professionals in your field. Some people find ideas and people to help them make changes in their careers. From an employment perspective, some conferences are designed to support job contacts and preliminary job interviews.

Most of us have to jump through hoops to justify the time and expense of a professional conference. Good conference planners and promoters go to great lengths to illustrate the benefits of attending in addition to attracting high profile speakers. Yet, these benefits may not be enough for you to get the greatest return on your conference investment of time and money. Here are some tips for before, during and after attending a conference:

Before the conference

1. What do you need from the conference? This could be some, or all of the following:

  1. Up-to-date information
  2. New ideas, skills or models
  3. New job
  4. New clients
  5. Reality checks with others
  6. Mentors
  7. Potential employees
  8. Swag for your kids/co-workers

Be clear on your reasons and goals for attending the conference to help keep you focused. It is easy to get drawn into conversations or vendor demos that won’t support your reason for being at the conference.

2. What do your boss or others need you to bring back from the conference? Stephen Covey taught us to “Begin with the end in mind.” In addition to clarifying your reasons for attending the conference, visualize what you will do with the information you bring back. How will you implement new ideas? Block time after the conference to share ideas with others.

3. Who do you need to meet at the conference? Why? Strategically think about this before you get to the conference to have more meaningful conversations. Send an email to speakers, vendors and others who you know will be attending the conference to express your interest in talking with them.

4. What can you give to others? Think “law of reciprocity.” Polish your “elevator introduction” and create some interesting, attention grabbing, through provoking conversation-starting questions to help you learn what others are doing. You can be a connector or share a resource.

5. Do your homework on the speakers. Will their presentation offer insights that are not available via the web or in their latest publication? What would you like to take away from their presentation?

6. Plan your time with the conference schedule, but don’t over-schedule yourself. Mark not only your first choice sessions, but also second and third choices. Schedules change at the last minute for many different reasons. If a colleague is also attending, maximize your coverage by splitting up and take notes to share with each other.

7. Dress for comfort as well as professional appearance. You’ll need your energy to talk with people, not deal with ill-fitting shoes.

8. Take plenty of business cards and a way to organize and keep the cards you receive from others. Some speakers collect business cards to distribute e-handouts. Vendors may collect cards for giveaways.

9. Decide the best note-taking strategy to produce the reports or other items you’ll need afterwards to accomplish your reason for going to the conference.

During the conference

1. During the morning networking, find a colleague and agree to share session handouts or information. You may want to focus on one track while your colleague selects another track.

2. Check for changes in the sessions and locations and make adjustments to your schedule. Coordinate these changes with your colleague.

3. Minimize what you have to carry to reduce clutter and save your energy. I often off-load swag from the conference tote (and sometimes the tote itself) keeping just what’s important for my strategy.

4. Get to sessions early to get a seat, the handouts and introduce yourself to the speaker if you can. Tell him/her why you are interested in the session and remind her if you previously sent her an e-mail. While you are waiting, engage other participants about their experience on the session topic, or their current interests. If you aren’t sure about the session, sit in the back of the room, so if you leave you are less disruptive to others.

5. As in Congress, much of the work gets done in the hallways and during the informal times and at meals. This is the time to put your energies into talking with people, not checking emails. Arrange to meet the people for that cup of coffee or to share a meal. Some conferences help attendees coordinate dinners with like-minded people and provide restaurant listings and meet-up boards. Notice who is talking with whom and what alliances are being established. Create some of your own.

After the conference

There are two things to do after the conference: Report back and follow-up. Most people don’t follow-up with people they’ve met. Be sure you keep any promises you made for information or connections. Let conference planners know your appreciation or suggestions.

1. Clean up your notes (in my case, translate my hieroglyphic abbreviations) to send with handouts to your conference buddy. Suggest a follow-up conversation date and time for action items.

2. Many of us need to create a report for our boss. Use your notes to help build a business case, or action items to put your learning to work. Again, suggest a follow-up conversation for action items.

3. Contact speakers and let them know your appreciation, thoughts or questions. Thank them for sending handouts to you.

4. Most importantly, contact the people you met and arrange to continue the conversations you started.

These tips can be used for small or large events. Conferences are a two-way opportunity to develop your career: Not only can you gain knowledge of your field, but you can gain visibility with a well-planned strategy. You may not be looking for a new job, but you can always bring back new insights, resources and generally add value to your work. As a speaker for some of the professional conferences I’ve attended, I use my earlier experiences to plan my presentations.

I’d like to hear what you do to make the most the professional conferences you attend!

A Short List of Resources:

  1. “The Fine Art of Small Talk,” by Debra Fine.
  2. “Never Eat Alone,” by Keith Ferrazzi
  3. “Make Your Contacts Count,” “Great Connections,” “52 Ways to Reconnect, Follow-up and Stay in Touch When You Don’t Have the Time to Network, “ all by Anne Baber and Lynn Waymon
  4. “The Heart & Art of Netweaving,” by Bob Littrell

R. Anne Hull  is a career consultant and instructor for Fortune 500, federal and local government agencies. You may reach Anne via email at [email protected].


This entry was posted on Monday, February 24, 2014 7:11 am

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