My favourite type of professional development is going to a conference. I absolutely love them and could quite easily become a conference junkie.
In fact, over the last 18 months I have probably been to about ten or twelve conferences – some as a delegate and some as an invited speaker (I’m open to a few more of the latter please!).
I allocate a significant amount of my marketing budget every year to attending conferences, and I want to make sure I get the most out of them. Not only am I paying for registration fees, but often also for travel and accommodation, and then there is the time away from the office.
I’m extremely particular about where my conference dollars go, and I want to make sure that not only is the content going to be what I want to learn, from speakers I look up to, but I also want to ensure I spend enough time working out who is actually going, so I can meet the delegates I want to.
While only attending as a delegate, my preparation to attend these two events has started, so that I can get the most out of attending.
These are my top ten tips for getting the most out of a conference:
- Find out who else is going
Social media makes this incredibly easy. Many conferences these days have event hashtags (such as #PBEvent and #MayoInOz), used on twitter and instagram. Some conferences will also have a twitter list of attendees that you can follow. Check to see if the conference you are going to also has a Facebook or LinkedIn group you can join – all this means you can start talking to other attendees and building relationships with the people you want to meet before you get there. A really good conference organiser will also give you the twitter handles of the speakers on the conference website.
- Make a list of who you want to meet
I’m starting to compile a list of who I want to meet at these two upcoming conferences, and am shamelessly starting to stalk them on twitter (in the nicest possible way of course!). I’m also connecting with them on LinkedIn, and in some cases on instagram, saying that I’m attending the conference and how I’m looking forward to hearing them speak or meeting them face to face.
- Read the blogs or bios or websites of the key people you want to meet so you can talk to them about them and not about you!
There are usually at least ten or twelve key people I want to meet at a conference, and I make sure I get to know them as much as possible first – I read their blogs, I google them to see if they have been in the media lately, I look on LinkedIn to see who we may know in common. And I also usually have a question or two I want to ask them that can help my business, or just because it’s something interesting about them
- Know what you do and have a short “elevator pitch” prepared
People will always ask you who you are and what you do. I want to be able to say more than just “I’m a communication and social media strategist”, or “I write a food and travel blog”. Both of those statements are pretty generic and could easily be applicable to many, many others at the conference.
- Read the program in advance and work out what sessions you want to attend
A couple of years ago I went to a conference with twelve (!!!) consecutive streams. It was a nightmare! Especially as I hadn’t done my homework and had no idea what I wanted to go to. I was running all over the place, and later found out I missed a couple of sessions that would have been brilliant! This will never happen again!
- Don’t leave it until the last minute to pack
Whether it’s a conference in your city or on the other side of the world, make a list of what you must take on the day. My list includes plenty of business cards (note to self: get more printed), phone, camera (for food bloggers events), notebook (paper), pens, laptop/ipad and all the relevant cables for all tech, panadol, a snack (I discovered that not all conferences provide catering when I went to a conference in the US two years ago!), a warm layer of clothing as conference rooms can get very cold (I take a pashmina).
- Get a good night sleep the night before
Conferences are exhausting so make sure you are well rested before you turn up. A lot of conferences also have social functions, so there is usually at least one late night in the schedule. And some conference organisers should be cursed for putting the first session after the conference dinner at 8.30am the next day. That is just cruel!
If you’re going to a conference overseas make sure you allow enough time to get over jetlag. I went to a conference in San Francisco a few years ago and flew in two days before. On day two of the conference (day four of being in San Francisco) jetlag well and truly showed its ugly side as I massively overslept and woke up at 10am. Never have I dressed so quickly!
- Dress appropriately
And professionally. Wear clothing suited to your industry and the style of conference. Most conference organisers will provide guidance on a dress code if you are uncertain. However as a general rule of thumb, if it’s a professional conference then wear smart clothes you would wear to work (that are also comfy for sitting in all day). If the conference is targeted to blue collar workers, then wear smart casual clothes. If you want to be remembered then wear something to stand out (in a good way, not because your skirt is so short people don’t know where to look!), wear a distinctive jacket, scarf, skirt, tie. Don’t wear Spanx. Spanx is extremely uncomfy when you’re sitting all day. Trust me.
- Push yourself a little out of your comfort zone
Yeah, I find this one hard too. As an introvert I find it incredibly hard to walk into a room where I don’t know anyone. This is where tip #1 comes in handy. Try not to be scared or nervous about walking up to strangers and saying hi (easy to say, quite often far less easy to do!). My favourite line is “Hi, I’m Mel and I don’t know anyone here, so thought I’d come and say hi to you”. I’ve always been made to feel welcome when saying that, and it gets a far better reaction than hovering on the outside a group of people waiting to be included. I also always make sure I have a glass or a cup in my hand, so that when I’m ready to move on to the next person, I can say “oh, look, my glass is empty, I’m going to get another cup of tea. Thanks for the chat, see you later!”, and then wander off. After all, you have that list of people to meet!
- Most importantly, have fun!
Conferences should be fun! Yes, you want to learn stuff, but they should also be a great time for sharing a few laughs and maybe a drink or two with your fellow delegates (just not too many drinks – no one likes the conference drunk!).
Are you going to any conferences in the near future? Which ones? And what are you most looking forward to? Do you have any conference tips to add?
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