A lot of us go to conferences every year, and the thought of what to do while we're there can be overwhelming for many people. Do you just go to the sessions you want? How do you pick sessions? Should you go to events after hours? Which ones should you attend? These questions and others are very common from new attendees to those who attend regularly.
I find it’s easier to break this down a little bit into what the goals of a conference are. There are 2 goals everyone attending a conference should have, to learn and to network. There may be other goals, but 95% of attendees will have just these two, and it makes sense, they are the two areas that are harder to get outside of a conference and they help you do your job better.
- Professional Development (Learning)
Most people understand these two, but a lot just go through the motions at a conference. You can still get good professional development if you just go through the motion, but the real value of conferences is networking, since it is so much harder to do from your office than when similar people to you are nearby in abundance.
Below is some advice I have learned from my experience that will help you do each of these things, but also from listening to others who get a lot from conferences.
To get the most learning out of a conference, you need to start prepping before you go. But that doesn’t mean you should plan every second out or that you can’t deviate from the plan. So let’s get started into what you should be doing.
- Review session topics AND presenters.
- Prioritize sessions first by who are the presenters you must see and then by topics that you need to learn or interest you. If you have a do not miss session that is good, but limit them to 1–2 per day so you have some flexibility once you get to the conference
- Find people you know who may be attending and connect with them before the conference.
- Tell people you are attending on social media or other methods before you go. This is a fast way to see if anyone you know may be going as they respond.
A lot is going on at a conference, and everyone will have different bandwidths for attention, energy, intro/extroversion. So while these tips will help, find a balance that is right for you, but push yourself as well.
- Listen to what other attendees are saying about presenters and sessions. Try to attend sessions that others are excited about that also interest you. Social media helps for this, but also in person word of mouth while you are there. This is where your flexibility in planning comes in.
- Go to the keynote sessions and pay attention. Keynotes give you a natural talking point when you network with others since they are a shared experience most attendees will have.
- Engage on social media. You can’t attend every session, you can’t meet everyone in person. Social allows you to learn more than what you hear and see and gives you visibility and access to others. So find the conference hashtag, read it, and post to it.
- Find your people. You can do this on social media, during sessions or after session. You can also do this at events, which I’ll get to in a bit. You will need to speak up and participate here. It may be uncomfortable, but if you find someone interesting, approach them and talk to them, see if they want to go to lunch, dinner or meet up at an event. It may not work out, that’s ok, but it might and the reward is more than worth that discomfort.
- Pick your events wisely. If you like to party, look for the party, if you are more introverted, look for a dinner. Don’t know where these are being held? Go talk to the vendors, vendors will get you to a dinner or a party if you really want to. Some may run out of space, but other definitely have openings. If you know someone or a group of people you want to network with will be at an event, try to get there.
You may think the work is over, and most of the hard work is, but this is where you can make a long term impact on your learning and networking.
- Pick items to implement. Before you get home (on the plane is a great place), review what you have learned and pick 2–4 items your learned that you want to implement in your work. You can’t do everything you learned, and that is OK, but consistently those who do the most with their learning make this list before they get home and back to the everyday grind.
- Connect on Social. This may be on Twitter, a Facebook or LinkedIn group or something else entirely, but find out where people similar to you go to get questions answered online. If there is a conference for your profession, there is an online group for your profession too. You may have to ask where this is of other attendees while you are still at the conference to find out.
Again, this doesn’t encapsulate everything you can do at a conference to learn and network. Depending on your strengths and weaknesses adapt for yourself.