Most 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.
In part one we covered why talks are the least valuable part of a conference. With so much content available online, it’s the people you meet and ideas you explore together that generate the most value at a conference. Using the techniques in part one you can more efficiently and effectively meet people at an event. While the importance of networking isn’t a revelation, the techniques presented are ones most people don’t know of, let alone employ.
In part two we look at advanced techniques for conference attendees. These will not only help you meet more people but make better use of your time and get more value out of the time you do invest.
Ask others who have attended in the past what you should know about the event. It might be that on the last night people like to dress up, so bring cocktail attire. Or maybe it turns out many people fly in the day before or stay the weekend after and bring their families; adding that extra time can make it more fun and be a good way to build relationships. It might be as simple as knowing that Tuesday's buffet is always the worst, so be sure to ask for the boxed lunch. This can be one of the motivations for doing those pre-conference calls with other attendees mentioned in part one.
At bigger conferences there can be many talks. Sometimes they can be far apart with limited seating, or the number of choices can feel overwhelming. Plan which talks you want to attend. The larger the event, the more important this is.
As an extreme example the Amazon Web Services conference is held across five Las Vegas hotels. I once made the mistake of spending most of my first day running from hotel to hotel, which is a 30-minute ordeal, only to find a huge queue for each of the talks and not getting in. The rest of the conference I planned my days and minimized the time going between hotels.
The schedule you did plan is only a suggestion; you don’t have to stick to it if a better option comes up. Maybe you are tired of talks on one topic so want to explore elsewhere, or someone recommended a talk you hadn’t considered. Maybe you just need a break. The schedule needs to work for you; you don’t work for it.
Importantly, if you are having a good conversation with others, don’t stop it just to attend a talk. Again, you can get that content elsewhere. The relationship building you’re doing is harder to replicate when you’re back at your office. It’s easy to stick to a schedule, but don’t be chained to it. Like our project plans at work, we need to adjust to the situation on the ground and not simply do what a now outdated plan tells us.
At many conferences I’ve been to, the hallway conversations (not to mention the bar) has given me as much, if not more, valuable information as a formal talk. It may be that you get some new idea or tip. It could also be that you got a new perspective. Oftentimes it’s a new relationship that will pay dividends far into the future in a way neither of you will know for a long time. When the bell rings for the next session to start, consider it a suggestion, not a command. Of course, respect the wishes of the other folks if they do want to attend the session. If that happens, it’s a great impetus to intentionally continue the conversation later, whether at lunch or by exchanging information and connecting post-conference.
At small and midsized conferences where people are regular attendees (e.g., industry associations) there are always the unofficial or semi-official activities. If it’s held at the same place every year, there's a bar (there’s always a bar) where people gather after the formal day ends. That’s where a lot of the best networking happens. There may be a group that goes out on the last night to karaoke every year, or maybe one of the executives has a nearby vacation house and there’s the afterparty. These aren’t the official, vendor sponsored evening activities (which are usually fun and worth going to), but the unplanned-yet-annual ones that non-organizers create. This is where much of the networking, and fun, happens.
If this doesn’t happen, be the person who starts it. If you’re the karaoke person, or whatever the fun thing you do, organize an outing; people will begin to seek you out each year. Some examples are local outings, comedy shows or open mic nights, wine tasting, or local walking tours (ghost tours are fun and typically done at night so outside of regular conference hours). For events held over weekends, even organizing religious services can bring people together. I’ve also seen conferences with Alcoholics Anonymous meetings; conferences can involve a lot of drinking and support helps. The idea is that people are coming together around something other than the topic of the conference. (Note: unless your company sees this as a marketing expense, make sure folks know you’re just getting people together, and everyone needs to pay for their own costs.)
Lots of people are there by themselves or in small groups. Dinners are often not included in the conference and people eat on their own at night. Create a reservation for six or eight people at a local restaurant for one of the later nights of the conference. A night later in the week is key because by then you’ll have met some folks over the past few days to invite. It’s even a good ice breaker because you can meet someone and say, “I see you’re standing alone during the networking session, I just had someone drop out of my dinner on Wednesday, we’ve got four other folks from the conference going, would you like to join us?”
When picking a restaurant consider a few things. First, nearby is better. If people need to start taking transportation it can get complicated. Second, ideally it should have a range of options for vegetarians or people with allergies. Third, you don’t want it too noisy; the goal is to talk. There may even be a private room, and on a weeknight, they might just let a small group use it (especially if you start coming to it every year assuming the conference is in the same place). Fourth, pick something related to your location if possible. People can eat at a steakhouse or a chain restaurant anywhere. If you can pick something the local area is known for, or just a good local restaurant, it’s more of a draw. Finally, try to get a round table, or if a large group, sit in smaller tables. This makes it easier to connect with others (and easier for the wait staff who don’t need to divide a single check twenty ways). I’ve seen groups with a prix fixe menu sometimes have people rotate tables between dinner and dessert just to mix things up. (Prix fixe menus means the wait staff doesn’t have to track who has what bill; either wine is included, or people do drinks separately.)
Good conferences can feel like trying to drink from a firehose. It’s hard enough to remember one new idea let alone twenty. When you get back, organize your notes, reflect on what you learned, and make a plan to use it, so you don’t forget.
If it was a very good conference, you may come home with a number of ideas. Go slowly. On January first you shouldn’t resolve to wake up early, workout more, eat better, drink less, and try to do ten other things. Rather you should focus on just one goal; only once that’s become a habit do you move on to the next. The same is true for the new ideas. Focus on one or two for you or your team for now. Put a calendar reminder in the future to come back to the additional ones later.
When I send people to a conference one of their obligations is to share back to the rest of the team what they learned. Even if everyone on the team was there, they didn’t all have the same experience, going to the same talks and meeting the same people.
By presenting summary findings to each other it serves three purposes. First it helps them organize that firehose of thoughts. Second, presenting it helps them better retain it. And third, it helps ensure the organization gets more value from the events by making sure more people are exposed to the ideas.
Finally, remember to relax. Yes, this is a work trip, but even the most hard-nosed organizations recognize some relaxation and a break from the office is not only nice to have, but important for emotional health. And eight hours straight of new people and ideas each day can be exhausting. If you don’t make every talk, or if you take an hour off one day to go to the pool, that’s fine. The best conferences are fun as well as informative. Coming back with more stress means you probably aren’t going to retain what you learned anyway.
When you think about a conference it’s expensive in terms of time, money, and energy. It can also create a huge ROI in terms of ideas and relationships when done right. Given all the investment, you want to make sure you maximize your return by focusing on the activities that deliver the most value. As noted in part one, rarely is it the talks themselves. Using the techniques in these two articles to get the most out of the event and the people you meet there can have a lasting impact on your career and for your organization.
The next time you go to a conference and find yourself sitting through pedestrian talks, think back to this article and start to employ some of the techniques. If you have other ideas, please share them with me at https://www.thecareertoolkitbook.com/contact.
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