Getting the Most Out of a Conference

By: Tom Mulligan
PAICR Vice President, PAICR Board of Directors member
PAICR Member since 2010

You’re on your way to the conference! That’s great. But how can you ensure you get the most out of it? In my experience, it is important to network and to participate. Although some of these ideas may seem a bit uncomfortable at first, getting out of your comfort zone a bit is often when the magic happens.

  1. Network

Even when the sessions at a conference are great, sometimes you get more out of the networking than you do out of the programming. Conferences are great places to meet and connect with peers, to share experiences and best practices.

First, look at the attendee list early and often. Do you see anyone you know? If so, try to contact them in advance and arrange to meet for coffee or lunch one day. You can do the same with someone you don’t know. Maybe it’s someone at another firm in your city, or someone in the same role as yours at another firm that you really admire. Whatever the reason, attending the conference provides a great opportunity to introduce yourself and make a connection.

Second, work on your in-person networking skills in advance. Be assertive in introducing yourself to new people. Have a list of questions in your mind ready to ask someone you meet—conversation-inducing, but without getting too heavy. Some possibilities are:

  • “What did you think of the speaker this morning/afternoon?”
  • “How did you hear about this conference?”
  • “How often do you visit (the conference host city)?”

You don’t want to overstay your welcome. You can excuse yourself by making a call, going to the restroom or getting a drink. Sometimes it can be a great move to introduce your new contact to someone else you know who is nearby. That helps both of them expand their network, AND gives you an opportunity to exit stage left without leaving someone alone.

Third, take LOTS of business cards. Most conferences have social/meet-and-greet activities and “introduce yourself to three people around you”–type competitions. Even in this era of social media, the good old-fashioned business card still gets a lot of use.

Finally, be sure to follow up with everyone you meet at the conference. A short “It was nice to meet you” note, and possibly an invitation to connect on LinkedIn, will help you remain in better contact with all of your new connections.

  1. Participate

Lots of people are afraid to ask questions. They don’t want to appear ignorant in front of their peers. And the bigger the audience, the more afraid they are. But asking questions helps you learn, so you shouldn’t hold back. To help you get comfortable with asking that question, here are a few potential ways you can pose it:

  • “A colleague and I were just talking about this yesterday; he was wondering about (topic of your question)—what would you recommend?”
  • “I’m familiar with (one part of the speaker’s topic), but am not as knowledgeable about (another part of the speaker’s topic, which is related to the topic of your question)—can you please explain (your question)?”
  • “I’ve been focusing on a project in (area NOT related to the topic of discussion) for a while, and haven’t kept up on (area RELATED to the topic of discussion) recently—can you please remind me (topic of your question)?”

Also, be willing to share your experiences that relate to the topic. People attend conferences not only to hear and learn from speakers, but to hear and learn from peers as well. In fact, many of the speakers in the smaller breakout settings are counting on audience participation.

Your willingness to share will often make others feel more comfortable sharing as well, making the session more valuable for all involved. In addition, you might be surprised to find how many people have experienced challenges similar to yours, and you can gain some new insights from initiating the conversation.

In my opinion, the more you network and participate at a conference, the more you will get out of the conference experience. So go ahead and step out of your comfort zone!

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