Conference strategy 101

It’s taken me years of attending conferences to realize I need a strategy. Sure, I planned what sessions to go to, but that was the extent of it. Being a relatively shy and sometimes awkward person, I avoided talking to people I didn’t know. I thought I could get everything I needed from listening to presentations. Sometimes I’d leave conferences really inspired, but most often I was bored and frustrated.

No matter what your reasons are for attending a conference, with a little planning you can get a lot more from the experience, personally and professionally. There are some things I’ve learned that have helped me to have more positive and productive experiences at conferences:

Don’t let the big names intimidate you. Most of them are normal, humble people who are just as interested in learning about you and your work. Think of them as friends, not superstars.

Schedule coffee chats or lunch in advance. Don’t underestimate the importance of networking. Is there someone you’d like to meet or talk to? Email them in advance and set up a time to chat. This will help structure a specific conversation and won’t leave anything to chance. I used to think it was so weird to email someone that didn’t know me, but it turns out they’re usually flattered and very interested in talking.

Plan what sessions to attend. Read through the schedule ahead of time. What sessions offer unique perspectives or information you can’t access from reading or surfing the web? Who is presenting that you might want to connect with?

Ask questions. If you’re shy or intimidated by breaking the ice with strangers, start a conversation by asking questions. You can actually carry a conversation for a long time by only asking questions! This is usually a good back up plan for when I’m nervous or just don’t feel like talking (it’s so exhausting for us introverts!).

Set goals. This has probably helped me more than anything. There is no right or wrong way to do this, but here are examples of some I’ve had in the past:

Introduce myself to 2 strangers today. It may sound crazy, but some of us have to start with the basics.
Take notes to share with my team back home.
Attend sessions that will help me to learn something I can directly apply to my work.

Take breaks.  Don’t try to attend every session. Your brain will turn to mush very quickly. Schedule in some “me time” or a quiet coffee break. Consider skipping a few sessions and attending social events instead. For me, that’s sometimes been where the best connections are made and most interesting conversations are had.

Now, to start planning which conferences to go to this year!

A version of this post was originally published on WorkingExamples.org.

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