READ TIME: 6 MINUTES
Tell me if this sounds familiar. You KNOW you’ve got a conference coming up on your calendar. Woohoo! You’re excited about what you’ll learn and who you might meet, but you’re freaking out doing last minute prep work (kinda like the pre-vacay hustle) – and by the time you get there, you’re exhausted and running on adrenaline. But you soak up as much as possible and feel SO INCREDIBLY INSPIRED to come home and CHANGE THE WORLD as soon as you get back.
But then, as soon as you’re back in the post-conference “real world” you’re greeted with everything you missed while you were out. And Oh! Lucky you, two of your deadlines were moved up, so you’ve got to *head down focus* on making things happen.
All the while, the conference notebook you got in your swag bag – filled with all those amazing ideas – starts collecting dust. And then gets forgotten in the bottom of branded canvas tote somewhere…..never to be seen or heard from again. *Sigh* Another meaningful conference experience bites the dust.
Whether your organization is footing the bill, or you’re paying out of pocket – you want to get your money’s worth. And actually implementing is really tough once you’re home and have a million things competing for your attention.
So – I’ve rounded up a set of Before, During and After tips that you can use to make the most of your next conference experience – so you can bring back that learnin’ and finally CHANGE THE WORLD… or maybe just share the latest social media strategies with your downline.
Look ahead at your calendar so you’re aware of any deadline or project benchmarks that are due after you return from your conference. Decide what you’ll do before you leave, and what you may be able to do from the conference in order to stay on track.
Be social. Find the conference hashtag. Is there a closed Facebook group for the conference? Get involved on the message boards.
Download the conference app and make sure your contact info and photo is up to date if there’s a directory. You’ll want to make it easy for people to find you and stay in touch.
Scope out the speaker list. Mark down your must-sees and add them to your calendar.
Prepare questions in advance for Q&A panel sessions. This can help you avoid stumbling over your words in front of a crowd when you’re handed the mic. You want to be remembered for that clever thing you said – not for saying “sharket mare” instead of “market share” the second all eyes are on you.
Schedule social time. If you have industry buddies who will also be traveling to the conference, schedule a dinner or happy hour in advance – but keep some social time open so you can be flexible in the event of a spontaneous invite from a new contact.
Find your recharge time. Introverts especially, take look at the schedule in advance and find your windows for down time. You want to reap the networking benefits, but you also want to be at your best – and that means some quiet time to replenish your energy.
Designate a specific notebook for capturing all of your ideas. Don’t assume there will be a decent notebook in your swag bag. You’ll lose random pieces of paper in a flash, and the margins of conference agendas never have enough room to get down all the good stuff.
Pack the essentials. Phone/laptop/tablet chargers are a given. If you want to be super popular among your fellow attendees and make fast friends, stash a compact power strip in your bag and man your own hallway or meeting room charging station. And don’t forget that notebook we just discussed + a few “good” pens. Cheap freebie pens and hotel pens can be jerks.
Out of Office Prep. Go through your out of office checklist, notifying clients partners and your team that you’ll be out and when you’ll return. Assign emergency contacts and provide your backups with instructions. Set your away message.
Alright – this next one’s the kicker. This is the difference between conference amnesia and actually using what you’ve learned.
Schedule a post-conference meeting with your boss or your team to present what you’ve learned. Or offer to host a Lunch and Learn presentation to a larger group within your organization. This meeting or presentation should take place within two weeks of your return.
Having something on the calendar BEFORE you leave – and then sticking to it when you return – ensures that you are accountable to sharing your experience.
You’ll probably feel a bit frantic those first few days back, but by keeping that appointment you’ll force yourself to organize your thoughts, assess what’s actionable, and prepare to articulate.
A good outline for this meeting could include:
Overview and purpose of conference
Personal action items and deadlines
Team action items and deadlines
Watch the booze. The easiest way to miss a brilliant 8am breakfast keynote is to go too hard at the post-meet & greet bar crawl. You probably do NOT need your pregnant colleague’s extra drink tickets, so think twice before you order your fourth cocktail. This is a conference, not spring break. If you do over-imbibe and you’re feeling the pain, see if there’s a Remedy Room-style spot nearby, or get thee to the hotel lobby gift shop for a bottle of your favorite neon, electrolyte-filled sports drink.
Stick to your routine. If you work out every morning, find the hotel gym. If you’re typically in bed by 9pm – keep your schedule. Traveling for a conference is not the time to try out a new weight lifting routine in the fitness center, or throw your rhythms out of whack. However, if something like an easy morning yoga session is a part of the conference agenda, and you’ve always been curious about downward dog – give it a shot, but try not to overdo it if you’re trying something for the first time.
Always have a pen handy. As you’re swapping business cards, always have a pen handy in your purse or pocket so you can jot down the details of your exchange. I like to scribble where we met, what we talked about and any quick action items or follow up. Apps like CamCard and FullContact are super handy for snapping a pic of a card and going paper free.
Save your receipts. Boring, but necessary. I like to take a Ziploc bag or a zipper pouch in my bag to gather up receipts for reimbursement or tax documentation. Digging through the bottom of your bag for crumpled receipts covered in airplane pretzel crumbs two weeks after you get home is no fun.
Don’t be afraid to approach speakers or panelists during the conference. Many of them love to chat offstage, just make sure to watch for social cues and don’t approach them if they appear to be deep in focus and preparing for an upcoming presentation.
Take stock of all your new contacts and the notes jotted on the back of business cards. If you feel inclined, send an email to all or some new contacts following up on your discussion or sending a general message to keep in touch. Add them to your contacts or contact management software if that’s something you use.
Go through your notebook, highlighting action items or key ideas that you’d like to implement within your organization.
Prep for that post-conference meeting you scheduled and prepare a bulleted one sheeter or narrative to help articulate your recommendations.
Send a thank you note. If you were recommended for or nominated to attend the conference on behalf of your organization, send a thank you email or write a thank you note to the nominating body or the person who recommended you. If your organization is willing to invest in your conference attendance and professional development, it’s worth saying thank you.
Start prioritizing. If you return to your desk to find that all hell broke loose while you were out of town, and you’re on a fast track to Overwhelm City…. Stop. Take a deep breath. And start prioritizing.
YES! You CAN win at conferences. It just takes a little planning and follow through, and I’m pretty darn confident that you can make it happen. Help a leader out and let us know in the comments if you have any fool-proof tips that I didn’t include! OR tell us where you’re heading!
P.S If you’re looking for something creative, check out Mallory Whitfield’s Ultimate Guide to Conferences for Creatives in 2018.