6 Questions to Help You Rock a Professional Conference
When I went to my first professional conference, I was nervous and uncertain about what the heck I was supposed to be doing. The company shelled out a lot of money for me to attend and I wanted to make it worth their while but didn’t know what to do beyond showing up and taking notes. I knew that people networked at conferences, but how did that work? Was I supposed to butt into the conversations of random strangers?
I asked my knowledgeable colleagues for tips on how they approached professional conferences so that the event was useful, enjoyable and energizing. They encouraged me to ask these six questions during and after the conference, and they made a big difference in making sure I was looking for and listening for the right info, and then sharing it with my colleagues back at the office.
- What information did I come with that the speakers or attendees confirmed–is there further evidence for something that I was already theorizing about? From an industry-level perspective, conferences are great guides on where to focus your attention in the coming months. Think an emerging issue is going to be a game-changer in your industry? Listen carefully to what the movers and the shakers are saying about it.
- What belief or perspective got debunked by what I heard? Enter the conference with a willingness to let go of cherished ideals or things that you’ve always “known” are true. This is a great time to scout out new research or case studies that challenge accepted standards.
- What conference experience could my organization share or replicate with our clients? What did the conference organizers do that left you saying, “That was my favorite part of the day!” Maybe you learned a new hot topic or group exercise that could lend itself to improving a program or product you work on, or a fun team-building exercise. Could you incorporate it into your work so that your team or clients benefit, too (respecting intellectual property rights, of course)?
- Who shared innovative ideas, or helped me see things in a different way? Sometimes the people themselves are the best source of learning. You might meet someone who does work like yours, but from a completely different approach. At one conference I attended, a CEO of a bakery described how he circumvented the hiring process by giving a job to anyone who applied. It was an incredibly different approach from anyone else in the room. And while his approach would not work for everyone, it got me thinking creatively about a process I’d always taken for granted.
- Who did I–or could I–help? Sometimes our comments, support, or knowledge can help others. Did anyone seem like they really took one of your comments to heart? That’s valuable confirmation! Did you hear people talking about a need for what your organization does, or could do? This could be a fantastic opportunity for you to refine what you know for clients and colleagues. Maybe at the next conference, you could lead one of the lunchtime discussion tables, facilitate a breakout group, or present.
- Could the conference attendees benefit from what my organization does? Presumably you’re at this conference because it intersects with your work, such as a product you’re creating or a service you’re offering. The other attendees are here for the same reason. Look at your work and find out if there’s anything you can offer to these like-minded people. It could be something big like a new service, or even something small like an insightful blog post.
Bonus tip: put your phone away! As for the dreaded “networking” aspect, one interesting observation revolved around my cell phone. When I sat down in the conference cafeteria for lunch, I pulled out my cell phone to check my email and texts. I ate my lonely meal while scrolling through emails and then went on to the next session. Phone=1, Networking=0. But by dinner, my phone was dead and so I sat alone at the table, looking at the cafeteria traffic. I smiled as some people walked by and soon I had a lively table of six other people, including the CEO for a favorite restaurant of mine who shared her success story of employee motivation. There was nothing artificial or awkward–it was fun! I learned not only be open, but to actively appear to be open to casual conversation. A cell phone or laptop is like a neon “Do Not Disturb” sign over your head, which might be useful on the subway but not at a conference.
Going to a conference soon? What’s your plan to make the most of it? Or, if you attended a conference recently, what tip would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments.
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