Attending conferences is one of the best ways to improve your knowledge, learn new skills, meet potential clients, and grow your network. But since there are so many conferences available for every industry every year, how can you figure out which are worth your time – and your money?
Here are some tips that I’ve learned over the years that can help you get the most of industry conferences.
Before the event
Evaluate which conference(s) to attend
Before you sign up for a conference, make sure it offers content that’s beneficial to you and your company. There are a lot of peer sites or networking sites where you can reach out to other professionals in your industry and ask if anyone has been to a particular conference. Ask them to share their opinions of those conferences – what they liked and what they didn’t like. That way you can get a good feel for whether a conference meets your needs.
Do your homework
To get everything you can out of your conference experience, it’s important to be prepared. And that means doing a bit of homework ahead of time. The first thing you should do is think about why you want to attend. What are you trying to get out of the conference? It’s important for you to understand what you’re trying to achieve at the event. What’s your goal? If your organization is facing some particular challenge, articulate that. Get that mission out there and say, “Here’s why I want to attend.
Then use the answers to these questions as your guidelines when you pick your sessions. That will help ensure that the ones you’ll be attending will help you achieve some of the goals you have for your organization for the year.
If you’re going with colleagues, it might make sense to have a pre-conference planning session to go over which sessions each of you will attend. This way, you won’t all end up listening to the same presentation and taking back the same information.
Now comes the homework part. Take some time and review the session descriptions. A lot of conferences publish the presentation slides ahead of time to set your expectations for the sessions.
Read the description of each session you’re interested in and then check to see that the information on the slides matches the description. It’s not enough to look at the title of a session. I’ve often heard people complain that what was presented in a particular session didn’t match the title on the conference website.
Many speakers frequently present at conferences. If you Google the people whose sessions you’re interesting in attending, you’ll likely find blog posts and articles they’ve written as well as videos of their previous presentations. Reading the blogs and watching the videos will help you determine which presentations resonate with you.
At the event
Pre-conference certification courses
Many organizers offer pre-conference accredited training courses a day or two before the conference begins. Each of these training programs offers a deep dive into a specific topic, giving you an opportunity to build skills as well as form relationships with other attendees.
After successfully completing one of these training course, you’ll earn your certification and gain knowledge that you can bring back to your organization. If you’re looking to get certified in a particular area, it’s nice to be able to tack that onto a conference and get it done in a shorter period of time.
Network, network, network
It’s a good idea to network with peers at breakfast, lunch, evening receptions – even coffee breaks. All conferences typically have welcome receptions where you can meet other attendees. If that reception is on Monday evening, I recommend flying in the day before so you won’t be too tired to attend. These networking events will help you get more insight into the specifics of a conference.
At these events, ask other attendees if they’ve ever heard certain people speak, and if so, what they thought about their presentations. Get some insights from other attendees about the sessions that interest you. That will give you the opportunity to change sessions, if need be. And if you go to a session – especially a longer one – and it’s not what you expected, ask the organizers if you can switch to another session. Typically, conference organizers are OK with letting you move to a different session that will be more beneficial.
Speak with the presenters
You can also learn a lot by speaking to the people who will be presenting at the conference. While doing that can be extremely intimidating, making those connections is critical. Look engaged during the presentation. Write down some interesting points you’d like to ask that person about at the conclusion of his or her talk.
It’s important to remember that people love being asked questions and they love talking about their passions. So, don’t be afraid to go up to some of the really experienced speakers and talk to them or ask them questions. They especially love meeting and hearing from new people. So, while it can sometimes be intimidating, definitely reach out and engage with them. Part of why they go to conferences is because they want to talk to you.
Don’t skip the last day
The last day of a conference always wraps up a lot of the content. Conference organizations typically curate their content, presenting a lot of important concepts early on, allowing you to dive deeper into those concepts throughout the week. Then on the last day, they present sessions by speakers who wrap it all together for you, and give you those nuggets you’re going to take back to the office.
If you’re going to invest the time and the money, you might as well invest the last day to process and synthesize the information you’ve learned. If a conference ends on Thursday, many people even stay through Friday or Saturday to do that before going back to work.
If you follow these tips, you’ll leave your next conference full of new ideas that you can share with your colleagues and you’ll also know that your time and money (or your boss’ money) were well spent.