Conferences are billed as great fun for good reason. You get to leave the office behind for a few days with peers and mentors in a distant locale. But what’s often overlooked by attendees, especially those sent by their employers, is that conferences are meant to produce tangible results. This can be anxiety-inducing, but with some personal event planning, you can conquer your next conference.
Dorie Clark is a sought-after conference presenter as the author of business books Reinventing You and Entrepreneurial You. Clark estimates she’s paid to speak at more than 30 events every year. She’s selective about the ones she pays to attend.
“The most important criterion is getting to connect with very interesting, high-quality people that I wouldn’t otherwise get to meet,” she says. “The conferences I go to are Renaissance Weekend, which is an ideas conference, and TED.”
The conference circuit is a giant money-sucking industry. Even truly stellar opportunities might be too frequent for one person or organization to attend them all, no matter how ambitious.
Clark recommends young professionals attend as many conferences as they can afford (or their employers can pay for), gradually becoming more selective as they establish themselves in their fields. “You have to be a savvy consumer,” she says. “You need to ask yourself, ‘Am I going because I want to network and meet people or because I want to learn more about a particular topic?’”
Once you figure out what you want from an event, Clark says a natural follow-up would be to contact former attendees—not organizers—to get their feedback on the value of the conference.
A great conference experience doesn’t just happen, Clark says. It takes planning and execution. To get what you want out of your investment, clarify exactly what you’re looking for, and map out how to achieve it. Be careful not to commit to an arbitrary number in lieu of measurable progress.
“Setting a concrete goal can be very effective for some people,” says career coach Beryl Greenberg, “as long as it is realistic, a bit of a stretch and a means to an end and not the end itself. You can say ‘I’m going to get five business cards,’ but [you may] not do anything with them, or they’re cards from people you’re not really interested in. You met your goal, but it’s not leading you anywhere. Numeric goals need to lead you to a bigger goal,” she says.
Many conferences arrange sponsored pregame sessions where companies hawk software or other business solutions. Knowing this, it might be tempting to fly in late and start the experience the morning of day two. Don’t.
“Conference organizers know that first impressions count and usually program the best content at the very start of an event,” says Bill Duggan, group executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisersand manager of more than 30 annual conferences. “Get to the conference early and don’t miss the start.”
“We’ve all been on the receiving end of people that you can tell are just dying to get their elevator pitch out … these people that give networking a bad name, that are not being human by being curious,” she says.
Getting to know other attendees shouldn’t be difficult. Most are just as interested in networking as you are, and there is an understanding that these connections are transactional. Given that, resist the urge to launch into an elevator pitch in favor of listening and understanding. Jones-Kaminski suggests breaking the ice by imagining you’re at a wedding where total strangers know that they have at least one question they can ask each other: Are you with the bride or the groom? Find that question for the conference or the panel you’re at, and go from there.
To connect with speakers, Jones-Kaminski recommends combing social media to put together a dossier of interesting thoughts a person has shared before the event so that you’ll have something to talk about should you get a chance to meet them.
“If you want to meet Guy Kawasaki, what are you going to say to him when you walk up there? ‘Aww man, that was great. I love your stuff.’ You have to be better prepared,” she says.
Finally, part of expanding your network means leaving your co-workers to fend for themselves.
“Divide and conquer,” Duggan says. “There is little reason to sit with colleagues during the general sessions or have meals together at the event. You can do that back at your office. Try to mix and sit with new people.”
No matter how focused you are on sessions, biology will prevail. Planning around hunger goes a long way toward preventing anxiety and maximizing efficiency. “Understand in advance the meals that are being served—for example a full breakfast or just coffee. That way you can plan your day and avoid being distracted by hunger,” says Duggan.
Clark urges people to organize. Before arriving at the conference, scope a popular nearby restaurant and secure a reservation for multiple people. Then, discreetly invite promising contacts to share a meal with you during breaks.
“Most people are not this organized, and they have no idea what they are doing during the free period. For some of them, it may be a source of anxiety. For you to be the magnanimous host, who invites them to do something and makes it easy for them, is something that many people will respond to very positively. It puts you in the catbird seat because you are starting the relationship by giving.”
Duggan recommends writing down at least one key takeaway from every session you attend after it’s over. Before that, use social media to publish key stats and facts to imprint them on your memory and easily refer to them later.
Many aspects of a multiday networking event staged in hotel corridors can be stressful. Travelers spend a few days alone and isolated from their loved ones and personal lives. Conference and hotel food is often expensive, unappetizing or unhealthy. Time zone changes also throw people off their routines. It’s not uncommon to spend days without setting foot outside. All of this can lead to stress and burnout, particularly if attendees are overworking themselves on the venue floor. It’s a better strategy to think about how to manage any negative thoughts rather than to dismiss the possibility any unwelcome emotions will arise while attending a conference.
“A lot of people who are going to their first conferences … map out the whole day, and they’re going to be spending every second doing five things,” says Gordon Schmidt, an associate professor of organizational leadership at Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne. “That’s not a good way to absorb.” Schmidt recommends fighting fatigue by taking breaks throughout the day. A social lunch or a break in programming slotted to check work-related matters can prevent multitasking meltdown. A jaunt through the host city can spark newfound energy and motivation and help you have fun, he says. Finally, proper amounts of sleep are vital to meaningful work product.
“We tell people to work really long hours, but the research on that is negative. If you work too many hours your production suffers, and it leads to a lot of negative health outcomes, mental and psychological,” Schmidt says.
The rush of a conference can fade quickly as it hurtles toward its conclusion. It’s important to incorporate lessons from the conference into everyday actions lest the event fade from memory entirely.
The best way to show the event was a good use of your time and organizational resources is to brief others on session highlights.
“Write a short report about the conference,” Duggan says. “Share it with your boss and colleagues. It could include the key takeaways about the conference and other key facts—theme of the event, number of attendees. This is likely just a few pages, but when you memorialize your experience in writing, you are more likely to remember the conference and take action going forward.”
If your trip isn’t work-sponsored, consider sharing your insights on a LinkedIn post. Writing about your experience will crystalize the insights gleaned during the event, nudge you toward implementing them in your day-to-day professional life, foster additional contacts through social media and position you as a thought leader, which is where you want to be should you have any aspirations of assuming the speaker’s podium.