Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How to Get the Most Out of a Conference

I'm on tour this week, giving leadership development presentations at two conferences. Yes, even during these challenging times, people are still attending conferences, although the industry is really hurting.

Having attended a lot of these things over the last 20 years, and talked to a few conference first-timers, I thought I would share a few tips on how to get the most out of attending a conference.

1. Choose your conference wisely. Criteria to consider:
- Are the topics a good match for the hot issues and problems you are working on?
- Carefully scrutinize the speakers. Look beyond the handful of rock start keynotes. I prefer a good balance of internal practitioners and external consultants and academics. Don't fall for the sexy topic titles - check out the speaker's background and full session descriptions.
- Talk to a couple past attendees if you can
- It's usually a good sign if the conference has been around for a while, i.e., "the tenth annual..."
- Lot's of networking opportunities, formal and informal
- Value. Could you justify the ROI to your Mom (or your CFO)?
- Location and amenities

2. Take time to to explore and experience the surrounding area. Arrive a day early if you can, or stay a day later. You don't want to travel 1000 miles to someplace you've never been and only see the airport and hotel/conference center. Do some online research, get familiar with the area, print your maps, and allow yourself to be a tourist.

3. Try to suspend your judgement, be open minded, curious, and open to possibilities. We all have the natural tendency to want to evaluate - just don't do it too soon. Try not to be overly skeptical or cynical - you may miss out on some great opportunities.

4. Watch your diet and stay fit. It's OK to indulge a little and sample the goodies, just do it in moderation. I always bring my running gear and find the time to get a few miles in. Even a daily walk is better than nothing.

5. Force yourself to network. This is where you may get the most value from a conference, so don't waste the opportunity. I'm a natural introvert, so believe me, I know how hard this is for a lot of people. Try to keep in mind, that at least half of the attendees are the same way. Ask a lot of questions and be a good listener and you'll do fine. Don't just hang out with people you know. Stay off your cell phone on breaks. Bring a lot of business cards, collect them, and make notes on the back of the cards for follow-up.

6. Don't be one of those attendees that race up and down the trade show isles with a shopping bag, avoiding eye contact with the vendors, and grabbing handfuls of useless junk. Stop and talk to the vendors, ask questions, be courteous, and represent your company in a professional way. Sure, help yourself to the goodies, just don't get carried away. And if you're nice, they may even give you one of the premium goodies they hide under the table.

7. Keep a running list of ideas, insights, and action items; your key take-a-ways from each day.

8. Have fun, but be on your best behavior. It's not spring break. If you're tempted, don't do it. A little alcohol is good to loosen up in the evening during the reception; too much and you might make an ass out of yourself. Don't be that person.

9. Ship your stuff back to your office. If there are binders and other materials, such as books you’ve purchased, arrange to have them sent back to your office. Find a nearby shipping store, and drop off your stuff the day before you leave. This saves you the burden of packing 10 lbs of stuff into your luggage or carryon. Sometimes the conference center has a little office that will do this for you.

10. Don't forget to thank your manager for allowing you to attend. Leave a voice mail with a summary of how you are benefiting from the experience and how much your appreciate the opportunity.

11. Share something with your team or coworkers. Write a summary or do a presentation on what your learned. And bring gifts for your family of loved ones. They've been the minding the store while you've been away.

12. If you can, offer to be a presenter, break-out facilitator, discussion moderator, or any opportunity to get involved. It's a good way to build your professional reputation and enhance your networking opportunities.

How about you? How do you get the most out of a conference?

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