During my professional career, I haven’t seen many articles or advice about attending conferences, although there are a few. Frankly, that just seems odd. Seeing that conferences are an integral part of doing business and attending them is generally an opportunity for “continuing education,” there should be strategies for attending them. With that in mind, let’s cover what to do when you attend a conference.
To make the most of the conference:
• Be clear on why you are going and what you want to accomplish.
Don’t just go to a conference to get out of the office. Be selective about what you want to learn and who you want to meet. Sure, everyone likes to get out of the office and see some friends. However, you pay a price for being out of the office and not being productive. Remember how much work you will have to do to get caught up when you come back. Make it worth your time and attention. Don’t justify attending the conference for your boss. Justify your attendance for what you and your organization will gain out of it.
• Plan what sessions when attending conferences, with backup sessions behind them.
Do it weeks before you go. Don’t just “wing it.” As you know, when you specifically schedule what you’re attending, your subconscious will already be in preparation for what you will learn and you will pay closer attention to what you will see and hear. If you find that the session is not good, or if something happens and it’s not what you expected, leave and go to the backup one. It happens, and it’s not a big deal. Just keep in mind that whatever sessions you attend, they need to be productive and helpful as much as possible.
Don’t just attend a session without any compelling reasons to be there the whole time. Also, plan on taking notes, even if the presenter will be putting the notes online. It’ll help you retain the information and it will encourage the speaker as he or she will be aware that you are taking their presentation seriously.
• Don’t plan on going to a session for the sole reason that you want to talk to the speaker at length after the presentation.
This may be one of the biggest potential mistakes you can make. Great speakers are swamped after their presentations by all kinds of people, including those who think they can have a one-on-one conversation right then. Guess what? It’s not likely to happen.
Usually these speakers or their assistants will cut these people off quickly and then will escort the speaker to the door to a private area. If they don’t have an assistant helping them, they will eventually get weary of this conversation and will move to the next person. Don’t be THAT person. Instead, do some research and see if you can contact the speaker ahead of time to schedule an appointment, which leads to the next point . . .
• Get on LinkedIn and do some research to find those people who you want to meet at the conference.
Type in key words and start finding the best speakers while attending conferences. Read about their backgrounds and get to know them through the information on the Internet. Send them messages ahead of time and see if you can have a cup of coffee, lunch, dinner . . . whatever. If you want to meet these top people face-to-face, ask for time on their schedule. Many times they either come in a day early, or leave the next day – which gives them some time to listen to presentations, do some local shopping, visit with colleagues, etc.
If they’re attending the conference as well, they may be easily available either before or after their presentation. This effort could make this event way more valuable than the actual sessions and events at the conference if you manage it right. Be polite and strategic – make it worth their time and attention to meet with you with good questions and be ready to give what you have that could help them.
• Please don’t make the conference your only source to solve your human resources needs.
To find the right people for your organization, or to find a job for yourself, a conference is usually not the event to expect that everything will happen. Instead, make the conference an opportunity to connect with all kinds of people and to compile all kinds of resources. Remember that many people are attending conferences to learn, relax, have some fun and connect with friends. If they’re any good, they’re not looking to leave their current position or to hire someone – but they might consider it, given the right opportunity.
Instead, hang out and get to know as many people as you can. If the topic you need to solve comes up, relax and make your situation as desirable as possible – but don’t offer a dissertation on what’s happening. Don’t miss great opportunities to connect with people who have other resources that will be just as important. Plus, you want to broaden your network in a huge way so that you can reach out to the network afterwards if you don’t find the opportunity or the person you’re looking for. Be relatable and friendly to everyone. Which leads to . . .
• Have a good time. Just don’t have THAT “good” of a time that it affects why you are there.
Conferences are great times to enjoy the company of others and to have some fun, so spend some time having fun. Just limit how much “fun” you are going to have when you are attending conferences. If you’re going to drink, maintain a limit. Remember that you are a professional that needs to maintain a professional impression. Sure, it’s good to show others that you can relax and be a likable, relatable person, but not at a price you don’t want to pay.
Don’t create a reputation where everyone sees you as irresponsible, obnoxious and drunk – stumbling back to your room at the wee hours of the morning. You never know who will see and hear you, either close up or from a distance. People will make a judgment call on doing business with you, sometimes when you never expect it. Don’t be the guy yelling at cars from the sidewalk at 2:00 a.m. after a night on the town. You might not remember it, but certain people will – including the big prospect who happens to be on the third floor of the hotel across the street, trying to get some sleep.
Trust me on this. Besides, you still have work to do at the conference and you need to be clear-headed while you are there.
• Be intentional about everything you say and do.
When you talk to people while attending conferences, be focused on the conversation. Make sure to make the most of what you say and what you ask. If you talk to a speaker, be committed to encourage them as you ask them questions. If you talk to a leader or influencer, try to find something you can give back to them as you ask for help. Make it clear to everyone that you want to connect, but you don’t want to be seen as just a “taker” and not a “giver”, too. When you walk through the exhibit area, know which booths you want to visit. Every day, you need to have a schedule with your appointments, visits, sessions, etc. all ready to go.
If you have “open” time for something or someone while attending conferences, that’s okay. You may need it in case you meet someone at the conference that you hadn’t planned to meet beforehand. If it turns out that you have that open time and it doesn’t get filled, write notes and regroup your thoughts. It will allow you to be more focused on what you need to pursue from that point forward. At night and shortly after the conference, reach out to those who gave you a card. Connect with them – both on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) and through email. Put them in your contacts. Which leads to . . .
• Take business cards. Collect business cards. Keep a pen handy.
Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . I’ve heard this one before. Business cards are so “20th century” networking. No one uses cards anymore when attending conferences. To use the term of my kids – who don’t think business cards are relevant, either – “whatever.” Go get some. Most people miss all of the functionality of a business card. If you’re any good, after you receive a business card, you will write short notes about your conversation with that person.
If you have someone beam their personal information or text you, where will you write notes about them? Or are you smart enough to remember everyone you meet and to remember important details about them? Conversely, write a note on your business card when you give yours away. I’ve read that two former US Presidents would carry notecards in their pockets to write important notes about the people they met. They started this habit years before they were elected.
Besides, there are some older folks that don’t mess with exchanging contact information or even use texting. These folks may be able to change your career trajectory, so don’t alienate them by not carrying business cards. Ditch the phone and make some notes – and then either shoot or scan the cards into your phone. Then you can throw the cards away – but not in the view of those who give them to you. Wait until you get to your room.
What do you recommend for attending conferences?