Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Plan For Success When Attending A Conference

Attending a conference should be educational, inspirational and fun.  Conventions, trade shows and other gatherings are amazing opportunities to mingle with your industry peers, hear about best practices, learn about the latest trends, listen to amazing speakers, create networking connections, and re-charge your batteries.  If you do it right, a multi-day conference will be motivational and exhausting (in a good way!).

Both extroverts and introverts benefit from attending business / industry meetings, but they must plan their time differently.  Those who gain their energy from being around people will find plenty of opportunity to socialize and connect, while those who need some down-time to fully process the experience must plan ahead to ensure they are not overwhelmed by a non-stop agenda. Neither extroverts or introverts are "right" or "better" in how they tackle their participation, but they must be true to their nature if they want to make sure they maximize the ROI from their investment of time and money.

Here are 8 ways to maximize your time at a conference:

1.  Plan ahead.  Before you arrive at a conference have a plan for what you want to accomplish while at the event.  Determine whom you want to meet and which breakout sessions you will be attending.  Be clear about your purpose so that you will not miss out on the important opportunities.  If you know you will need some time to rest, regroup, make calls, etc... figure out in advance where in the schedule this will be best accomplished.

2.  Know yourself.  If you are not one who loves the big happy hours, then know that you will have to work harder in the party situations.  Too often introverts will slip away from the social aspects of a conference, but this means they will miss out on the chance to make, grow, and expand your business relationships. Take a deep breath and dive in.  Find a "networking buddy" who also feels more shy and work together.  Set a goal of connecting with three to five people you have never met before.

On the flip side, if you are all about the social side you might find yourself skipping the educational sessions or tuning out the speaker while surfing Facebook.  The education at a conference is useful and can spur you to more career success if you are paying attention for the nuggets of inspiration.  Commit to putting your phone in your pocket or purse for the first half of each presentation.  If the speaker does not earn the right to your attention, then you can turn to your emails or walk out of the room (it is okay to vote with your feet if the speaker is dull, you are not in prison).

3. Bring a lot of business cards.  While we live in an age of "just Google me", or "find me on Facebook", the reality is that a business card is still a useful tool.  Telling someone to find you online is asking them to do all the work.  It is selfish to think other people have the time to hunt you down later (especially if you have a common name), and the truth is most people wont seek you out.  Some people claim this is a good thing, as they do not want people following up with them, but that is a limiting point of view.  All opportunities come from people and you can not pre-judge who at a conference might be that one person who might be a mutually beneficial connection in the future.  Having about the business card is about the other person, not about you!

Additionally, a business card is a great tool to help you get out of a conversation.  Exchanging cards is an acceptable end to a discussion at a networking event.  If you do not have a card to offer up, you might be standing there talking to someone for a long, long time as you look for a polite way to move on.

4.  Focus on meeting other attendees.  Many people ignore the others in the audience, while instead lining up to meet the speakers (or hanging around exclusively with co-workers and other friends).  I have watched people stand in 45 minute long lines to shake a speaker's hand without ever uttering a word to the person in front of behind them.  A speaker who has several hundred people in the crowd will most likely not remember you later, while the person next to you could become a life-long friend and colleague.  Take the time to meet someone new on every break, in each breakout session, and at all meals.

5.  Do not be part of a clique.  Industry meetings are often giant "family reunions" for those who have participated for many years.  While it is wonderful to see old friends, do not limit your attention to those you have seen in past years.  Try to include new people and first time attendees in all conversations you have in the networking areas.  If you want to have a private talk with someone you already know, set up a time and go away from the convention area (even by only a few yards).  Having closed conversations in the common areas sends a message to others that you are not open to knowing them.  When standing in a "conversation cluster" (the circle of people who are chatting), leave an opening that would allow another person to join the discussion.  Seek ways to introduce people to each other and everyone will benefit.

6.  Plan for follow up.  Meeting someone one time does not make them part of your network.  Meeting them once makes them "someone you have met once" -- and there is a big difference between a one-time chat and a person with whom you have established an ongoing and mutually beneficial relationship.  You will not have a reason to follow up with everyone you encounter, but you must be looking for ways to re-connect with those who stand out.  Be sure to get their contact information so that you can call, email or send a handwritten note shortly after you return home from the conference.  Assuming they will remember you later without your efforts for follow up will most likely lead to nothing.

There are also many ways in social media that you can continue the conversation, but since many people use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other online tools differently, make sure that you are aware of the how the others choose to connect in these forums.  I do not see value in linking with those I have not really established a meaningful connection, so I have created the "Coffee, Meal or Beer Rule" for LinkedIn and Facebook connections (Twitter is different because if does not require an acceptance to follow someone).  My belief is too many strangers in your contact list turns social media into the White Pages.  A casual chat and a business card exchange is often not enough for some people to link, while others are happy to connect with anyone out there.  Neither is "right", so you must be respectful of the other person's way of utilizing social media.  Ask them how they choose to use these tools!

7.  Write a recap.  While you were away at the conference many of your co-workers were still at work.  Often they imagine that you are off having a great time at a fancy resort while they are picking up the slack at the office.  Upon your return, write a short recap of what you learned, who you met, and the industry best-practices you discovered.  When you distribute this to others they will understand that your purpose for being at the conference was about the greater good of the whole group, not just a vacation for you on company time.  There will also be things you share that can inspire creativity in your co-workers from which your whole team could benefit.

8.  Have fun.  While busy and tiring, attending a multi-day event and meeting people should be a lot of fun.  Sometimes in our fast-paced world we must remember to find the joy all around us.  Humans are experiential beings and you must allow yourself to be part of the min-society that is created at a conference.  When you are open to the fun side of the conference it will always find you!

Enjoy the conference!

Have A Great Day!!

thom singer

Thom Singer is known as "The Conference Catalyst". He works with meeting planners and conference organizers to set the tone for a meeting. His presentations educate, inspire and motivate attendees to engage deeper in the event and make meaningful connections. 

1 comment:

Lynn H. said...

I've been to dozens of conferences, but I still struggle with networking as a definitive introvert. This is a great list! #2 and #4 will come in handy at my next conference in March...