You’re headed to your first conference and you have no idea what to do. Worry not, fellow conference-goer: you’re not alone. Others have blazed the trails before you. Whether you’re a freelancer, working for a startup, or representing a big-name corporation, read on for some basic guidelines and principles that have worked for me. Here are six tips to make sure you get the most value out of attending a content conference.
1. Planning is key
Whether you’re a freelance writer looking for the next gig or a product manager looking to demo, come prepared with goals in mind. Ask yourself, “What am I hoping to gain from attending?” Tickets to these events aren’t free (far from it, usually), and knowing exactly what you’re trying to achieve is key to managing your time effectively. In that same vein, do your homework. Know who is presenting what, when they are presenting, and where. Doing some research on the presenters and their topics can really come in handy, especially if there’s time for discussion. A quick read through a presenter’s LinkedIn profile is important and can make all the difference when approaching them afterwards. In addition to the LinkedIn profile, knowing the presenter’s Twitter handle in advance will make tweeting snippets of wisdom much easier.
Do some research on the topics ahead of time to make sure you are prepared for learning. Take note if a session is for beginners or advanced students, so that you can place yourself in the learning continuum and plan your schedule accordingly.
If there are multiple tracks, plan your route beforehand. If the conference is held in a large venue, with multiple floors or even multiple buildings, try to find maps of the location. It’s frustrating when you want to stay for questions in one session only to find that you don’t have enough time to get to the next session in time for the opening.
2. Always come ‘packing’
Let’s talk materials for a second. Before you leave your hotel room, there are a few items you should triple-check to make sure you have. Make sure you have plenty of business cards at the ready. And by at the ready, I don’t mean deep down in your stuffed pockets or hidden among the clutter in your bag. I mean an easily-accessible spot where they won’t get wrinkled. I find that a good place to keep business cards is with your conference badge. Usually, the badge itself is in a clear plastic case or there is a spot in the badge holder for your cards. Also important – have a pen close by so you can quickly jot down contact info for people sans business cards. Just because someone doesn’t hand you a card does NOT mean you’re off the hook for connecting with them.
When you hand out your cards (which you should do frequently, with reckless abandon), make sure you are handing out your cards, not the card that someone else gave you. I’m sure that’s never happened to you or me…
Another item to have in your backpack is a small container of Purell (or the equivalent). Have you ever noticed how often you get sick a few days after returning from a conference? Yeah. Me too. Use that Purell (discreetly) each and every time you shake a hand. You’ll thank me later.
3. Meeting hot-spots
There are several highly-frequented areas that make for excellent places to meet other people. During the mornings and in between the early sessions, I’ve always had great success at the espresso bar. I know it can be a little frightening to introduce yourself to a groggy-eyed attendee standing in line next to you, but at least there’s something you can both relate to: how much mornings suck before caffeine.
In that same vein, food/beverage tables are always heavily trafficked areas. Often lots of people idle around these stations, just waiting to be approached. Pro tip: try to time your approach so they’re not in the middle of chewing food.
The electric charging station is a surprising, but equally available, spot to meet people. Plug in your phone and then charge up your conversation.
4. Visit booths!
Wondering how to make use of the 20 minutes before your next session? Take a lap around the vendor area and visit some booths. Shake hands (see Purell tip, above) and ask vendors about what they do, or what their product brings to the table. You never know what nifty new information you’ll learn or who you might meet to add to your network.
While you are there, pick up tchotchkes. Whether it’s an extra battery for your cellphone or a t-shirt for your significant other, vendors always come equipped with many items to choose from. Sometimes, you can even get copies of books that contain really good information.
Need a little pick me up at about 2:00PM? Go for the chocolate that will be on almost every table.
5. Attend the after-hours social events
The after-session social events are generally well-attended and provide plenty of group-oriented activities. There’s nothing better for building relationships than chatting with someone over a drink after a long day of business. Everyone loosens up in the evening, providing ample opportunity for heart-to-hearts and bonding. Remember the reserved and intense API writer you met on the first day? Turns out he rides a Harley and goes scuba diving every year in Fiji – who would’ve guessed! Getting to know the attendees on a personal level is key, and social mixers are a great avenue to make it happen. Don’t like karaoke? C’mon – YOLO!
6. Follow up!
Connecting with your new friends after the conference is absolutely essential to ensuring a successful conference experience. First step: find the individual on LinkedIn and include a brief personalized note with your request to connect with them. It’s best to send a request immediately after meeting them. That way, they remember who you are and are more likely to accept.
Next, prepare a nice follow up email, reminding them of where you met and what you spoke about. These emails should go out within a few days after the end of the conference, again, so you’re still fresh in their minds. If they live in your area – even better! Offer to treat them to lunch or a quick cup of coffee. It’s really all about continuing the conversation, and creating lasting and open channels of communication.
At conferences, as in life, having a positive attitude and treating people with respect earns you friends, business associates, and potentially a new boss, employee, or prospect. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in. Attending conferences and connecting with like-minded individuals is an incredibly important – if not mandatory – part of furthering your career. The more conferences you go to, the easier it becomes to network and get value out of them. Like anything else in life, practice is perfect, so get out there and start shaking hands (Purell!)!
Any go-to conference tips I’m missing? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.
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