Attending conferences is an excellent way to bolster your professional and personal development. However, there’s definitely a knack to them.
Conferences can be such vast, sprawling affairs. It’s understandable that you may be at a loss as to where to devote your attention in order to make the most out of it.
Well, fear not – we’ve compiled this handy guide to getting as much as possible out of conferences. Following these steps will help you network and build a schedule, all without burning out from exhaustion.
Make an itinerary
Unless you possess some unique cloning technology or have mastered astral projection, you can’t be in 10 places at once.
There will be more events taking place than you will feasibly be able to attend, and there will be clashes. So, your first port of call is to look at the conference schedule and make an itinerary, much as you would when attending other large-scale events such as a festival (festivals are objectively more fun than conferences, we know).
To make the most informed decisions about your schedule, you’re going to have to establish what your conference ‘goals’ are. What do you want to learn the most, and who do you want to meet? Which events will most benefit your career?
Once you figure this out, you can prioritise accordingly. Even if a speaker sounds interesting, if going to see them isn’t in service of your general ambitions, you may need to elect to skip that talk.
Find out who’s going, and set up meetings
Conferences encourage attendees and speakers to announce themselves on social media, making your job of determining who is going to be there far easier.
If you find yourself looking at a couple of attendees and anxiously hoping that you’ll get the opportunity to have a one-on-one meeting with them, just organise one before you go. It may seem daunting but if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Doing this will also give you a clearer idea of your day-to-day schedule. It might also save you the disappointment of finding out that someone is already booked out for the entire conference.
Stay in the hotel the conference is in
Maybe you aren’t incredibly enthused about the hotel the conference is in, but it’s best you stay there. Conferences are already heady and complicated, so doing this will simplify a lot of things.
It makes it easier to be on time and increases the likelihood that you’ll have chance run-ins with people that could end up becoming valuable members of your network.
It’ll feel like you’ve reverted to your college days, but scribbling down a few notes is a good idea. There is a lot of information to take in, so it’s best to do something that will aid memory retention.
You could even write out notes and then transfer them to a Word document later that evening so that you end up reinforcing what you’ve learned twice in one day.
Put away your phone and talk to people
This piece of advice probably sounds a little counterintuitive at first. As I previously said, event organisers encourage attendees to use social media these days, and surely you want to boost your visibility as much as possible?
The best way forge genuine connections, however, is to have real-life conversations. Putting away your phone increases the likelihood that these discussions will happen. Sessions and panels are informative, but often conversations are more so.
Get business cards and give them
Online networking is totally en vogue these days, and the internet can be a valuable tool for those looking to network.
The humble business card, however, is not going to be eschewed in favour of going entirely digital any time soon. Taking out your phone, unlocking it and dictating details to other people (and vice versa) is arguably more awkward and time-consuming than handing someone a card.
Have some well-designed business cards on hand with all the salient information on them. In turn, collect business cards.
It may be good to bring one cardholder containing your own cards and one devoted to putting other people’s business cards in. This can prevent you losing an important contact’s phone number because you threw it into your bag, into that black hole at the bottom where receipts, keys and loose change also get lost.
Scribble down a couple of key words on the business cards you collect to keep a record of who the person is and why they are of professional interest. This will make it way easier to remember later on.
Ideally, transfer the information on your business cards to your computer as soon as you get back to your hotel room, to guard against the disastrous possibility that you lose the physical copies.
Aim to send LinkedIn invites the same day. If you harbour any kind of trepidation about being too quick to add someone on LinkedIn – a hangover from the more complicated social etiquette of the likes of Facebook, perhaps – try and dismiss that. In a professional sense, expediency and efficiency are prized.
Don’t overdo it
This may seem to fly in the face of everything I’ve just told you, but do try not to go overboard. It’s easy to look at a conference and either a) erroneously conclude that you must be flat out at all times and always talking to people or b) find you don’t know what to do at any given moment because you’re paralysed by all of the choices available to you.
Allow yourself to have some time to chill out and relax over the weekend. If the hotel has a gym and you like to exercise, it could be good to go for a workout or a swim.
If you’re in a strange city for the conference, you might want to give yourself time to check out a nice restaurant (the food served at conferences often leaves a lot to be desired) or take in some of the sights.
You want to make the most out of your experience, but sometimes that can mean knowing when to take a break.