I’ve been a speaker and attendee at more conferences than I can count.
One thing I’ve learned is that in order to get the most value out of your time and money is to set yourself up for success with a little pre-conference planning.
Here are 10 ways you can boost your conference experience as well as improve your networking:
1. Study the Agenda.
When I began going to conferences, I rarely looked at all the session options. Now, I study the agenda and have a loose plan that contains:
- Sessions that will help me immediately at work
- Sessions that challenge how I think
- At least one that is unrelated to my current role
- Time built in so that I can add a few “on the fly” when I’m there
Having room for spontaneity may lead to one of the best sessions you never would have planned on attending.
2. Connect with people on LinkedIn or follow new people on Twitter.
Start by looking up the speakers of the sessions you plan to attend. If they are on LinkedIn, send a brief but personal message stating that you’re looking forward to their upcoming session. Next, go on Twitter and search the conference name or, if you know it, the hashtag (i.e. #SHRM11). You will be able to follow people who are talking about the conference online before the event. Reach out to a few of them and chat about what they are looking forward to at the conference, what sessions they are attending, etc.
3. Read blogs.
If there is a vendor hosted blog (like Monster Thinking), blogs written by speakers, or other industry blogs covering the event, be sure to read them in the weeks immediately before the event. It’s a good way to find tips that will help you have a better conference experience.
4. Meet the Speakers/ Session Leaders.
Plan to stay a few moments after the session to speak to the session leader. Most work very hard to prepare and love to hear your feedback. It’s also a good time to meet if you’ve previously connected on LinkedIn or Twitter. If they are not using social media, don’t forget to ask for their business card. The biggest mistake I see professionals make today is not bringing any cards with them to conferences. It’s still a leading way to connect after an event.
5. Arrange to meet at least 3 people in person that you connected with via LinkedIn or Twitter.
There have been many times I’ve been to an event where I did not know anyone. It would have been easy to attend a few sessions and go back to my room, but I would never have some of the great business connections I do now if I had done that. Even if you are shy, force yourself to be a little bit outgoing. Using LinkedIn or Twitter to learn about someone first makes it much easier to meet them in person. Take advantage of that. By having a handful of people you know at least a little, your networking results should multiply as they are able to introduce you to their contacts.
6. Attend at least one session you think you may never use at work.
Often I would only focus on sessions that I saw as beneficial to what I was trying to do at work. Once I began branching out, I actually found that many of the issues and situations I learned about came in handy years later. People tend to gravitate to what we already know so by taking this approach you are forcing yourself to open up to a different topic or way of approaching work situations.
7. Participate in arranged ice breakers or meet ups.
Anyone who has gone to a conference knows there are always the ice breakers or events that lean on the corny side. Plaster a smile on your face and jump in with a good attitude. I’ve found that by doing that and making sure I’m not just hanging around the people I already know, I’ve been able to meet some outstanding professionals I would have never been exposed to.
8. Take notes.
Whether you take notes in a journal or using your netbook, iPad or smartphone, find a way to document those ideas you may need to tuck away for future use. I can’t tell you how many times I attend conferences and see professionals just sitting and listening or checking their email. If you are going to take your valuable time and spend the funds to attend, make sure you at least have several takeaways.
9. Think of at least a handful of “to do’s” inspired by the event, then DO them and document the results.
I’ll raise my hand as “guilty” of coming back to work after an event and not doing anything productive that I learned at the event. What a waste! For the last three years, I write down ideas as I fly home and then over the next few months, I attempt to incorporate them into my daily job. Sometimes something clicks and I have great results and sometimes it’s something that doesn’t stick. Either way, I’m approaching my work with a creative and innovative spirit and using knowledge gained at the conference.
10: Have fun! Get out an experience life in the town you’re visiting.
Grab some of your new found friends or some you’ve had for years and hit a restaurant that only locals typically haunt. Take tons of pictures then share them on Flickr or FaceBook so you can keep the conversation going when you’re back home. By interacting with business professionals in the more formal daytime setting and also getting to know them better in casual settings too, you’ll strengthen the networking results by forming a closer bond than if you were to just attend sessions and head back to your room to “work” each night.
Remember, there are many reasons professionals attend conferences. The reason with the most benefit is networking. By trying new ways to boost your networking skills and opportunities you will come home knowing you had a successful event!
I hope to meet you there!