Attending a conference can be overwhelming. The huge convention centers, the pushy sales people, the agenda that’s roughly the length of a Victorian novel—it’s easy to find yourself mindlessly roaming the exhibition floor for days, leaving the conference exhausted and bewildered, with sore feet as your only key takeaway.
But conferences can be rewarding and eye-opening endeavors if you plan ahead and make thoughtful choices about how you interact with speakers and other conference attendees. Follow these steps to make sure you get the most bang for your conference buck.
1. Define Your Conference Goals
If you’ve coughed up the hefty registration fee (or asked your company to do so on your behalf), surely you consider the conference a worthwhile use of your time, but it’s still useful to define a clear conference goal and steps to achieve that goal prior to your arrival.
For example, are you hoping to learn about a specific subject? Decide how you will measure your success—say, by being able to draft up a report or blog post after the event. Or, if your conference goal is networking or looking for a new job opportunity, you might focus on the number of contacts you make or requests for interviews you receive. Defining your purpose and steps for success will then help you map out your conference schedule: the sessions you’ll listen to, the booths you’ll visit, and the events you’ll attend.
2. Do Network, Don’t Get Hammered
Speaking of events, a wise person once said: “It takes years to build your personal brand and only seconds to destroy it.” There’s something about conferences (the vacation-like atmosphere of the hotel pool, the jet lag, the free booze) that can lead some people to get a little wild.
Post-conference happy hours or dinner parties can be great networking opportunities, but make sure you’re focused on exchanging contact info, not going shot for shot. Even if you’re not at the conference with colleagues, the world is incredibly small, and Facebook is even smaller. Your behavior can quickly make its way back to your manager or peers, making for an awkward return to the office.
3. Tweet Incessantly
Most conferences create and publish a hashtag on their website long before conference kick-off, allowing you to connect with other conference-goers prior to the event. Tweet about the conference several days prior to arrival (the speakers you’re excited about, the questions you plan on asking) and see what other people are saying. It’ll help you identify buzz-worthy sessions that you definitely want to see while you’re there.
Once you’re at the conference, most presenters include their handles on opening and closing presentation slides, so be sure to tweet at them with your comments and feedback. You’ll be surprised at how many responses and followers you receive. Additionally, keeping up with the live conversation throughout the conference will help you stay connected to the entire group, even though you can’t attend every session.
4. Be Brave and Ask Questions
Presenters and keynote speakers typically leave plenty of time for Q&A at the end of their sessions. Raising your hand or stepping up to the mic in front of a large audience can be nerve-wracking, but, if you have a question or a comment that you’d like to articulate, be brave and go for it. When else will you have the chance to speak directly to the person presenting? Most likely, never again. Remember to clearly announce your name and your company before you ask your question to help other attendees connect with you or share their comments later.
5. Stay Awhile
Resist the urge to duck out early. It’s tempting to head to the pool or hotel spa, or maybe even retreat to your room to get an hour or two of uninterrupted work done (when else do you have a clean desk and a quiet, empty office space?). But this isn’t a wise choice. Conferences are rare gatherings of industry leaders, and it’s unlikely that you’ll have so many great people in your field under the same roof in the near future. Put on some comfortable shoes and make the most of it.
6. Follow up Creatively
Once you’re back at home, sorting through business cards you’ve collected, follow up with a more than a simple “nice meeting you at the conference.” Connect with your new contacts on LinkedIn and Twitter, and send them a personal note reminding them of who you are. Include something valuable, like a link to an article or infographic they might find interesting—which will set you apart from the barrage of boring “I look forward to keeping in touch with you” emails they’ll likely receive.