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No one wants to attend a conference and not receive anything of value from the experience. You might not always be able to prevent this (sometimes conferences just suck), but you can do your part to ensure you learn what you need to and meet people who can join your professional network. The following actions will set you up for conference success so you can return to work with a greater understanding of your field and helpful information and connections to further your career.
As with all things in life, you need to set some intentions before attending a conference. It’s great to go into a conference wanting to learn more and network, but stopping there isn’t good enough. You can’t say you want to learn more about your field and expect to fully squeeze every drop of information out of the conference. You need to set measurable, trackable goals beforehand. Goals such as “make five genuine connections with others I can work with” and “Learn three tips about X” will help you stay focused during the conference.
Goals will lead you through the entire conference so you can leave with information you genuinely need. These goals will guide the notes you take, questions you ask, and conversations you have. Without goals, you’ll be adrift in a sea of information. Aim to set two or three important goals and keep them in mind throughout the conference. Setting more than three can be too overwhelming to keep up with and meet.
Do Your Research
You shouldn’t walk into a conference without having an idea of what to expect from the speakers, workshops, and panels. Do the leg work checking out the speakers. What do they do? What are they known for? Which of them would be best to ask your questions? Make sure you know the purpose of each panel or workshop so you know which ones will help you achieve your goals.
If you don’t take the time to do your homework before the conference, you’ll be out of the loop and have a higher risk of missing a good opportunity. It’s also a good idea to look into who else is attending the conference. If the conference has a social media page for the event, look at those who are engaging with them and have RSVP’d. In this digital age, it’s easy to find out who’s going to be there. This gives you the benefit of recognizing faces and being able to begin conversations by explaining you’re familiar with another person’s work.
Have Questions Prepared
The whole purpose of a conference is to learn more about your field so you can be better at your job. While it’s totally okay to sit back and listen to the wisdom of others, it’s a good idea to have a handful of questions you need answers to. The speakers might address your questions on their own, but they might not. If they don’t, then you need to ask them. Chances are you aren’t the only one in attendance with that question, so don’t be afraid of it being silly or stupid.
If you don’t have the opportunity to ask your question (you never know how many hands are going to shoot up during the Q&A portions), that’s okay. You can always attempt to ask a speaker after the panel is over or email them later. The important thing is that you have questions ready and know what you want to learn.
Network, Network, Network
Even though learning from those with more experience is a main part of attending a conference, it’s also a major opportunity to network with others in your field. Unless you’re a networking veteran, you need to do some prep work before you start shaking hands. Dedicate some time to practicing a hypothetical conversation. You should expect to be asked what you do for a living and ultimately the details of your goals and mission. The nerves won’t be quite so rampant when you practice your answers.
Run through your answers while watching yourself in the mirror. Answer who you are, what you do, and some specifics about your job or company. Don’t spend hours stressing over formulating the perfect answer. A handful of passes at it’ll simply help you sound more natural and at-ease.
Aside from these four things, just keep an open mind and a positive attitude. You can’t control everything that happens at a conference, but you can control how you respond to any less-than-ideal situation. Focus on listening to the speakers and engaging with other conferences goers. You’ll be set.