Many people go to conferences and spend most of their time on the least valuable activities. Learn the secrets of what to do and how to be extremely effective at it.
When I was younger, while at conferences I would try to get in as many talks as I could. I also tried to get as many free t-shirts as I could from the booths. After a few years I realized this wasn’t a good use of my time. I didn’t need all those t-shirts and if I really wanted a t-shirt, I could just get that one, or even go out and buy a better-quality t-shirt from a store. The (relatively) ready availability of free t-shirts at the conference made them seem like more value than they were worth.
It turns out conference talks are a lot like t-shirts. It seems worthwhile because it’s readily available. But, like t-shirts, don’t confuse easy access with good use of time. Let’s consider why conference talks aren’t very valuable and where to focus your time instead.
In the old days (pre-web, back when Rolodexes and Oldsmobiles roamed the earth) conferences were the places to be. In a short period of time, you could get ideas and perspectives from a wide range of experts. And being away from the office and family meant you could focus your attention on the content.
As I wrote about in Creating Engaging Conferences Your Attendees Will Love, the talks themselves lost their luster when the world wide web became our 24/7 source of information. Rarely will you get anything out of a conference talk that you can’t get from a blog post, podcast, video, or other content online.
I’m not saying they’re pointless. Professional speakers like myself always say it’s not that we have some secret you can only get from us; rather, we get hired because the way in which we present the content is usually new and different (for the better speakers, anyway). Likewise, being at a conference it’s easier to commit to talks and focus on new ideas (whether from a keynote speaker or content track talk) when you don’t have the distractions of the office and home. If you don’t need that discipline, however, you can get the content from the online access post-conference, or even from the internet with just a little searching (and consume it at 1.5x or 2x on faster playback much more efficiently).
But if you’re not focused on the talks, what makes a conference valuable and how do you make the most of it? In this first of a two-part series, we look at the importance of people and how to get the most out of meeting them. That networking is important isn’t a surprise, although some of these techniques are likely new to you. In the second part we’ll cover the advanced techniques to unlock additional value.
First and foremost are the people. Whether you’re building long term relationships or just getting exposed to other points of view, the people at the conference are key. But it’s important to be strategic about who you meet and how.
If possible, get a list of attendees ahead of time. More and more this is being made available prior to the conference. Look up people’s information in the conference tool or online. Then don’t just hope to bump into them, reach out a week or two before, in the conference app or through email or social media, and tell them you hope to connect. Propose a time and place. This doesn’t have to be formal. It could be as simple as, “Let’s meet by the staircase doing the 10:30 am coffee break on Tuesday.” Obviously when reaching out give them some context as for why you want to meet, and ideally why it would be valuable for them to meet you. When that first coffee break rolls around it’s nicer to have a plan knowing you’ll meet someone of interest, rather than hoping you can awkwardly start a conversation with whomever is nearby.
Of course, serendipity is part of the excitement of a conference, so don’t worry if you don’t have a lot of pre-scheduled meetings. Go out and meet people. If you’re not sure how to start a conversation with a stranger, check out What to Say at a Conference or Networking Event.
I can’t tell you how often I’m at a conference and sit down at a lunch table to try to talk to other attendees only to find they’re just talking with their co-workers. You can talk to them the rest of the year, for the next few days, use the opportunity to talk to new people!
That’s not to say you should shun your co-workers. To be fair, co-worker bonding when at a conference is important. But it should be intentional, and it shouldn’t be to the exclusion of others. Instead of the three of you sitting together and only talking to each other at lunch, bring other people at the table into the conversation. This is true for the coffee breaks, receptions, and other social events, as well.
If you do want to just talk to your co-workers, then do so. Sadly, much of the time people sit with their co-workers and then fall into silent phone-checking, missing out on relationship building with pretty much everyone.
There may be a certain speaker, CEO, or other big name you hope to catch–you and half of the attendees. Expect that in these cases you’ll have limited time so plan an elevator pitch. Just like a resume’s purpose isn’t to get you the job, but just get you the interview, this meeting at the conference serves the purpose of simply getting you the next meeting. Maybe it’s later at the conference, or maybe it's post-conference.
When someone walks off the stage, they could be a line of people waiting to talk to her. Be respectful of her time. You can even do your elevator pitch and then say, “I want to be respectful of your time and know others are waiting, can I follow up with you by email?” Your aim is to get the “yes” for the next meeting. Even if you catch this person later, in the hallway without a queue, expect that he may be busy, so be prepared for limited time. If you find he has time now, great, but don’t count on it.
Don’t wait for the conference to start before you network. Some events (e.g., TED Talks, Renaissance Weekend) are ones where people know the value comes from the other attendees. If you’re going to this type of event, find people in the community. Often there are Facebook groups, online forums, or informal metro-based communities. Get to know people through those. You can even reach out to some and ask to do a brief call ahead of time, explaining that you’re new and would like to get an insider's view (we’ll cover this more in part 2), and to feel that you know at least one person there when you arrive. Many would be happy to talk and that can start to build the relationship even before you get there.
There’s going to be a lot of people you’ll meet. In the blur of a few days, you’ll quickly forget them, and they’ll quickly forget you. Get business cards, take notes, and follow up within a few days of returning home. Remember that relationships aren’t formed in a single interaction. Now that you’ve met, follow up. You can talk about the rest of the conference; you have that in common if nothing else. Don’t just hope to continue the relationship as a “same time, next year” plan, but actively build it following the conference.
People on stage are selected because they have something interesting to say. They do, but they aren’t the only ones. Worse, the talks are designed broadly for a general audience, while a conversation can be oriented to what is most valuable for you and the other people in it, making them more efficient. Certainly, do attend the talks at a conference but recognize that the talks should be seen as the catalyst, while the true value comes from the people you’ll meet, not the talks themselves.
In part two we’ll look at advanced techniques for creating significantly more value out of a conference.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.