Attending a professional conference should not be an exercise in hoop jumping, but an opportunity to enhance your career in meaningful ways. After all, attending a conference consumes more resources—including money and time, for you and your organization—than staying at the office. It makes sense to get the most out of every conference you attend. Consider following these tips to gain the most benefit from your next conference.
Choose a conference carefully. It is likely that there are more conferences in your professional field than you have the resources to attend. Instead of choosing one at random, or based on one factor, such as location, take time to research options and weigh multiple factors. Here are questions you might ask:
- To perform my job, is it necessary that I acquire the information presented or shared at the conference?
- Will I learn a new or relevant skill?
- Is there a way for me to contribute to the conference as a presenter or participant?
- Are the people who attend the conference people I should communicate and network with?
- Is the cost of the conference worth what I will get out of it?
Prepare beforehand. Decide which sessions you’d like to attend, and create a schedule of how you will spend your time. You might make spur-of-the-moment adjustments, but having a general itinerary is important so you don’t miss an important session or event. Also, look into whether there are any pre- or post-conference sessions or meetings that you might be interested in attending. Finally, update and remember to bring your business cards and any other materials you may want to share with others.
Talk to people. The word networking gets so much press that it can seem more complicated than what it really means—talking to people. No matter how shy you feel, strike up conversations, and engage with those who speak to you. Great relationships often begin with a spontaneous conversation between strangers. Conversations can occur before sessions begin, after sessions have ended, in the hallways between sessions, and at social receptions. Networking is at least as important as learning at conferences—some suggest even more so. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education article about academic conferences, “networking is the whole point.” Networking is also one of the most commonly overlooked opportunities by conference attendees.
Take (the right amount of) notes. While attending sessions, write down important information that you may find useful later. However, don’t focus so much on taking notes that you don’t actually listen to what the speaker is saying. QIP Proposal Manager Mary strives for a balance between engaging with what’s happening and recording key details that she can refer to later. That way, she doesn’t miss out on the learning opportunities of the moment—or the learning opportunities that will come when she’s back at the home office. You can also look into whether presentation slides will be made available to participants after the conference. If so, you will not need to write down anything that’s on a slide, just a note to yourself to access the slides later.
Follow up afterward. It’s easy to slip back into your day-to-day routine without incorporating anything you learned or reconnecting with anyone you met—but don’t allow this to happen. It is important to be proactive after the conference has ended. Capitalize on the benefits of attending, because otherwise they slip away. For example, QIP Project Associate Dee makes sure to use the business cards she obtained to contact the people with whom she networked. Other QIP employees have contacted speakers whose presentations piqued their interest. By contacting fellow conference participants, you can continue, or begin, professional conversations for mutual benefit. Also remember to incorporate the knowledge and skills you learned into your professional life. Refer to your notes and any available slides, and make changes accordingly. You might also share your findings with your teammates. For instance, QIP Communications Director Deanna has given presentations on what she’s learned at conferences and on how the organization can incorporate the lessons into their work.
Maximizing the benefits of a professional conference takes a bit of effort and initiative, but the career advantages you will gain are worth it. Attending a conference allows you to learn new things and connect with people in your field, and these insights and connections will stay with you long after the conference has ended. Remember, for best results, it is important to take actions not just during the conference, but also beforehand and afterward. Following these tips can help you advance your career and be a leader in your organization and professional field.