What do you get from attending a conference that you can't get by taking a class, reading a book, watching a video, having a discussion over email with someone or discussing something on social media? The answer is simple: you get to learn in a new environment and connect with people who can help shape new perspectives.
Also read: 11 Best TEDTalks About Company Learning
A conference provides a new and exciting place to learn. Our brains are stimulated to gain new perspectives and spark new ideas. Even if you stumble into a random workshop, which I’m sure has happened to all of us at least once, you can get the most ingenious ideas. This, combined with the energy of like-minded individuals, makes it a perfect opportunity for learning.
Conferences are what you make of them. If you’re not sure why you’re going, or what you want to get out of the experience, you’re unlikely to get it. Here are some tips to help you get the most value from this event and maximize your learning:
1. Make a learning plan beforehand
Think about your growth and your career goals - how do you envision your career progressing? What are some goals that will help improve your performance in your current job? A learning plan is a great way to structure the answers to these key questions and turn them into actionable items.
This will help you identify the skills you want to develop, the resources you need and the things you need to learn to get there. Tie your career goals and future development to specific workshops and networking opportunities available at the conference you’re about to attend.
Your learning plan doesn’t have to focus solely on work-related skills. It can also contain cross-disciplinary interests.
2. Know what conference you're attending
You’d be surprised how many people have become addicted to conferences. You probably know who they are in your local community. Freebies and lunch breaks aside, if you want to make the most out of a conference and learn something, you should be up to speed on specific details like:
- Session content - What sessions have particular relevance to your work or learning interests?
- Vendor contacts - Will the conference showcase vendors with tools you use or are evaluating for potential future use? Is this an opportunity during which you’ll be able to compare competing tools?
- Best practices - Will there be training sessions in areas that connect to your learning plan?
- Training - Will there be workshops designed to teach attendees a special skill and/or help you and your team overcome current or future challenges?
3. Create your own agenda
Before the conference, take the schedule and mark the sessions that connect to your learning goals. Circle the sessions that fit that criteria, and if two or more occur at the same time, flag the one you want to go to first. This will make it easier to prioritize during the actual event, when you have 5 min left of your lunch break and need to pick a room to go to.
Budget specific time frames for networking and meeting new people, this way you’ll make it more difficult for yourself to stay in your closed circle of connections.
4. Ask as many questions as you can
I’m kidding, don’t be that person. But don’t be afraid or too shy to ask for more information. You have the unique (or rare) opportunity to connect with leaders in your industry - you should make the most out of these interactions. Ask about good case practices, personal experience, professional struggles, book recommendations etc. If you don’t become an active participant in your own learning, you’ll probably be disappointed in the conference.
Clarify questions regarding your own plans and ideas. At a conference you can ask questions that cannot be answered by reading a book or blog post.
As Scott Berkun puts it, learning is a contact sport. If you don’t make your experience engaging, you are guaranteed to be bored.
5. Take notes
Writing creates different thought patterns and connections in the brain that cement learning. Listen attentively and write down what seems relevant to you and your future plans.
Analogue or digital notes, write for the future version of you. What level of detail do you need? A good case practice is to come away with 3 smart things. They need to be things that you will do as a result of this conference.
6. Sometimes conversations trump sessions
Sometimes conversations provide the most value at a conference. The lectures and sessions might provide new ideas, but they’re one-directional, and you can usually access the content afterwards. However, the unique, personal, and insightful conversations you have with other people can only happen during the informal parts of the conference
Prioritize spending time socializing with other people. Most conferences offer such occasions but if they don’t you should definitely create your own. Invite people to lunch or dinner and talk about your plans, ideas, your goals. Present your work to a variety of people from similar, related and/or completely different areas of study. It will make you more confident about the work that you do, and give you new perspective as people may ask questions that make you think about your project differently.
At a conference you have the opportunity to get feedback on your work from people who have never seen it before and may provide new insight.
7. Collect business cards
Seize the opportunity to keep in touch with the people you’ve connected with, through follow-up emails, phone calls or future events. Regardless if you are the CEO of a big company or a grad student, you may meet someone and immediately make a connection that could dramatically impact your professional career. Make sure to get their business card.
Here are some pro tips from HBR to help you manage business cards collecting:
- Before the conference, install a business-card-processing app on your smartphone.
- If you meet someone and hit it off, connect right away.
- At the end of each day (or at the end of the conference), take the stack of business cards you’ve accumulated and lay them out on a table and create a “keeper” pile.
- Use your smartphone’s business card scanning app to capture all the cards in your keeper pile.
8. Don’t forget to follow up
If you want to build valuable relationships, follow-up with every person you’ve met at this conference. They’ll appreciate it and make it easier to connect in the event of future collaborations.
If a portion of the people you email or call don’t respond to you, you can try following up again in a few weeks, but don’t go overboard. Either way, you can at least connect with them on LinkedIn and Twitter.
In his list of habits of highly effective people, Stephen Covey mentions “sharpening the saw”, referring to the idea that sometimes you have to take a break from the “work” of your work to sharpen your skills. A dull ax won’t cut a tree nearly as effectively as a sharp one.
Attending a conference is an opportunity to sharpen your skills and become more efficient, but only if you make it a relevant experience. It’s an investment in yourself and your career, so make sure you derive value from it and learn as much as you can.