Spring is a popular time of year for conferences. I'm going to four in the next two months, but many of you only get to one or two a year. Here are a few tricks I’ve learned to make the events you do attend as useful and pleasant as possible:
- Set specific networking goals. Think ahead of time about the kind of connections you want to make at this conference and why. If you want a fresh perspective, look for people from an industry that’s radically different from yours. If you’re focused on one big initiative, seek out peers who are in the thick of something similar. Just remember that networking requires give-and-take. Every conversation should include how you can help the person you’re talking to, not just what they can do for you.
- Make a list of conversation starters. I’m pretty outgoing, but still find it awkward to strike up a conversation with strangers. Having a stash of questions to draw from helps. Two easy ones to start with are "what do you think is the biggest change in our industry in the past 5 years?" and "which blogs/magazines do you read to stay current?" The more your questions align with your networking goals, the more you’ll learn from each encounter.
- Decide in advance which sessions to attend. If the conference is any good, each time slot will have more than one interesting option. Download the agenda at home and choose before you get there. Prioritize sessions you can only see live, like panel discussions. You can always ask a solo presenter to walk you through their speech content by phone another time. If you’re going with a group, divide and conquer. Tell others if there’s something specific you’d like them to listen for. Then plan time, perhaps over dinner, to share what everyone learned.
- Plan how you'll get from point A to point B. Conference venues are often huge and labyrinth-like with signs that are hard to decipher. Scope out the rooms for your sessions ahead of time so you’re not wandering around when you should be listening to content. I’m directionally challenged, so I take note of landmarks like a gift shop or art piece to make sure I can find my way back at the proper time. A little pre-planning will also help with networking. It’s hard to look confident when you’re lost.
- Set up a note-taking template. For years, I tried to capture what speakers said verbatim. Now I only write down things I know I’ll reference later. Surprising or hard-to-find data points. Elegant or thought-provoking quotes. Specific examples of general theory that I can use with clients. Or the title of a book or article I want to read. Stay focused by splitting your note-taking page into sections, one for each kind of nugget you seek. When you hear something, all you have to do is write it down in the appropriate part of the page and note who it came from.
- Manage your energy. As an introvert, large events sap my energy no matter how much I want to be there. I plan short periods of alone-time throughout the day to recharge myself the way other people recharge their devices. My time-outs often overlap with snack breaks, which is why I carry my own food and water. Truth be told, b.y.o. snacks is a good idea no matter what. The food at conference breaks can be low in nutritional value and high in sugar. I love granola bars, cookies, and giant pretzels as much anyone but they won’t fuel my attention until dinner at 8 pm.
If you’ve got a conference coming up, I hope these ideas help you make the most of it. If you’re a veteran conference go-er, please share your own tips, tricks, and conversation starters in the comments section below. And if you're going to be at ShopTalk next week in Vegas, perhaps we'll see each other there!