One of the “extracurricular” activities that I scaled back on when I became a working parent was attending conferences. They require both time and money, both of which are in short supply. And yet, while I was sitting in the audience listening to the powerful story of Nobel Laureate & Women’s Rights Activist Leymah Gbowee, I was reminded of why attending these types of conferences is so beneficial, both personally and professionally:
- You get the benefit of enjoying an event without an agenda—which gives you the freedom to fully absorb
- You hear unique perspectives, which could lead to creative solutions when applied in some form to your life and work
- You can be inspired—which can turn into an extra dose of energy!
- You can meet new and interesting people—expanding your network
All of those benefits are great, but you can have too much of a good thing. Attending these conferences does require an investment of emotional energy—especially if you tend to be more introverted. Additionally, particularly when attending conferences for a specific industry or specialized practice, the content can tend to repeat itself. Both of these together could decrease the impact each subsequent conference has on you.
Here are some tips on how you can make sure you’re selective in determining which conferences you’re going to attend:
- Ask experts in your area for recommendations. When I transitioned into my role of Director of Inclusion, I was inundated with invites to different conferences. It was a bit overwhelming—they were expensive and backed by a variety of research organizations and companies. It was really hard to determine which were the “best of the best”. I reached out to someone who has worked in the Diversity and Inclusion space for over 20 years and asked her what the most memorable conferences she attended were. That helped me filter the possible conference list quite a bit.
- Read the agenda carefully—and determine which conference will align best with your personal and professional development plans. Yes—a conference can grow you both professionally and personally, so if you only have the option to attend a few, why not make sure the agenda applies to you as a whole person? In some cases, this may not be possible (if, for example your boss tells you have to attend a specific industry or vendor conference), but in most cases it is. Every conference (or major business meeting for that matter) that I’ve attended has had a keynote speaker. Conference organizers work hard to secure high-quality speakers not only for the keynote but for the breakout sessions as well. Carefully review the agenda and speaker list of conferences that you’re considering, and chances are there will be some front-runners.
- Look at the dates and your availability. You may ask why I didn’t put this as the first step; the reason is because if you’re doing all this work to assess possible value, you might find that there is a conference that stands out this year that you can’t attend, but really wish you could. In that case, make sure you get on the mailing list so you can have the information for the next conference when it’s announced.
Once you’ve determined which conference to attend, make sure you get the most out of attending it with these simple tips:
- Pre-register, when possible, for any break-outs that you want to attend. If you are attending a conference because of one or two breakouts specifically, you want to make sure you’re not locked out of that because you didn’t “RSVP” in time for it. Pre-reservation isn’t always an option for breakouts, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
- Come prepared with tons of business cards. I know this is obvious, but sometimes we forget the obvious in our busy lives. Make sure you have tons of cards well before the conference. Don’t wait until the morning of to put them in your bag—because you may find your business card holder is full with cards you’ve collected, not your cards. (I’m speaking from personal experience here 😉
- Write a note on the back of every card you collect to remind you of the conversation. You could get a lot of them—some may be strong network leads and others not as strong, but you don’t want to have to worry about remembering which was which. Free up your memory to absorb the conference speakers.
- After the conference
- Write down your three – five most powerful takeaways. I recommend you do this a day or two after the conference, after you’ve had time to process (both subconsciously and consciously) what you’ve heard and experienced. The things that rise to to the top after a few days were the “stickiest”.
- Take note of whether you should consider attending the conference the following year. Maybe you create your own rating system. Or perhaps you take note of the most powerful days. Your opinion of the conference will be strongest right after it. It’s good to capture this initial reaction so you have it when reviewing the list of possible conferences the following year.
A few side notes:
- I recommend that you don’t always attend the same conferences. By changing up the options, you will reach more potential content, diversity of opinion, and network contacts.
- Working a conference shouldn’t count as attending a conference. While you get to enjoy many of the conference benefits if you’re there working a booth or volunteering in some way, your mind isn’t completely free to absorb the conference. You still have to remember to be at a specific place at a specific time, and you’re “on stage” helping others or telling them about your company or service.
You deserve to attend a conference as a true attendee once in a while. Do yourself, your family, and your business that favor. Just be selective about which ones you attend.
What’s the best conference you’ve attended?