Conferences are an investment. Just like setting some freelance income aside for retirement, spending time and money on a conference can pay dividends many times the costs. The key is, you have to approach them the right way. If you view conferences as simply heading to a major city and listening to a few slideshow presentations, then you are missing out on some amazing opportunities for growth.
It’s Not About the Teaching
I’ve been to conferences where the teaching was absolutely amazing. In fact, when I went to the BaconBiz Conference in Philadelphia, I filled out half a notebook during the talks. I was definitely inspired. However, that information that I gathered has also been shared in numerous podcasts interviews, blog articles, business books, and YouTube videos. In fact, at many conferences, you can view some of the talks from a previous year for free!
Perhaps you need a concentrated few days to sit and listen to all of this information, and that’s certainly a way to receive value from attending a conference. However, I like to focus on what cannot be gathered any other way, something that can only happen at a conference: the networking.
A conference provides a unique opportunity for a large number of people, away from work, with similar interests to mingle and get to know each other. The type of networking I’m talking about is not simply running around distributing your business card to as many people as possible. In fact, I suggest not even using business cards (you’ll see why here in a bit). Conferences involve learning together, processing that learning, sharing experiences, and hanging out during meals and evening activities.
There is no way to know exactly how the networking opportunities will turn out at a conference. In fact, I’ve always been surprised by the positive experiences that have come my way due to speaking to the right people at conferences. When I say “the right people”, you have no way of knowing who these people are. While we would all love to have some uninterrupted time with some of the keynote speakers, it might just be the unassuming person next to you that is looking for someone like you to work with on a lucrative project. Perhaps that person will be the one to respond when you are looking for a new job, and wants to recommend you to their supervisor. You never know, you can’t expect it, all you can do is put yourself out there and be intentional about taking advantage of the conference.
Before the Conference
Before you even step foot in the conference venue, there are plenty of activities that can prime the pump for effective networking opportunities.
- Follow the conference hashtag on Twitter and engage with people who are posting how excited they are to go to the conference. Many people post an update when they’ve purchased their plane or conference ticket. Hit reply and let them know that you are going too and are looking forward to connecting.
- Sign up for the conference page on Lanyrd. If there isn’t a conference page, you can create one. Lanyrd is a social conference directory, where attendees can connect and see who else is coming. Get to know a few names and faces on that list, and send them a quick tweet letting them know that you’re looking forward to connecting at the conference. When you get there, you’ll have less names to memorize since you’ve done a little homework beforehand.
- Email the speakers and let them know that you are looking forward to hearing their talks. Even better, share with them why you are looking forward to their talks. It helps as a speaker to know why people will be excited about your talk, and perhaps what you should emphasize during the presentation. Besides that, they may remember the note if you get a chance to meet them, and will instantly break the ice and open doors for a conversation.
Some of these things may be out of your comfort zone, but trust me, nobody is going to find any of the above practices annoying, as it is our human nature to be flattered when people notice us, desire to connect with us, and are looking forward to hearing our talks. They may not recall the tweet or email, so don’t be offended or dejected if you mention it and they can’t remember, just move on and start a conversation anyway. You never know where it will lead.
During the Conference
Make sure you get to the conference the day before it begins. Many others will be doing this and often will be looking for a group of people to hang out with. Follow the conference’s hashtag on Twitter to keep an eye out for tweets like:
Heading to X for dinner with a couple folks if anyone from #conference wants to join.
Send a quick reply that you’ll meet them there, and show up. If you don’t see any tweets like that, create one of your own. Remember, there ARE going to be people there without anyone to talk to, and you could be that connection. This will give you a few familiar faces the next day when you attend the conference.
During the conference presentations, I suggest using a notebook and pen to take notes, and leaving your laptop or notepad in the hotel room. This will prevent you from going down a rabbit hole online when you could be paying attention to the speaker. If you have a smartphone, you can still be reached for emergencies, and can check email for something urgent if needed. Not having your laptop also frees you up to move about the room without lugging it around, or worry about setting it down and walking away.
Between talks, don’t be the person who dives into their phone’s screen for the next 15 minutes. I’m always amazed at the people I see on their phones and computers between sessions. I know that a small percentage of them might have a fire that they need to put out at work, but for the majority, they would do better to close the laptop and walk up to a stranger and extend a hand to shake. People wear name-tags at conferences for a reason, we’re supposed to mingle!
While getting to know new people, make sure that you start off by asking them questions about themselves. Pushing your own agenda, no matter how interesting it might be, can come off as self-centered. If they ask you first, then feel free to share, but if you kick off the conversation, focus on them. If they are polite, they will in return ask you. If they never ask you about yourself, then they are unlikely to be helpful in other matters anyway.
The Alternative Business Card
I mentioned previously that I don’t bring business cards to conferences. When someone asks for a business card, I reply:
I don’t have any on me, but what is your email so I can follow up with you after the conference?
Write this email down. They may hand you one of their business cards, or they may just tell you. The key is, the ball is now in your court to send them an email and share your contact information, after all of the hubbub of the conference has died down, and they have more time to process your connection and perhaps even begin talks about something mutually beneficial. If I would have just handed them a card, it likely would have ended up in a mass of other cards, and I wouldn’t have a good reason to reach out to them after the conference.
After the Conference
Many conferences have an after-party. I definitely recommend hitting that if you can, but it is also common for people to start taking off to head home that evening to skip another hotel night fee. If I am attending a conference on the West Coast, I try to catch a red-eye flight back so I can stay late, save on the hotel room, and get home at a decent time the next morning.
Just like before the conference, post-conference is a great opportunity to email the speakers and let them know how their talks impacted you. If you have a chance to put something that they shared into practice, even better. Let them know that you took their advice and what impact it had on you.
As mentioned before, this is also a great time to follow-up with those you met at the conference that you need to share your contact information with. You can also post messages to Twitter with the conference’s hashtag mentioning a few of the people that you enjoyed hanging out with, or reflect on a fond memory you had of the conference.
Becoming a Speaker
Conferences can take on a whole new face when you become a speaker. As such, you not only get to attend the conference for free, but you’ll have an instant ice-breaker with folks that you meet who saw your talk.
Many conferences have a call to speakers, where you can submit a proposal to speak. I suggest throwing three potential topics out there, as there will be a greater chance that one will be chosen. For conferences that don’t have a call to speakers, you can always email the organizers and let them know that you are interested in speaking, and what their selection process is like. Some larger conferences only allow big-names in to speak, so it is better to make a name for yourself starting with the smaller conferences. If you are good, and people are interested in what you share, you will eventually get more speaking opportunities.
Conferences provide a unique opportunity to get away from work, concentrate on learning, and network with other like-minded individuals. You can never predict just how a connection is going to turn beneficial, in fact, most don’t amount to much more than a nice 10 minutes shared together. However, for that one connection that ends up landing you that new job, that new client, or inspiring you to take the next step towards your goals, the value can be many times more than what you paid to attend the conference. The key is: be pro-active, be intentional, and step out of your comfort zone in order to make the most out of attending a conference.