Tomorrow at 4 AM I’ll get in a taxi and set off for two conferences in Australia. I started writing down some realistic aims to remind myself what I hope to gain from this expensive exercise. In the end, it’s all up to me: as usual, what you give is what you get.
I admit, some conference programmes are intrinsically boring. But on the whole, conferences are people, and people are certainly not boring. So the more prepared you are to learn and have fun, the more benefit you reap.
As a short-sighted face-blind introvert with some hearing loss, I’m slightly handicapped at big social events, and networking is a difficult exercise for me. Maybe that’s why it helps me to spell out these tips. They’re not just for you: they’re for me!
The truth is I don’t go to conferences for fun—and yet I usually enjoy them tremendously. You can too.
Before the conference
- Think first: why are you going to this particular conference—research, keeping up with developments, marketing, networking, all of the above? Then set a few measurable, realistic objectives. Examples: At Gov 2.0 in Canberra I want to ask at least 10 government web people what they need most for their intranet and web writers. Other aims might be to meet a particular speaker personally, swap business cards with 10 peers or potential customers, or find how many regional councils are using Sharepoint. Even if your goals are very modest, it’s satisfying to achieve them.
- Clear the decks before you go. Be fully at the conference in body and mind, not half there and half in your office. Email is verboten during the day, OK?
- Pack with a list so you don’t forget your computer charger, business cards, knickers or passport. Forget the high heels (men, that includes you), be yourself but do meet the dress code. Remember conference venues can be too cold or too hot.
- Study the programme and venue, Google the speakers, and plan your day accordingly. The ideal accommodation is the conference venue or something a short, leisurely stroll away, so you start fresh. Mark the sessions you want to attend. At smaller workshops you have a better chance of making a genuine connection with people. Keep an open mind, and include some sessions that are way outside your area of interest. Some will excite you much more than the stuff you already know about.
At the conference
- Once the conference starts, relax! Have a good time, soak it all up and have fun. You’ll benefit more if you’re relaxed. You learn better, you are more open to experience. Feel free to deviate from your meticulous schedule. If a session starts boring, it will only get more boring, so slide out of the room and either join a different session or visit the trade booths. When you feel your brain is bursting, take time out. You need it, you deserve it. (And you may meet somebody interesting in the garden.)
- Introduce yourself to people left, right and centre—delegates, speakers, organizers, sponsors and suppliers. Swap cards with everyone you meet as a matter of routine, as they do in Japan. And use your elevator speech!
- Take notes any way that suits you: mind-map, video, photos, Word document or jotting notes in the conference booklet. Follow the conference on Twitter to find out what others are thinking and put in your two cents’ worth. Maybe blog about the conference on the fly, but don’t take copious notes: you’ll never read them again, and you will miss out on conversations.
- Don’t sit with your workmates all the time, or you might as well stay at home. You will frighten off the people you wanted to meet.
- Make a running to-do list, adding to it during the conference. Then whittle it down to the most important 4 or 5 action points. Be realistic.
After the conference
- Write a 1-page summary of what you learned and what you plan to do as a result. Differentiate between significant action points and routine items such as following contacts on LinkedIn.
- Keep in touch with the people you met: those connections are the most valuable asset you’ll gain from almost any conference.